Bnearly a year has passed since the Tokyo Olympics were promoted as a celebration of diversity. In June, the Japanese capital became the latest city to recognize same-sex partnerships, and recent upper house elections featured a record four candidates from the LGBT community.
Yet official Japanese resistance to same-sex unions is fiercer than ever.
It is the only G7 country to deny LGBT couples the right to marry, three years after Taiwan became the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage.
While opinion polls show that more than 60% of the public support same-sex marriage, critics say the opposition within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the dominant force in post-Secondary politics. country’s war, condemns homosexual couples to a life of second-class citizens.
Lenna Kawazu changed her understanding of marriage last year when she had to undergo surgery, with no guarantee that her partner, *Yoshiko, would be able to visit her. “I always thought everyone should have the right to marry, but I didn’t believe in the institution of marriage,” she said. “But when I was sick, I realized that marriage is not just about love and commitment, it’s also about being protected and having rights.”
Kawazu and Yoshiko lived together for most of the 15 years they were together, but experienced a “nightmare” when they applied for a mortgage.
“Our joint income met all the requirements, but because we weren’t married or engaged, banks and other potential lenders weren’t interested,” Kawazu said. “We finally got a loan, but it would have been so much easier if we had been married.”
Homosexuality as a “disorder”
It’s been 15 years since Kanako Otsuji became Japan’s first openly gay politician, but just this week LGBT activists launched a petition opposing a pamphlet, distributed at a meeting of LDP lawmakers, which described the homosexuality as an “acquired psychological disorder”.
The party is beholden to religious and other support groups that not only oppose same-sex marriage but portray homosexuality as a “disorder”, said Shinya Yamagata, who belongs to a group of plaintiffs challenging the constitutionality of the Japanese ban on same-sex marriage.
“The attitude is that being gay is a disease or an addiction,” he said. “There is a lot of talk about equality…it’s those who hold the political power who are the problem.
“The LDP is influenced by religious and other conservative groups and says it is the party of family values, even though most Japanese people support same-sex marriage. I am not optimistic that they will change their position until these influences have diminished, and it will take a long time.
The campaign for marriage equality received a boost in March last year when the Sapporo District Court sided with the plaintiffs’ claim that by not allowing couples to same sex to “enjoy even part of the legal effects deriving from marriage”, the current provisions violate article 14 of the post-war constitution, which stipulates the equality of all before the law.
Earlier this year, however, the Osaka District Court took the opposite view, ruling that the same-sex marriage ban was constitutional and that LGBT rights could be protected by other laws.
Yamagata believes the next ruling, handed down in November by the Tokyo District Court, will be symbolically significant. “The court will have to go along with one of the previous rulings or the other,” he said.
Gay sex has been legal in Japan since 1880, but members of the LGBT community remain largely invisible outside of the entertainment world. Many have not yet come out, even to their families.
Among them, Yoshiko, who has not spoken openly about her sexuality to her parents, nor to her colleagues at a large Tokyo company.
“I come from a rural area and my parents are getting old… I don’t think they would understand,” she said. “And no one at my workplace came out, even though it employs a lot of people.
“If same-sex marriage were legalized, it could encourage more people to come out, because it would mean that they have been accepted by the law. But I would need a lot of courage to get out.
While some LDP members support more rights for LGBT people, much of the party is stuck in the dark ages, Yamagata said. When he was prime minister, Shinzo Abe said the constitution, which defines marriage as being based on the mutual consent of both sexes, “does not contemplate same-sex marriage”. Current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has said he opposes marriage equality, a stance that delighted his party’s conservatives when he successfully ran for president last year .
“When you experience this kind of bias, it can have a terrible effect on people’s mental health,” Yamagata said. “When powerful people in society believe you have some sort of disease or disorder, it’s hard to feel good about yourself and be optimistic about the future.”
Kawazu, who has spoken out to his family and colleagues, doubts that the current generation of senior LDP politicians will even consider granting the same rights they enjoy to members of the LGBT community.
“All major parties need to put this on the table, but same-sex marriage is still not seen as a big issue in Japan,” she said. “That has to change if Japan wants to catch up with other countries. We are so far behind.
*Yoshiko’s name has been changed at her request.