A district assembly in Tokyo became the first in Japan on 31 March to recognise same-sex partnerships, a major step forward for same-sex couples in a country where being openly gay remains taboo.

The vote by Tokyo's Shibuya ward may seem insignificant compared to the United States, where gay marriage is legal in all but 13 states, but just proposing the statute set off an unprecedented discussion over equality, and is likely to pave the way for similar measures elsewhere in Japan.

The LGBT community has been all but invisible in Japan, and legally binding civil unions are still a distant dream, with same-sex partners often unable to rent apartments.

Cheers erupted from a crowd gathered outside the Shibuya city hall after the measure passed by a hefty majority, and activists held up a rainbow banner saying "thank you Shibuya".

Under the new statute, which takes effect on 1 April, Shibuya - one of Tokyo's 23 wards and home to a trendy youth district as well as many embassies - will issue paperwork recognising same-sex partnerships, based on a number of conditions. This recognition should allow couples to rent apartments and visit each other in hospital.

Debate flared on social media as soon as the bill was proposed, with younger people generally in favour. Asked about it in parliament, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said they needed to be "very careful" when considering whether or not to make changes in the constitution to recognise same-sex marriage.

Some within the LGBT community have also been wary of the statute, saying that it was being used politically to burnish Tokyo's image overseas, but most hailed it. Two other Tokyo wards and the city of Yokohama are considering similar steps.

However even some young people say that prejudice against those in the LGBT community in Japan is not far from the surface.