JAPAN (Reuters) - Two Tokyo districts issued Japan's first certificates officially recognizing same-sex partnerships on Thursday, a major step forward for gay couples in a nation where being openly gay remains largely taboo.
The move may seem insignificant compared to the United States, which has made gay marriage legal in all 50 states, but just approving the measures earlier this year set off an unprecedented discussion on equality and has paved the way for other Japanese cities to consider similar steps.
The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community has been all but invisible in Japan, and legally binding civil unions remain a distant dream.
Hiroko Masuhara and Koyuki Higashi arrived at city hall in the trendy Shibuya district early in the morning to collect the certificate that will allow them to rent an apartment, visit each other in hospital and gain a variety of other benefits as a couple.
"I am exhilarated that the city I am living has recognized my partner as my family," a smiling Masuhara told reporters.
Shibuya and Setagaya, considered the wealthiest of Tokyo's 23 wards, began issuing the certificates on Thursday. While the papers do not provide any legal recognition of same-sex unions, all agreed that it was an important beginning.
"I hope that this will be a step forward not only for Tokyo but for the whole of Japan to become a more comfortable place to live in, because there are LGBTs nationwide," said Higashi, although she said she still hadn't abandoned a dream of one day getting legally married.
Shibuya mayor Ken Hasebe, who ran for office on a pro-LGBT rights campaign, congratulated the couple. "It took a long time to get here," he said.
The central government, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has said it needs to be "very careful" when considering whether or not to make changes in the constitution allowing same-sex marriage, and some older Japanese remain wary.
"Humanity will deteriorate with fewer children being born... If we want to leave offspring, couples have to be the opposite sex," said Tetsuyuki Akiyoshi, an elderly man at a Shibuya street corner.
But younger Japanese are generally in favor of LGBT rights and Japan's new education minister, Hiroshi Hase, surprised the LGBT community last month by vowing in an interview to promote LGBT rights ahead of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
(Writing by Elaine Lies; Editing by Nick Macfie)