Most of the time, foreign ambassadors are anonymous, at least to the general public in their host countries. But on rare occasions, they pop into the public discourse – as Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, has done since taking up the post last year. Since then, Emanuel has become a target of Japanese conservatives, even facing calls for his deportation, due to his advocacy of LGBTQ rights in Japan.
Emanuel is a strong ally for LGBTQ people in Japan. He has been a regular guest at the festival in Tokyo that celebrates diversity and also has participated in parades filled with rainbow flags in support of the Japanese LGBTQ community. In addition, he has appeared on Japanese media advocating for Japan to adopt same-sex unions and has appealed to other embassies in Japan to join his cause.
Emanuel’s passion for LGBTQ rights advocacy could be dated back to his years as mayor of Chicago, where he implemented a host of measures that strengthened and enhanced the legal protection of sexual minorities, which received praise from local civil rights organizations.
However, his activities have created a backlash among Japanese conservatives. Critics not only fear that traditional values are being challenged, but are uncomfortable with the fact that an American is willingly interfering in Japan’s domestic affairs. Conservatives hold conflicting views toward the United States, Japan’s closest security ally but also its past conqueror and occupier.
For example, Emanuel has openly supported a symbolic bill that aims to raise awareness of the rights of sexual minorities in Japan. Online comments criticizing his endorsement describe his behavior as domestic interference. Many comments assert that the ambassador’s behavior is akin to the GHQ, an abbreviation used to describe the occupational force that governed Japan right after the end of World War II.
The criticism isn’t limited to keyboard warriors; conservative media have also joined the bandwagon of chastising Emanuel. Conservative magazines in Japan, such as Hanada and WiLL, have published critical pieces about the ambassador in their recent issues. WiLL even featured the ambassador on the front cover of its July edition, depicted sitting on a peacock chair (a symbol of colonialism) and smoking a corn cob pipe (an allusion to Douglas MacArthur, who was the supreme commander of the allied forces that occupied Japan after World War II). The image is designed to remind viewers of the humiliating years in which they were governed by a foreign power, and the asymmetric relations that Japan has with the United States.
Sensing that their base is boiling over with anger toward Emanuel, members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have also aimed their guns at the ambassador. Wada Masamune from the House of Councils wrote an article in Hanada condemning Emanuel for domestic interference and warning that he would face possible deportation if he continued advocating on behalf of LGBTQ rights.
Nevertheless, although the Japanese conservatives have been criticizing Emanuel in alarming, and sometimes apocalyptic, terms, the general populace is aligned with his position on LGBTQ rights. In almost every recent poll, the vast majority of the public has supported granting legal rights to sexual minorities. Polls conducted this year by Kyodo and Asahi Shimbun recorded that around 70 percent of the public supports same-sex marriage.
The general openness to enshrining more rights for sexual minorities in Japan is bipartisan, based on the fact that close to 60 percent of the Liberal Democratic Party supporters – who are seen as more conservative than the average populace – responded affirmatively to same-sex unions.
However, in spite of this overwhelming support for promoting LGBTQ rights among the Japanese public, there are few signs that the prevailing sentiment will be reflected in actual legislation in the near future. The reason for that has to do with the nature of the Japanese public.
The LDP has held almost unbroken power in Japan since the 1950s. Its reign was briefly broken from 2009 to 2012 by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). However, the DPJ disappointed the public with its crisis management skills and inter-party rivalry during its three years in power. The DPJ’s perceived failure validated the public’s perception that the LDP is the only reliable party.
Since then, the former DPJ, which at one point held close to two-thirds of the House of Representatives, has continued to be divided, and a large enough opposition party has not emerged. This has allowed the LDP to claim victory in every national election since 2012 with only a plurality of support – around 30 percent, judging from the proportional ballot that is cast based on party affiliation. The above political dynamics have inscribed the public with a deep sense of resignation, resulting in record-low voting rates in the latest election cycles, and low confidence in its ability to change society – let alone establish same-sex marriage as the law of the land.
Although widespread political apathy is certainly a part of the reason for Japan’s slow progress in implementing strong measures to promote LGBTQ rights, what is equally relevant – and often overlooked – is the meaning of LGBTQ rights for most of the Japanese public. For example, while most of the Japanese public approves of same-sex marriage, a significant majority also responds that they do not see the urgency of making it a reality. Unlike bread and butter issues, whether LGBTQ rights are approved or not does not directly affect the well-being of the average citizen.
Moreover, while some estimates shows that 8 to 10 percent of the Japanese population could be categorized as belonging to sexual minorities, only a fraction of that number has made use of the partnership system, an arrangement for LGBTQ couples that provides limited rights. That indicates that there is still a strong social stigma against LGBTQ people coming out. And the when average citizens have only rare encounters with open sexual minorities, it is difficult for them to sympathize with the LGBTQ community’s struggles and act to enshrine their legal rights. In other words, so far there appears to be little interest among moderate Japanese to pressure policymakers to promote LGBTQ rights. This is an obstacle that has received scant attention.
Although conservatives often receive the blame for vetoing legislation that promotes LGBTQ rights in Japan, the vast majority of the public – those who have weak political affiliations, or in fact, none at all – are equally responsible for the current state of affairs. If LGBTQ rights advocates would like to break through the impasse, they need to recognize the fundamental reasons why LGBTQ rights promotion remains sluggish in Japan, despite strong expressed public backing.