People march in the Tokyo Rainbow Pride parade in Tokyo on May 7, 2017. About 6000 people participated in the march, which aims to show support for members of the LGBT community. (Photo by Kazuhiro NOGI / AFP)
TOKYO, JAPAN — G7 host Japan is the group’s only member not to recognise same-sex unions, and ahead of this May’s summit the government is under pressure to bolster its legal protections for LGBTQ citizens.

But its ruling party is struggling to even agree on language outlawing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

The issue was thrust into the headlines this month after Prime Minister Fumio Kishida fired a top aide who said he didn’t “even want to look at” married same-sex couples.

Kishida called the remarks “outrageous” and “incompatible” with the inclusive society the government wants.

But Japan has no specific anti-LGBTQ discrimination law, and while polls show public support for marriage equality and other rights, ministers have taken a cautious approach.

“It’s a disgrace that Japan, as the G7 chair, is in this situation,” Akira Nishiyama, executive officer at LGBTQ rights group J-ALL, told AFP.

Nishiyama considers it “shameful” that Japan still lacks legal provisions for the community, despite Kishida last year signing a G7 pledge to ensure equal opportunities and protections regardless of sexuality or gender identity.

Lawmakers are discussing a bill that promotes the “understanding” of LGBTQ issues.

First mooted in 2015, the bill saw a swell of interest ahead of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, but its passage was waylaid by conservative members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Opponents insist a proposed anti-discrimination clause could deepen social divisions or open up companies and individuals to malicious lawsuits.

But campaigners say LGBTQ people often struggle to make discrimination claims in Japan under more general laws, so passing a bill without the clause leaves them vulnerable.

Some might describe a law promoting understanding as a “first step for society, but it’s kind of a compromise. I don’t want to compromise for human rights… we need a law to protect them,” Gon Matsunaka, head of Pride House Tokyo, told AFP.

Partnership certificates

The government is under pressure to show progress before the G7 leaders’ gathering in May.

Last week, Jessica Stern, Washington’s international special envoy on LGBTQ rights, agreed with the leader of Komeito, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, that the law should pass before the summit

“It is important that we end suffering and create a society where diverse people can co-exist and live in dignity,” Komeito head Natsuo Yamaguchi said after their meeting.

Society appears to have moved faster than the government, with a poll by Kyodo News agency this week finding 64 percent of respondents think Japan should recognise same-sex marriage, with 25 percent against the idea.

Other polls have shown similar support and dozens of major municipalities, including Tokyo, now offer partnership certificates that allow same-sex couples to be treated as married in areas such as housing, medicine and welfare.

Many big Japanese businesses also offer the same family benefits to LGBTQ and heterosexual employees.

Activists have tried to pressure lawmakers in the courts, arguing that the ban on same-sex marriage violates the constitution, but verdicts so far have been mixed.

‘Momentum building’

Japan is not an outlier in Asia, where Taiwan is the only place with marriage equality, and Kishida has said same-sex marriage would “change society” so lawmakers must be “extremely careful in considering the matter”.

Compared with the more right-wing members of his party, Kishida’s views are “relatively moderate”, said James Brady, vice president of international consultancy Teneo.

The LDP’s diversity efforts are largely economically driven and are “limited by traditional views of what Japanese society should look like and what roles people should play”, he said.

Same-sex marriage is unlikely to be on the agenda anytime soon, said Hiroyuki Taniguchi, a professor in human rights law at Aoyama Gakuin University.

But “momentum is building, and it’s possible that something will change”, such as including same-sex couples in legal frameworks like pensions, he told AFP.

Still, Taniguchi warned that this momentum could be lost if no progress is made before the G7 summit.

“If change fails to happen within this timeframe, it’s possible that social disinterest will return,” he said.

“Japan needs to keep the promises it makes.”


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