20170726 LGBT politicians in Japan seek to promote awareness, secure rights

Japan is the only G7 nation that does not recognize same-sex marriage or civil unions. With the 2020 Olympics looming – and international pressure mounting – five openly LGBT politicians have formed a group to promote issues from the local level.

Tokyo (dpa) – Kunihiro Maeda, one of Japan’s few openly gay politicians, recalls waiting outside an intensive-care unit 15 years ago, not knowing whether his long-time partner was still alive after being rushed to hospital.

Maeda was only allowed to see his partner after his partner’s parents arrived and told a doctor that Maeda was a family member.

“Being a housemate does not enable you to be by your partner’s bedside when he dies,” said Maeda, 51, who has been an assembly member for Tokyo’s Bunkyo ward for 18 years.

Maeda suffered a further indignity when he was not allowed to sit with other family members at his partner’s funeral.

“Even in an emergency, LGBT people are not guaranteed what heterosexuals take for granted,” said Maeda, using the initials for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

Maeda, who is serving his fifth term, came out as gay in early July, when he and four other openly LGBT assembly members held a news conference announcing the establishment of Japan’s first group of assembly members working to promote LGBT issues.

They want to bring change to Japanese society, arguing that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has done very little.

The five are the country’s only openly LGBT assembly members. Japan counts no openly LGBT members in its national parliament. (Kanako Otsuji served as an openly lesbian parliament member in 2013.)

Japan is the only G7 nation that does not allow same-sex marriage or civil unions. The launch of the new group came on the heels of the German Parliament’s approval of marriage equality.

Japan also has a history of homophobic comments by public figures.

In 2010, then-Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara caused an international uproar when he said lesbians and gay men were “deficient somehow. It may be attributed to something genetic. I feel sorry for them being a minority.”

Amnesty International has urged Japan, which is set to host the 2020 Olympics, to immediately end discrimination based on sexual orientation, as it violates the Olympic charter.

Unlike in the West, in Japan there are very few openly LGBT actors and actresses, and very few Japanese athletes who come out of the closet. Some say this contributes to a lack of awareness of gender and sexual diversity in the country.

Some 7.6 per cent of people polled in Japan think of themselves as LGBT, according to a 2015 survey conducted by Dentsu, Japan’s largest advertising agency.

“It’s very important to establish a network with other LGBT people and allies,” said Taiga Ishikawa, who became one of Japan’s first two openly gay male politicians in 2011.

Ishikawa, a 43-year-old assembly member for Toshima ward in Tokyo, learned the lesson the hard way. He did not meet other gay people until he was 25 years old, though he grew up in a cosmopolitan city.

Ishikawa and his friends have worked together with LGBT communities in Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea.

Tomoya Hosoda, a 25-year-old transgender assembly member in the city of Iruma, said some local officials wrongly believed there were no LGBT people in Iruma, north of Tokyo.

“I had no role models and spent a lot of time worrying about how to live my life,” he said. “I decided to run for office as I did not want any other citizens of Iruma to go through what I had to go through.”

A growing number of assembly members have expressed interest in working on LGBT issues since November 2015, when Tokyo’s Shibuya and Setagaya wards started to issue certificates recognizing same-sex partnerships, said Aya Kamikawa, an openly transgender assembly member in Setagaya.

That is one reason the five assembly members launched their group, Kamikawa said. In Setagaya, the number of same-sex couples who have received such a certificate grew to 50 in April, she said.

Other areas have followed suit. In June, Sapporo City became the sixth municipality in Japan to approve same-sex unions.

That certificate proves “the existence of same-sex couples,” Maeda said. “That has made them no longer invisible.”