'I'm an American in Japan, I'm Not Allowed To Get Married'

I was out at a bar in Osaka, Japan with some friends when two girls there asked what type of guys I liked. "Actually, I have a girlfriend," I told them. It was clear by their expressions that this wasn't the answer they were expecting, and they said they had never actually met a lesbian before. They seemed curious and asked more questions. Because I'm not Japanese, they could visualize and accept my sexuality. But as soon as I told them that my partner was Japanese, they were extremely surprised—at the time, in 2009, LGBTQ issues didn't seem like something that was relevant to Japan.

I'm originally from Oregon in the U.S. but I got a job teaching English in Japan after university in 2006. I met my partner, Machi, in 2008 through a mutual friend. Things progressed naturally between us and in 2013 we bought a house together.

There has been a lot of stigma in the past towards LGBTQ people in Japan. This idea that you just shouldn't talk about your sexuality because you'll be seen as weird or perverted still keeps a lot of people in the closet. I've heard people in my own office, who don't know me, telling jokes about people's sexuality, which makes me feel uncomfortable.

However, on the whole, things have changed over the past 10 years. There has been more coverage of LGBTQ issues on the news and more education in schools. People are more understanding—almost 60 percent of Japanese citizens support same-sex marriage, according to a 2021 survey by NHK. Our own neighbors where we live have always been open and welcoming, too.

Yet Machi and I still don't have the right to get married in Japan. We got married in Oregon in 2015, even though we knew that the marriage certificate would have no standing in Japan. We loved being able to celebrate our relationship with our friends and family.

Theresa Stieger With Her Partner, Machi Sakata
Theresa Stieger with her partner, Machi Sakata. The couple are campaigning to be allowed to get married in Japan.

Same-sex marriage is not legal in Japan. However, we decided to give it a try in 2019. We submitted the paperwork to the local Kyoto authorities but were told we could not get married because we are two females, so they could not legally accept our application.

We saw it coming but to have that in writing made us see the reality that, no matter how hard we try, we can't be on an equal level with heterosexual couples. It forced me to look that inequality in the face.

It seemed like a lawsuit was the only way to get things moving so, in 2019, we joined two other couples in filing a case at a district court in Osaka, trying to prove that the rejection of our marriages was unconstitutional.

It felt pretty awful when the verdict came in last month, in June 2022. The court found there was nothing unconstitutional about not accepting our marriages, and refused our compensation claim of one million yen ($7,400) in damages per couple. It was quite a shock.

We were lucky because we have people around us that support us. I went to work and a lot of people said, "I saw you on the news—that's really horrible". We had friends and neighbors emailing us throughout the week that they couldn't believe the verdict. We felt lucky to have that.

Getting rejected goes against our experience of being accepted by the people around us. It's like hitting a wall: no matter how hard we try, no matter how many people accept us, the law doesn't accept us.

For us, it's about equal rights. The constitution is there to make sure that people are treated equally. Inheritance rights is one of the big ones. Our house is in Machi's name, so if she passes away then it doesn't automatically come to me. Even if she leaves it to me in her will, the taxation will be significantly higher.

However, we are even more concerned about what will happen once our baby is born in August. I'll be the only one who has parental rights as I'm the one who is giving birth. Machi won't have any parental rights as we are not married and her name won't be allowed on the birth certificate. On paper, she will essentially be a roommate.

Machi Sakata With Her Partner, Theresa Stieger
Theresa Stieger sitting on a bench with her partner, Machi Sakata. Stieger is pregnant with the couple's baby but Sakata will have no parental rights since the couple are not married.

If I pass away before Machi, I'm not sure what will happen to the baby. If Machi can be listed as a guardian on U.S. paperwork she may get custody automatically, otherwise it might fall to my parents first. Either way, she would probably have to go through procedures here to legally adopt the child as her own.

The child won't automatically get Japanese citizenship, either, as it is based on the parents' citizenship. This means the child can only get American citizenship whereas, if Machi and I were able to get married, they would allow dual citizenship until the child is 22 years old and can choose one or the other.

The baby will be allowed to live in Japan under a special visa but they won't have voting rights. Also, say they're really good at athletics, they couldn't be on the national team if they don't have Japanese citizenship. I fear it will be one little thing after another.

The fight for our marriage has always been an urgent thing. But now I am going to have a baby, this is something we just can't wait on. We need it now—not in 10 or 20 years.

I'm trying to feel optimistic. We have already appealed the Osaka ruling and within the next couple of months we will submit all of the paperwork. In the meantime, cases at four other districts are being seen separately.

Even though we are legally married in the U.S, I wouldn't want to move back. I like living in Japan. I like my job, Machi likes her job, we like our neighborhood, we have our friends here. I feel like our home is here.

It also would worry me if I had to move back to the U.S. following Roe v. Wade being overturned. If we did have to move back, I would think a lot about which state to move to and whether it would affect our rights in the future.

Theresa Stieger has lived in Japan since 2006. She and her partner, Machi Sakata, are part of a lawsuit that claims the ban on same-sex relationships in Japan is unconstitutional.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Katie Russell