Photo by specchio.nero via Flickr

As in virtually every culture in the world, weddings are fundamental in Japan. They are also big business, as the bridal industry in Japan is estimated to generate roughly $25 billion a year. This enormous industry is dedicated to making sure that every detail of the perfect wedding is done just-so, with a correspondingly impressive price tag: In 2016, the average wedding in Japan was said to cost $35,000.

While most of those weddings in Japan are between native men and women, a growing number are between Japanese and foreigners, and even between two foreigners – predominantly Koreans, Chinese and Americans – who have been captivated by the beauty and ceremony of Shinto weddings. (There is no such thing as a Buddhist wedding, Buddhist ceremony focuses on another crucial cultural milestone: the funeral.)

Photo by Cyril Bèle via Flickr

With Japan’s population in decline, the overall annual rate of marriage in Japan has dropped by half since the early 1970s (from 10 per thousand people to five per thousand), but there is one area in which weddings are growing, if modestly: Same-sex marriages. Gays and lesbians are increasingly drawn to Shinto weddings for the same reason many foreigners are: their beauty, sophistication and unique “Japanese-ness.”

These couples are not drawn to a Japanese wedding for its legal advantages: Japan still does not recognize same-sex marriage in the way that most of the rest of the developed world now does. LGTB weddings are merely symbolic in Japan, and even then, only in fewer than ten municipalities. The first same-sex “marriage” – in which the participants received a “partnership certificate,” not a marriage license – was performed in 2015, when the district of Tokyo known as Shibuya first sanctioned the process.

Since then, a handful of municipalities, from Sapporo on Hokkaido in the north to Fukuoka on Kyushu in the south have made same-sex marriage even quasi-legal – the latter just this month (April 2018). Again, these unions are not the same as marriage – or even as substantial as the “civil unions” that formed the legal pathway to full marriage equality in the West. But these partnership certificates are an important step forward, conferring some rights (hospital visitation, immigration benefits, life insurance protections) without giving LGBT couples full legal equality.

In contemporary straight marriages in Japan, the (partners) participate as legal equals, even though fewer overall are participating in the tradition. As in the West, the age at first marriage has gone up over the last few decades, and a 2013 poll of Japanese men and women in their 30s found that 40 percent saw “no reason” to get married at all.

Shinto Wedding
Photo by m_nietzsche via Flickr

The number of gay marriages is small – one report had these partnerships in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, introduced in 2015, still looking to top 20 total marriages – because Japanese culture doesn’t support much openness of any kind, let alone of gays and lesbians coming out of the closet and getting married. The current conservative government of Shinzo Abe has chosen to simply ignore the issue.

That said, having a wedding ceremony in Japan can be a delightful prospect for LGBT couples, especially if they will get their legal status in their home country, then come to Japan to celebrate with all the beauty and grace for which Shinto weddings are rightly known. Gay-friendly municipalities have been joined by gay-friendly entities such as the Disney Company, which offered one of the first venues explicitly to gay and lesbian couples: A marriage in Cinderella’s Castle in their Tokyo Disney Resort.

These are small steps, but the acceptance of same-sex marriage in Japan has followed the same trajectory as it did in other modern countries, with one major difference: Without a strong political push by the LGBT community itself, it remains several steps behind. The first poll to show support for same-sex marriage finally broke 50% in 2017, after a relatively rapid rise over the previous 20 years. Few Japanese harbor religious objections to same-sex marriage as there have been in parts of the United States, Catholic Europe and Latin America, and the Muslim world. And as in most countries, younger people are widely accepting of the concept, and it is expected that same-sex marriage will eventually become the law of the land as it has in many other countries.

We Are In Love!
Photo by H.L.I.T via Flickr

There is a final irony in these beautiful-but-not-quite-legal weddings: Most Japanese this century are much more inclined to eschew a Shinto wedding for what they call a “white wedding,” inspired by the 1981 nuptials of Britain’s Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Televised around the world, what was its “exotic” appeal to the Japanese hastened a stylistic shift in Japan.

Could it be that foreigners coming to Japan for same-sex ceremonies might conceivably cause a shift in the Japanese community? In a globalizing world of cross-cultural influences, and in a Japan ripe for change and ever-eager to import and adopt some of the cultural norms of outsiders, gays and lesbians who come to marry in Japan could well end up contributing to increasing the rights of Japan’s own LGBT community.

By David Watts Barton