TOKYO — Koyuki Higashi is slim, articulate and intelligent, things that make a would-be wife attractive to many in Japan. But Higashi knows she will probably never marry because she is a lesbian.
Despite the increasing tolerance of gay marriage in much of the developed world, especially in Europe, and a gradual acceptance of the issue in more liberal states in the US, the subject is not on the radar in Japan or in many parts of Asia.
But when Barack Obama gingerly put his head above the election year parapet, announcing he was in favour of same-sex marriage, it lit a spark of hope on the other side of the Pacific in conservative Japan.
“Seeing the US president expressing his support for same-sex couples was like being told it was ok to be who we are,” said Higashi, 27.
“Everyone now knows Obama supports same-sex marriage. The impact is so big, it’s incomparable.”
Her partner, 34-year-old Hiroko, who uses only one name, agreed.
“I was really happy to see Obama use his starpower in that way,” she said.
Obama’s pronouncement was preceded by a global campaign aimed at encouraging a stronger voice for gay rights.
His administration dispatched Mark Bromley, chair of advocacy group Council for Global Equality, to Japan in June — gay pride month — where he told reporters equality for same sex couples was an important tenet of human rights.
“(Hillary) Clinton was very elegant in saying that minorities can never fully protect themselves; minorities need majorities to find full protection and full acceptance,” said Bromley, who has a 2-year-old daughter with his husband.
“That requires laws and political support, and social space.”
Homosexuals in Japan welcomed the gesture, but, warned gay expat David Wagner, it was likely to disappear into the void.
“I doubt it will have much impact on other nations such as Japan where the will of the people rarely takes priority,” said Wagner, who has lived in Japan for 25 years.
“Japan is clearly more tolerant than many places,” he said, adding gays and lesbians in Japan are unlikely to encounter outright hostility, something he puts down less to acceptance than to a people who “are agnostic and tend to mix religions.”
But “tolerance has limits in Japan,” he said.
A week after Obama became the first sitting US president to back gay marriage, Higashi scored a little victory for the lesbian, gay and bisexual community in Japan when she confirmed with Tokyo Disneyland that same-sex couples could hold their wedding ceremonies at the theme park.
But the park warned that celebrations would have no legal standing because Japanese law does not recognise same-sex partnerships.
Nor does it recognise or give the same rights to any number of other family arrangements long considered acceptable in some countries.
Under rules that have changed little since World War II, married couples must use the same surname and women are barred from remarrying within six months of their divorce.
Any baby born within 300 days of a divorce is automatically the former husband’s and children born out of wedlock have far fewer rights to inherit than their legitimate siblings.
Women can marry at 16; men must wait until they are 18; one divorcing parent must completely give up custody of their child, a rule that usually means an estranged father all but disappears.
The nation’s divorce rate began climbing in the 1960s, after decades in which about 70,000 couples terminated their marriage each year.
In 2011, nearly 236,000 couples separated, according to welfare ministry statistics. Around 660,000 couples tied the knot in that year.
Shuhei Ninomiya, professor of law at Ritsumeikan University, said the imported debate over gay marriage may help, in the long run, to provoke discussion over how the family as an idea can adapt to the needs of 21st century Japan.
“The law is not designed for divorcing parents to communicate and share child custody after they separate,” he said. “Under the law, marital diversity is largely denied.
“Discrimination against children born out of wedlock, stigmatising them because of their parents’ marital status, has been justified to protect legitimate marriage.”
“We need to hear Obama’s support for same-sex couples as a broader message that forms of marriage can be colourful and different for each couple.”
Hiroko said the gay marriage debate was an important one for everyone in Japan, where the pressure to conform to social norms is high.
“Both majority and minority groups should join hands, otherwise we cannot hope to see a change in the law,” she said.