TOKYO — A Japanese court on Wednesday ruled that the country’s failure to recognize same-sex marriages was unconstitutional, a landmark decision that could be an important step toward legalizing the unions across the nation.

The ruling, handed down by a district court in the northern city of Sapporo, came in a civil suit against the Japanese government by three same-sex couples. The lack of recognition of their unions, they said, had unfairly cut them off from services and benefits accorded to married couples, and they sought damages of around $9,000 per person.

The couples argued that the government’s failure to recognize same-sex unions violated the constitutional guarantee of equality under the law and the prohibition against discrimination regardless of sex.

The court agreed, writing in its decision that laws or regulations that deprived gay couples of the legal benefits of marriage constituted “discriminatory treatment without a rational basis.”

But the court declined to award the couples damages, making a somewhat convoluted argument that the government could not be held liable because the issue of same-sex marriage had only recently entered Japan’s public discourse.

Alexander Dmitrenko, a Canadian lawyer and resident of Tokyo who leads a nonprofit group advocating marriage equality, called the declaration of unconstitutionality “a remarkable and unique achievement,” saying that Japan’s courts are typically deferential to lawmakers.

“In the eyes of the Japanese public, this decision should underscore that gay and lesbian couples are not treated equally in Japan,” he said.

The ruling will not, however, change the law. Same-sex marriages will be recognized in Japan only if Parliament enacts legislation, Mr. Dmitrenko said. Lawmakers have repeatedly declined to take up such a bill.

Still, activists saw

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