Japan’s Ongoing Struggle with LGBTQ+ Equality: What Lies Beneath?

Among the G7 countries, Japan is the only one without laws in place to protect LGBTQ+ individuals from discrimination or to recognize same-sex partnerships. Meanwhile, conservative lawmakers cite the country’s alleged history of tolerance as a reason to reject legislative change. What’s behind this discourse and why is mere tolerance not enough?

This blog post is part of a series centered around Pride Month.

Hosting a G7 summit can be a great opportunity to showcase a country’s international leadership.  However, rather than setting the agenda, Japan has faced criticism from other member countries ahead of the G7 summit in Hiroshima this year. The reason for this was Japan’s LGBTQ+ politics.  

Japan is the only G7 member that does not legally recognize same-sex partnerships. Nor has it implemented any law that protects its citizens from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. This was already an issue during the preparations for the 2020 Olympics as the Olympic Charter prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, and has been repeatedly criticized by LGBTQ+ rights groups and human rights organisations.  

What led the ambassadors of the other G7 member countries to address this situation in private letters to prime minister Fumio Kishida, were homophobic remarks by his now-dismissed aid Masayoshi Arai. In a private, off-the-record conversation with journalists, he said that he would not want to live next to an LGBT couple, and that just having to see them disgusts him. This casual derogatory remark from the very top of the Japanese government, rather than being the exception, is indicative of its broader insensitivity, if not hostility towards LGBTQ+ issues and people. 

While all major opposition parties emphasize the need to legalize same-sex marriage and introduce an anti-discrimination law, the social conservative LDP rejects legislative reform.”

Another example is the strong opposition within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) towards plans to submit a draft bill promoting understanding towards LGBTQ+ people to the Diet, the so-called Rikai Zoshin Ho. While all major opposition parties emphasize the need to legalize same-sex marriage and introduce an anti-discrimination law, the social conservative LDP rejects legislative reform. Instead, they proposed the Rikai Zoshin Ho, which lacks any concrete sanctions for those who fail to abide by the vague guidelines it propagates.

Moreover, under the pressure of social conservatives, the phrase “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is unacceptable” has now been changed to “there should be no unfair discrimination,” which implies and legitimizes “fair” discrimination. This led to criticism and 15 ambassadors to Japan publishing video messages via Twitter in support of LGBTQ+ people before the G7 summit at Hiroshima. 

Tolerant Japan?

Some LDP lawmakers cite Japan’s alleged history of tolerance towards sexual minorities as a reason for rejecting legislative change. Where there is tolerance, there is no need for anti-discrimination laws, they say. But is this really the case? How did this discourse of tolerance emerge in the first place? 

“Tolerance implies prejudice.

Japan never really criminalized sexual activities between same-sex partners, except for a short period between 1872 and 1880. Nor did it outlaw cross-dressing. In addition, Japanese law provides the option of adult adoption, a system sometimes used by same-sex couples to circumvent property and inheritance rights issues. Since authorities do not prosecute sexual minorities and it is legally possible to adopt one’s same-sex partner, Japan might be considered “tolerant.” But tolerance implies prejudice. Moreover, pressure to conform to the heteronormative and cis-genderist status quo remains strong.  

Only since 2003 is it possible to legally change one’s gender in Japan, and the conditions are harsh: Not only do trans people need to be diagnosed with “gender identity disorder” by two medical practitioners, they are also not allowed to be married or to have underage children, and they have to undergo expensive gender reassignment surgery and sterilization. This prevents the emergence of de-facto legal same-sex marriages and gender ambiguous parents. The Japanese government has no intention of changing this law, despite criticism from trans-activists and human rights groups, which indicates the continuing stronghold of social conservativism on legislation related to SOGIESC issues.

According to a recent survey, 75.8% of LGBTQ+ people do not come out to their colleagues in the workplace for fear of repercussions. 39.1% of LGBTQ+ people experience their workplace as stressful, which is twice as much as non-LGBTQ+ respondents.

The religious right still regards the legal protection of LGBTQ+ people as a threat to Japan’s traditional family system and its national identity.

Then there is the long history of the LDP’s relationship with the religious right, embodied by Jinja Honchō, the Association of Shinto Shrines, and the Unification Church (or the “Moonies”). Former prime minister Abe Shinzō’s assassination in 2022 drew public attention to his close relationship with the latter and the strong political influence both have over the LDP, who rely on their networks and funding for political campaigning.  

For feminists and LGBTQ+ activists, however, their close relationship was no secret. The anti-gender backlash of the early 2000s was spearheaded by nationalist politicians such as Abe with the support of these religious groups. They strategically employed homophobic and transphobic rhetoric in their opposition against gender equality policies and sex education, claiming that feminists were out to destroy the “traditional” Japanese family by erasing biological differences between the sexes and turning underage girls and boys into homosexuals or genderless beings. And the strategy worked. The implementation of gender equality policies was stopped or reversed, and Japan now finds itself in place 116 out of 146 countries in the 2022 Global Gender Gap Report, with one of the biggest gaps in political representation in the world.  

The religious right still regards the legal protection of LGBTQ+ people as a threat to Japan’s traditional family system and its national identity. The strong opposition within the LDP against the vaguely formulated recognition of LGBTQ+ people in the Rikai Zoshin Ho serves as a prime example. Their political influence is the biggest obstruction to progress in human rights protection. And that is what LGBTQ+ people in Japan truly need: Not just tolerance, but the protection of their human rights. 

[Title image by kyonntra/E+/Getty Images]

Kazuyoshi Kawasaka

Dr Kazuyoshi Kawasaka is principal investigator of the DFG-funded project “Sexual Diversity and Human Rights in 21st Century Japan: LGBTQ+ Activisms and Resistance from a Transnational Perspective” at the Institute for Modern Japanese studies at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf, Germany. His research focuses on nationalism and queer politics in Japan, the globalisation of LGBTQ+ politics, and transnational anti-gender/LGBTQ+ movements.

Stefan Würrer

Stefan Würrer is assistant professor at the Department for Humanities of Musashi University, Tokyo. His research focuses on feminist and queer literature in modern and contemporary Japan.

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