A court in Japan ruled Wednesday that it’s “unconstitutional” to ban same-sex couples from marrying—a landmark, though symbolic victory in a country where LGBTQ rights lag far behind most of the developed world.
The Sapporo District Court found that Japan’s failure to recognize same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. The court, however, dismissed a request from the three couples who brought the case to compensate them 1 million yen ($9,100) for the injustice.
The ruling does not legalize same-sex marriage and doesn’t apply across the country, but it is the first of its kind in Japan. “This is a good surprise for me and many homosexuals,” Yayo Okano, a professor at Doshisha University who specializes in feminist theory, tells TIME. “It is a breakthrough… because the idea of ‘the traditional family as a unit of a man and a woman’ has been very strong and shared among people and even reinforced by many lawmakers.”
The ruling is the first in response to a series of lawsuits jointly filed by 13 same-sex couples at district courts around the country on Valentine’s Day in 2019, and LGBTQ activists and advocates hope it will set a precedent for other rulings and increase pressure on the government to change the law.
Japan is the only country in the Group of Seven (G7) industrialized nations that doesn’t fully recognize same-sex partnerships. A handful of cities and wards issue “partnership certificates” to same-sex couples which grant them some rights, but they are not available across the country and they fall short of full marriage rights.
NGO Human Rights Watch says that years of campaigning has led to a surge in support for LGBTQ equality in recent years.
According to an October 2018 survey of 60,000 people in Japan by advertising company Dentsu Inc., more than 78% said that they approved or were likely to approve of same-sex marriage. But more than 65% of the LGBTQ respondents had not told anyone about their sexuality.
Chelsea Szendi Schieder, an associate professor of gender studies and Japanese history at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo cautions that there is still work to be done to reach equality for LGBQT people in Japan. How any rule changes would apply to transgender people also remains an open question.
“I think it takes a tremendous amount of courage for young people to still come out to their families, their friends and their communities,” she says. “There’s still a lot of casual homophobia, casual homophobic kind of comments that that are heavily rooted and need to be examined as well.”
Activists have been calling for the country to pass an LGBTQ equality act to protect against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity ahead of the Tokyo Olympics planned for this summer.