Advancements in LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) communities in Japan to date have largely taken place in social and cultural spheres — think film festivals, parades, and citizen groups — but as the recent same-sex partnership system in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward shifts the conversation toward legal rights, a new initiative is now calling for full legal same-sex marriage across the country within a framework of human rights.
The effort is being spearheaded by the Legal Network for LGBT Rights, a nationwide coalition of legal professionals founded in 2007 to work on issues of inclusion for LGBT individuals (who are often referred to in Japan as sexual minorities, or ‘sekumai’). Through the initiative, individuals who someday hope to enter into a legal same-sex marriage in Japan — and who feel that their human rights are compromised by the absence thereof — are being asked to sign on as petitioners for an appeal to be submitted to the Japan Federation of Bar Associations this summer.
The appeal asks the JFBA to urge the prime minister, Justice Ministry, and both houses of the Diet to implement a full nationwide system of legalized same-sex marriage. A signature drive is also taking place in conjunction with this appeal, to which anyone who supports same-sex marriage in Japan — regardless of their own sexuality — is asked to add their name. In addition to a paper version being circulated by proponents of the initiative, an online version is also available through the change.org website at https://goo.gl/hTGgYs (in Japanese).
There are a total of 77 petitioners at present. These include Rev. Yoshiki Nakamura, a gay male Christian pastor who has presided over non-legally binding weddings for same-sex couples, and who hopes to see full equality with heterosexual couples realized; and Maki Muraki, a lesbian who directs the nonprofit organization Nijiiro (Rainbow) Diversity that works to combat workplace discrimination against LGBT individuals — who notes that she supports legal same-sex marriage from the standpoint of economics in addition to human rights, given the impact of Japan’s present lack of rights on the ability to attract top foreign corporate talent.
The petitioners also include lesbian couple Koyuki Higashi and Hiroko Masuhara, who made global news headlines in 2013 as the first same-sex couple to wed at Tokyo Disneyland. The marriage was strictly ceremonial, however, and the couple has continued to campaign for marriage rights in Japan that include full legal assurances. The Shibuya Ward same-sex marriage certificates are a first step in this direction, as they aim to provide couples with protections on occasions such as hospital visits and renting apartments.
A woman asking to be named only as Noriko, who identifies as a lesbian and who recently returned to Tokyo after obtaining her MBA in the U.S., commented in response to the initiative, “I have been hoping for many years to see same-sex marriage legalized in Japan, as I saw happening in the U.S. and elsewhere — but I had nearly given up all hope of seeing it happen. Now, I am so thankful to these lawyers who are working on a pro-bono basis in order to change the course of history in Japan, and I also feel so moved to be able help support this effort myself.”
Noriko explained that she participated in this year’s Tokyo Rainbow Pride march for the first time with a group of lesbian women who are fully or partially closeted about their sexuality, and who identify themselves as “Kaku-les” — a double entendre signifying both “hidden les” (an abbreviation of ‘lesbian’), and “not hiding.”
“If others do not know we are here, it is as if we do not exist. This is particularly true in the case of lesbians,” read an appeal on an event page linked to the group’s Twitter account, which called upon closeted members — or those who were considering coming out regarding their sexuality — to march in the 2014 Tokyo Rainbow Pride parade, using face masks to partially conceal their identity if they did not yet feel fully comfortable marching.
The event page additionally stated on the occasion of this year’s parade, “The same-sex partnership certificates to be issued (in Shibuya Ward) represent the first effort of its kind nationwide, and many people in our community are thrilled at this news. This attitude toward all kinds of minorities — including sexual ones — hints that we are moving toward a society of full inclusion.”
Indeed, this year’s Tokyo Rainbow Week — ten days featuring LGBT events of all kinds, including film screenings, parties, and workshops on various issues of concern to LGBT communities — put a close spotlight on the issue of same-sex marriage. The lineup included a panel discussion and a fair for bridal companies, and one lesbian couple even tied the knot in an onstage ceremony during the week’s kickoff event of Tokyo Rainbow Pride — which organizers say drew a total of around 60,000 participants over the April 25-26 weekend to Yoyogi Park in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, including some 3,000 marchers during the Rainbow Pride parade held that Sunday.
Some community members, however, are regarding the recent moves with a critical perspective. “Shibuya Ward is describing itself as a ‘district of diversity’ that embraces LGBT individuals, but we must remember that this is the same ward that continues to expel homeless people from public facilities,” commented Makiko Ando, a lesbian who works with a nonprofit organization in Yokohama. “It is impossible to carve the matter of human rights into different categories.”
“Applying for a same-sex partnership certificate costs several hundreds of thousands of yen, and there are almost no legal equivalents with heterosexual marriage — so the policy itself is premised upon one of inequality.” Ando continued.
“There has also been almost no debate on the institution of marriage itself,” she added. “I believe we should take this opportunity to reconsider this system — as well as those of the family and the family register– in order to try and truly understand the marginalization and exclusion that LGBT communities have continued to experience to date.”
(Originally published in The Mainichi, May 2015)
Kana Narumi, right, a member of a group known as “Kaku-les,” and another member are seen wearing T-shirts describing the group’s mission to encourage members to become visible regarding their lesbian sexuality.