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‘We are so far behind’: Japan laments lack of progress on same-sex marriage | LGBTQ+ rights

Barely 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 recognise same-sex partnerships, and recent upper house elections featured a record four candidates from the LGBT community.

Yet Japan’s official resistance to same-sex unions is as fierce as ever.

It is the only country in the G7 that denies LGBT couples the right to marry, three years after Taiwan became the first Asian country to legalise same-sex marriage.

While opinion polls show more than 60% of the public support same-sex marriage, critics say opposition in the ruling Liberal Democratic party (LDP), the dominant force in the country’s postwar politics, is condemning same-sex couples to a life as 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 ill I realised that marriage is not just about love and commitment, it’s also about being protected and having rights.”

Kawazu and Yoshiko have lived together for most of the 15 years they have been 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 were not interested,” Kawazu said. “We finally secured a loan, but it would have been so much easier if had we been married.”

Homosexuality as a ‘disorder’

It has been 15 years since Kanako Otsuji became Japan’s first openly gay politician, yet only this week, LGBT campaigners launched a petition objecting to a pamphlet, distributed at a meeting of LDP lawmakers, that described homosexuality as an “acquired psychological disorder”.

The party is beholden to religious and other support groups that do not just oppose same-sex marriage but describe homosexuality as a “disorder”, said Shinya Yamagata, who belongs to a group of plaintiffs challenging the constitutionality of Japan’s ban on gay marriage.

“The attitude is that being gay is an illness or an addiction,” he said. “There is a lot of talk about equality … it is those with the political power who are the problem.

“The LDP is influenced by conservative religious and other groups and it says it’s the party of family values, even though most Japanese support gay marriage. I’m not optimistic they will change their stance until those influences have waned, and that 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’ contention that in not permitting same-sex couples to “enjoy even a part of the legal effects that arise from marriage”, the current arrangements violate article 14 of the postwar constitution, which stipulates equality of all people under the law.

Plaintiffs' lawyers and supporters show a banner that reads 'Unconstitutional decision' after Sapporo district court ruled on the legality of same-sex marriages
Plaintiffs’ lawyers and supporters celebrate after Sapporo district court ruled on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage rights. Photograph: Kyodo/Reuters

Earlier this year, however, the Osaka district court took the opposite view, ruling that the ban on same-sex marriage was constitutional and that LGBT rights could be protected by other laws.

Yamagata believes the next ruling, due in November by the Tokyo district court, will be symbolically important. “The court will have to side 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 yet to come out, even to their families.

They include Yoshiko, who has not spoken openly about her sexuality to her parents, or to her colleagues at a big company in Tokyo.

“I’m 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 has come out, even though it employs a lot of people.

“If same sex marriage was legalised that might encourage more people to come out, as it would mean they have gained acceptance under the law. But it would take a lot of courage for me to come out.”

While some LDP members support more rights for LGBT people, much of the party is stuck in the dark ages, Yamagata said. When prime minister, Shinzo Abe said the constitution, which defines marriage as being based on the mutual consent of both sexes, “does not envisage marriage between people of the same sex”. The current prime minister, Fumio Kishida, said he opposed marriage equality, a stance that delighted conservatives in his party when he successfully ran for its presidency last year.

“When you experience that kind of prejudice it can have a terrible effect on people’s mental health,” Yamagata said. “When powerful people in society believe you are suffering from some sort of illness or disorder, it is difficult to feel good about yourself and be optimistic about the future.”

Kawazu, who has come out to family and colleagues, doubts the current generation of senior LDP politicians will even contemplate granting the same rights they enjoy to members of the LGBT community.

“All of the major parties have to bring this to the table, but gay marriage still isn’t considered 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.

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