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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Justin McCurry in Tokyo

‘It’s like we don’t exist’: Japan faces pressure to allow same-sex marriage

Protesters outside a court in Tokyo, which rejected a claim for damages by same-sex couples in November 2022.
Protesters outside a court in Tokyo, which rejected a claim for damages by same-sex couples in November 2022. Photograph: Jiji Press/EPA

Akane Kousaka and her partner live in fear of the day when one of them falls ill or is injured in an accident. The LGBTQ+ couple have a “partnership certificate” issued by their ward office in Tokyo, but it comes with none of the legal guarantees afforded married heterosexual couples – including the right to visit a spouse in hospital.

“We might be able to get special permission, but we shouldn’t have to rely on other people’s goodwill … it’s not right,” Kousaka told the Observer. Other countries were leaving Japan behind, she added.

Pressure is building on Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, to recognise LGBTQ+ rights as the country prepares to host the G7 summit in May. It is the only country in the G7 that denies same-sex couples the right to marry.

Kishida has attempted to deflect criticism that his conservative Liberal Democratic party is trapped in a cycle of intolerance as the summit approaches, yet few believe that Japan’s moment in the international spotlight will take the country closer to allowing equal marriage.

He recently created a new government post responsible for LGBTQ+ rights and met equality campaigners. But he also provoked anger by claiming that Japan’s ban on same-sex marriage was “not discriminatory”, and that legalising it would “fundamentally change society” and challenge so-called traditional family values.

In response, Takako Uesugi, co-leader of a group of lawyers representing plaintiffs in Tokyo court cases seeking marriage equality, said Kishida’s ambiguity on sexual minority rights was tantamount to “approving of discrimination”.

Makiko Terahara, an equal marriage campaigner, speaks at a press conference in Tokyo in February.
Makiko Terahara, an equal marriage campaigner, speaks at a press conference in Tokyo in February. Photograph: Yoshio Tsunoda/AFLO/REX/Shutterstock

Activists are ramping up the pressure as the clock ticks down to the G7 leaders’ summit in Hiroshima.

At a Pride 7 summit in Tokyo last week, campaigners called on Japan to enact an anti-discrimination law before it hosts the G7, and end the country’s unenviable status as the only member of the group that does not have a law protecting LGBTQ+ rights.

“The legislation is not only a minimum requirement for [LGBTQ+] people to be able to be who they are, but also a symbolic step toward eliminating underlying discrimination and prejudice against them,” Makiko Terahara, of the equal rights group Marriage for All Japan, said at the summit, which was also attended by officials from G7 countries and the European Union.

Natsuo Hayashi, co-director of the Japan Alliance for LGBT Legislation, said at the campaign’s launch: “Other G7 members are watching if Japan enacts an anti-discrimination law.”

The government is also coming under external pressure, with the US ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, calling for “clear, unambiguous” legislation to protect sexual minorities before the current parliamentary session ends in June. In a letter to Kishida, ambassadors from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Britain, the US and the EU called on Japan to “match its international advocacy for human rights with a domestic agenda that includes steps to protect its own LGBTQI+ communities”.

Yet Kishida faces an uphill battle convincing influential members of his own party, some of whom have made overtly homophobic remarks.

Mio Sugita, a rightwing member of the lower house, said in a magazine article in 2018 that members of the LGBTQ+ community were “unproductive” because they cannot have children. Sugita did not retract or apologise for the remarks until late last year.

In 2022, 15 years after Kanako Otsuji became Japan’s first openly gay politician, a pamphlet distributed at a meeting of LDP MPs described homosexuality as an “acquired psychological disorder” – a view shared by religious and other groups that have traditionally backed the party.

In February, Masayoshi Arai, a senior aide to Kishida, was sacked after saying that he “would not want to live next door” to an LGBTQ+ couple and did “not even want to look at them”.

Soshi Matsuoka, who heads a sexual minority support group, said Arai’s remarks showed Japan was unfit to host the G7 summit. “As the only G7 country where legal measures for sexual minorities have not progressed, the country will face even more severe scrutiny from the international community,” Matsuoka told the Kyodo news agency.

Japan’s prime minister Fumio Kishida delivers a speech, with a Japanese flag hanging beside him
Japan’s prime minister Fumio Kishida faces a battle to persuade members of his own party of the need for equality. Photograph: Reuters

Kishida is hoping that planned legislation that promotes “understanding” of LGBTQ+ people – but which stops well short of legalising equal marriage – will take the sting out of criticism that he has caved in to conservatives in his own party who are increasingly out of step with the public. In a recent poll by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, 72% of voters said they believed gay marriage should be legalised, with only 18% opposed.

“I think it’s embarrassing for them to be stuck in a place where they care so little about social justice and equality,” Kousaka said. “It’s hard for me to take it personally, because it is so different to the way I see things.”

Kishida has taken a cautious stance, citing a clause in Japan’s civil code that states marriage is a union between a man and a woman. In court cases across Japan, campaigners are challenging the premise that marriage can only take place between heterosexual couples.

Around 250 municipalities, including Tokyo, have introduced partnership certificates for same-sex couples allowing them to rent apartments and sign documents in medical emergencies, and for inheritance. But they are not legally binding, and same-sex couples can find themselves barred from visiting each other in hospital and from gaining access to other services available to married couples.

Kousaka, a therapist at a university in Tokyo, and her partner have discussed their long-term future, but for now, getting married in Japan seems as distant a prospect as it did when they met several years ago.

“It’s about being valued in terms of how the government and the rest of society see you as a person. The lack of recognition that you have equal rights sends the message that you are not important … that you don’t really exist.”

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