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Queerying Japan’s LGBTQ Rights Movement

On March 31, the Shibuya ward in Tokyo became the first district in Japan to recognize same-sex marriage. The Shibuya district will now issue certificates to same-sex couples labeling their unions “equivalent to marriage.” The law is directed at hospital visitation rights and the joint signage of leases for same-sex couples. However, the legally nonbinding nature of the law — hospitals or leasers who ignore the ordinance will simply have their names put on the ward website’s equivalent of a naughty list — renders the decision a primarily symbolic step in the Japanese queer rights movement.

Currently, Article 24 of Japan’s constitution states “marriage shall be based on the mutual consent of both sexes.” Since the constitution has not been altered since its ratification in 1947, it seems unlikely that Shibuya’s recent move towards marriage equality is indicative of any revision of this clause in the near future. Nonetheless, this legislative novelty does bring attention to the current experiences of queer Japanese citizens and Japan’s queer civil rights movement.

While queer political organizing has certainly been present in Japan for the past half century, it is clear that legally, queer citizens are afforded less legal rights in Japan than in the United States. This is underscored by the 37 US states that currently recognize same-sex marriage, in contrast to Japan where there seems to be little momentum to change the Japanese constitution’s marriage clause as reinforced by Prime Minister Abe’s recent announcement that he “does not envisage marriage between people of the same sex” in the near future. Even the landmark Shibuya law lacks teeth when it comes to enforcement and true progressiveness with its language of marriage “equivalency.” Furthermore, while Japan does have laws that allow legal gender changes post-sexual reassignment surgery, this law was only enacted in 2008 and is the only notable example of progressive legislation regarding the trans* community. How are we to understand this discrepancy in legal rights between Western nations and Japan?

Western activists often attribute the minimal queer legal rights to traditionalism and Japan’s relatively conservative society. While these observations cannot be fully discredited, they are simplistic and grounded in dominant narratives of Japanese cultural homogeny and repression. Such antiquated understandings are inherently limited by the use of American standards of equality and cultural frameworks. An accurate examination of queer Japan must be rooted in a nuanced understanding of Japanese culture itself.

Japanese studies scholar Wim Lunsing cites Japan’s comparatively less litigious society as a strong factor in the current queer political climate. The queer communities of Japan, while undoubtedly conscious of their legal position, may simply not view marriage equality and other legal recognitions of equality as central to their efforts. This sentiment would stand in contrast to the United States where legal recognition of same-sex marriage has been the dominant national discussion on queer rights for the past decade, even if it is not universally prioritized within the queer community.

In contrast to legal rights, Lunsing argues, the Japanese queer political movement is primarily considered with bettering social rights and standing in society. Widely disparate cultural environments inevitably complicate a comparison of the Japanese and American queer communities’ social acceptance. On one hand, Professor Mari Miura of Tokyo’s Sophia University states that “Japan is less homophobic than many western cultures, and there are no religious or cultural barriers to talking about the issue.” Miura is referencing the relative absence of religious doctrine or groups within Japanese society that act, like those which exist within the evangelical Christian community in the United States, to oppose cultural acceptance of the queer community.

Although, the greatest reason for the disparity is not rooted in litigiousness or homophobia but in fundamentally different understandings of sexuality in Japanese society. Even the use of Western terms like “queer” and “gay” in this article work under the implicit assumption that the Western view of sexuality is universal and can be applied to Japanese populations. However, Japanese has its own vocabulary for sexualities — like “okama” which is directly translated to “rice pot” — that cannot be directly equated with American terms.

As Lunsing argues, despite the influence of Western society, “Gay identity in Japan seems to continue the way it had before US influence…It is part of a coalition of varying sexualities, including fetishisms.” This foundational cultural understanding that roots homosexuality less in identity than in sexual preference seems far less supportive of a civil rights movement, which are usually grounded in identity politics. Karen Kelsky, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, supports this interpretation explaining that it is wrong to assume “that Japan is inevitably marching from a premodern state of benighted sexual repression into a Westernized modern mode of gay ‘liberation from the closet.’”

Considering Japan’s culturally different understandings of queerness compared to the US paradigm, assertive efforts to acquire legal equality may not be the best course of action for the Japanese queer political movement. Neither does curbing rates of violence towards members of the LGBTQ+ community, especially trans* people and queer people of color, seem like a concern in the relatively nonviolent Japanese society. A campaign to counter the very real social stigmatization of queer individuals seems far more fitting with the movement’s needs, fostering social acceptance of Japan’s particular understanding of what it means to be queer.

The UN’s International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission recently endorsed this approach by identifying a “harmful link between prevailing stereotypes and discrimination against LGBT individuals” in their report on Japan. They recommended that they take action to “change cultural norms in order to guarantee equal rights for all.” One method going forward may be to use government intervention to change cultural norms. This has recently been put into practice in Japan through the policies of “Abenomics.” In efforts to integrate women into the workforce, Prime Minister Abe has led a campaign to change gender norms in the Japanese workplace environment, create support services for working mothers and incentivize businesses to end discriminatory hiring and promotion practices. Although it seems unlikely that Abe will be at the forefront of a queer political charge any time soon, this model of government intervention in social change could be effective and seems to reflect the immediate needs of Japan’s queer communities.

About the Author

Andrew Deck '17 is an English concentrator on the the non-fiction writing track and staff writer for the Brown Political Review. He is interested in social movements and the intersections between film and politics.