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The Politics of Sexual Minorities in Japan

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The Politics of Sexual Minorities in Japan

Despite efforts at the local level, LGBTQ rights won’t move forward much unless the LDP can find the political will to make it happen. 

The Politics of Sexual Minorities in Japan
Credit: Depositphotos

On February 4, news broke that the Japanese prime minister’s executive secretary Arai Masayoshi, an elite bureaucrat, was fired over discriminatory remarks that he had made regarding sexual minorities in Japan. This is not the first time that remarks and comments or misinformation of such derogatory nature have come from Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) – the majority party in power.

In order for Japan to truly make impactful and meaningful progress on issues related to its sexual minorities, it is the political will of the central government that needs to lead this change. While aiding domestic change at the local prefectural level has an impact, progress on these issues will remain minimal or surface level at best unless a large proportion of LGBTQ policy measures in Japan start being driven by a strong top-down national undertaking led by Japan’s central government.

An analysis of the landscape surrounding sexual minorities in Japan shows that there has been change over the years, albeit arguably minimal. Since 2011, some parts of Tokyo have included the recognition of same-sex relationships; amendments to several labor laws in 2019 now require all municipalities and large companies after June 2020 to take actions to prevent outing and other harassment of LGBTQ individuals; IBM Japan and other major companies have also extended some benefits to employees’ same-sex partners.

Alongside this, the number of people in Japan who identify as LGBTQ or another sexual minority has also become clearer. In May 2022, the Japan LGBT Research Institute Inc., a Tokyo-based think tank specializing in issues related to sexual minorities, found that 1 in 10 people in Japan now identify as LGBTQ or another sexual minority. Therefore, while progress is being made, this small degree is unable to protect LGBTQ individuals in Japan from social stigmas and also, importantly, prevents them from accessing the legal protections that other Japanese have.

International Norms 

Observing Japan at the international level, a recent OECD survey ranked Japan second worst in terms of LGBTQ inclusion legislation among developed countries. Further, Japan is the only G-7 country to not recognize same-sex marriage. In understanding the importance of quelling the growing criticism and pressure, Japanese leaders have in recent years increasingly tried to take a leadership role at the United Nations, for example, by voting for the 2011 and 2014 Human Rights Council resolutions calling for an end to violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and as a member of the U.N. LGBTI Core Group.

Yet, as highlighted above, it is clear that Japan’s national stance on these issues is not commensurate with its international signaling, and these moves on the world stage end up looking like lip service or placation – especially when one recalls the political reality of the LDP’s attitude toward sexual minorities.

In 2018, LDP lawmaker Sugita Mio, the then-parliamentary vice minister for internal affairs and communications, explicitly stated in an article that the government should not support sexual minority couples because they “cannot bear offspring” and thus are “unproductive.” Also, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s statement on potential legislation ensuring same-sex marriage has not been encouraging, maintaining that “it could affect the structure of family life in Japan.” This is despite a vast majority of the Japanese population actually supporting such legislation, and this support has been growing steadily for the past 10 years.

Prefectural Progress

At the prefectural level, Japan has seen some progress. This to a certain degree can be attributed to the fact that international antidiscrimination norms inevitably work their influence through the efforts of domestic innovators. Indeed, in the context of immigrants’ rights Amy Gurowitz illustrated how these political innovators, such as local authorities, use international norms or the legitimacy thereof, in domestic contexts to push for policy changes.

In line with this, Japan has seen a few local governments around the country starting to adopt measures to recognize same-sex partnerships. In 2020, 38 municipalities adopted measures, followed by 73 in 2021. Osaka’s Yodogawa ward, in 2013, and Okinawa’s capital, Naha City, in July 2015, also declared themselves “LGBT friendly” municipalities.

But frustrations persist. For example, a Kyodo News survey showed that, of 87 local governments that have introduced or plan to introduce a same-sex partnership system, 59 percent feel that Japan’s current policy framework for sexual minorities is inadequate. The survey, which collected responses from three prefectural governments and 84 municipalities in 29 prefectures from February to March of 2021, also found that no local government felt the current system was sufficient.

Therefore, though the national government’s inaction has presented an opening for proactive LGBTQ policy at the local prefectural level, opportunity structures have not been opened wide enough to progressively expand a pro-LGBTQ coalition. Thus, for effective change, national-level support or center-led, top-down decision-making is necessary.

The Central Government and the LDP 

The absence of national guidance and political will to pass laws from Japan’s ruling LDP is stark. Key members of the party have over the years made public proclamations that seem to over-promise. For instance, in March 2019, then-Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo announced at the National Diet that “discrimination or prejudice against sexual minorities is not allowed in any aspect of society.” Further, the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games were advertised as celebrating “unity in diversity” and “passing on a legacy for the future.”

Yet, currently, Japan has no national legislation protecting sexual minorities from discrimination. One key proposal and demand has been to enact laws to ban discrimination against LGBTQ people. However, this is still currently under intense negotiation between the LDP and opposition parties. An analysis of the debate shows that opposition parties such as the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and Nippon Ishin no Kai support the bill; the hesitance and lack of progress come from the LDP.

To highlight this, in 2016, the opposition parties jointly submitted to the Diet a bill to eliminate discrimination against LGBTQ people. In discussions that followed regarding amendments with a nonpartisan group of lawmakers, including opposition party members, a passage was added to its objectives and basic principles stating that “discrimination must not be tolerated.” Due to opposition from conservative elements within the LDP, in 2021 the party shelved the LGBT bill. Dissent mainly came from the then Hosoda faction – currently the Abe faction – which claimed that the definition of “discrimination” was unclear.

While the LDP will soon resume discussions on this bill, the LDP’s stance in the post-Abe years does not leave room for much hope. A recent study in 2022 by the Asahi Shimbun and a team led by Masaki Taniguchi, a professor of Political Science at the University of Tokyo, found that the LDP, led by Kishida, is lagging far behind other political parties in backing legislation to promote understanding of sexual minorities. This difference between the opposition and the LDP stance can further be seen because even the LDP’s junior coalition party Komeito, which was once against marriage equality, has now expressed a willingness to approve the legislation to promote the understanding of sexual minorities ahead of the G-7 Summit in May 2023.

Japan cannot expect to see quality change for its sexual minorities until and unless the LDP reforms its LGBTQ politics and policies. Given the growing support from the Japanese population for LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws and same-sex marriage legislation, it is important for LDP lawmakers to pay heed. It would also be prudent for LDP lawmakers to be mindful of the fact that they are representing the Japanese population. For quite some time now the Japanese public, many local prefectural governments and municipalities, and even opposition lawmakers have shown a proclivity for change. It is a good moment for the LDP to step up and embrace equality and diversity in Japan.

Guest Author

Vindu Mai Chotani

Vindu Mai Chotani is assistant professor by Special Appointment in the Department of Politics and International Studies, International Christian University, Tokyo. The views and opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the institution. 

Guest Author

Olivier Ammour-Mayeur

Olivier Ammour-Mayeur is associate professor and director of the Center for Gender Studies, International Christian University, Tokyo. The views and opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the institution.