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A Move to Recognize Same-Sex Marriage in Japan Reveals Hidden Prejudices

東京プライドパレードの様子。FlickrユーザーのDavid Martín Clavoにより2011年に撮影されたもの。

2011 Pride Parade in Tokyo by Flickr user David Martín Clavo. Usage rights: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A municipality in Tokyo has drafted a statute that proposes issuing long-term same-sex couples certificates, which will recognize these relationships as equivalent to marriage. Tokyo's Shibuya Ward assembly will debate the statute for ratification in March.

If the statute is passed it will be the first time same-sex unions will be recognized in Japan. Same-sex couples in Japan do not enjoy equal rights when renting apartments and other places to live, and are often denied visiting rights when their partner is hospitalized. Same-sex couples are denied visiting rights because they are not considered to be family members.

In Japan, municipalities play an important role in overseeing and administering family registries. According to the draft statute, residents of Shibuya Ward aged 20 and over, who are in long term same-sex relationships, will be entitled to receive a “Certificate of Partnership.”

Legal hurdles

According to some commentators including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Shibuya's new statute may be unconstitutional and violate Article 24, which states: “marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife as a basis.”

Before Article 24 was passed, under Japan's pre-war constitution, women needed to seek approval of their head of household, when getting married, and they did not have the right to initiate divorce. In 1947, Article 24 was passed with the intention to rectify this inequality between the sexes. 

The movement

Setagaya, Tokyo's largest ward, is also moving to legalize same-sex partnerships. Setagaya has already moved to create a LGBT-friendly coming of age ceremony. Japanese youth achieve the age of majority at age 20, and are feted each January across the country at ceremonies hosted by municipal governments.

Nobuto Hosaka, the mayor of Setagaya, who has longed campaigned for progressive causes, spoke in support of same-sex unions at a ward assembly meeting in September 2014:

At a (Setagaya) assembly meeting in September I spoke in support of same-sex unions. As well this past spring during policy discussions I expressed my intent to respect sexual diversity and protect rights for sexual minorities. [“Setagaya Ward follows Shibuya in intent to protect rights for same-sex couples.” – Asahi Shimbun]

Many have voiced their support for Hosaka's intent to speak at LGBT-friendly coming of age ceremonies each year, and  continue to see him as a voice that supports sexual minorities.

Thank you Mayor Hosaka for speaking at LGBT-friendly coming of age ceremonies! We appreciate your speech about “How a truly a great society does not attempt to hide diversity.” We are looking forward to collaborating with you in the future. – @2assam (Japanese marriage equality campaigner)

The efforts to create a supportive environment for Japan's LGBT community has answered the concerns of Setagaya Ward councillor Aya Kamikawa, the first openly transgender person to seek or win elected office in Japan.

Kamikawa identified as living with a gender identity disorder when she first campaigned and was elected to Setagaya's assembly in 2003.

She learned in 2012 that Shibuya Ward was considering protecting the rights of its LGBT community. In 2014 Kawakami posed the question to Setagaya mayor Hosaka: isn't there some way we can protect the rights of the LGBT community too?

Hosaka replied that he would help work towards this goal.

While pride parades have become a common sight in Tokyo, many in the LGBT community are asking why homosexuality and existence of sexual minorities are never acknowledged by Japanese society. There is still little awareness or even interest by Japanese society regarding LGBT issues.

The debate

So, the efforts of Setagaya and Shibuya to recognize same sex couples generated tremendous discussion online in Japan. Many people who are participating in online discussions approve of same sex marriage and the concept of a “Certificate of Partnership.”

While there is still lively debate about the pros and cons of recognizing same sex partnerships, many are appreciative of Shibuya and Setagaya's policy initiative:  

Shibuya's plans to recognize same sex relationships is a great idea! While there are some people who feel uncomfortable with the concept of homosexuality, if you can get over it you would realize that loving another person is a fundamental part of being human. There is nothing wrong with it at all… This is one small step forward towards happiness!

There are some who are opposed:

What do you think about Shibuya's plan to provide a Certificate of Partnership for same sex couples? It's totally gross. Homosexuals are defective biological organisms. By certifying gay marriage all you are doing is confirming their failure as human beings. What they ought to do is go and create some place just for gays and lesbians. After a few years they will all disappear.

Still others were not overtly opposed to gay marriage, but did express their disquiet with the concept:

While I am not opposed to recognizing same sex couples, it still feels pretty unnatural and gross.

While people freely express their views in favor or opposition to same sex partnerships, there were criticisms that the naysayers weren't basing their opinion on anything but emotion:

While I am not not necessarily opposed to those who themselves opposed to recognizing same sex unions, I do wish these people would provide reasons for why they are so opposed. Saying “gay marriage is gross” or “it's strange” is the same thing as rejecting the basic humanity of these people. 

Other commenters think that the initiative by Shibuya and Setagaya will worsen the problem of Japan's declining birth rate. However, yet other commenters respond that, since the declining birth rate has existed in Japan even when traditional marriages were the only game in town, it's save to say that recognizing same sex unions will have no effect whatsoever.

Some people are saying that Shibuya Ward's decision to recognize same sex partnerships will speed up population decline, and that recognizing the rights of the LGBT community will mean fewer women will have children. Do these people actually understand what they are saying? They don't make any sense at all!

Even though not all traditionally married couples have children, and even though the declining birthrate is a completely separate issue, I have now idea why it is being brought up in this this context. If we refuse to recognize same sex unions, will that reverse Japan's population decline?

And the discussion is even being debated in families: 

When my mom saw a same sex couple on TV she said it was “gross,” and she has felt really uncomfortable about it before. However my brother, an elementary school student said, “Do people who love each other always have to be men and women? You had better give up such illogical thinking.” I thought that was really great.

When Shibuya's decision to recognize same sex partnerships came on the news my mother and sister said, “Gross, aren't they embarrassed to be on TV?” I told them that I thought *they* were gross and embarrassing.

It seems families were arguing about the issue even before the movement to officially recognize same sex unions became a hot topic. Below are two tweets from 2014 that illustrate the same debate.

Earlier a same sex couple (two guys) came on TV. My family saw them and said they were gross. “That's it,” I thought. They're bigots. My family. Pathetic. I felt pretty bad.

My family were watching TV and a foreign gay couple came on. My parents said they could never understand how they could do it, it was just gross. I wondered if they would say the same thing if I were a lesbian. But that's what they really felt. All I can say is that I wish same sex couples the best!

Looking at the debate on Twitter over the proposed new ordinances in Setagaya and Shibuya wards, it doesn't seem as though there are many well thought-out reasons for opposing recognition of same sex partnerships.

At the same time, despite vocal opposition, there are calls that all of Japan should change based on Setagaya and Shibuya's pioneering efforts to recognize same sex partnerships.

A lot of people on my timeline saying that Shibuya's decision to recognize same sex marriage is “gross” or “disgusting,” which is really too bad. However, this is an opportunity to change things for the better in Japan.