2019 Taiwan Pride: Queerness in Asia

Challenges Ahead as Japan Follows Taiwan’s Path to Marriage Equality

2019/10/23 ,


Rik Glauert

Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

Rik Glauert

Rik Glauert is a freelance journalist and student based in Taipei. He specializes in politics and human rights and has previously reported from China, Hong Kong, and Myanmar.

What you need to know

Japanese LGBT activists are looking to Taiwan as a successful example of granting same-sex couples the right to marry, but Japan has to first deal with its conservative politics and society.

Gay couple Masahiro and Kosuke, whose first names are omitted for anonymity, dreamed of buying a small house together in the Japanese city of Fukuoka.

Under Japanese law, however, they cannot get married and they found it impossible to get a joint mortgage as two legally single men. Luckily a close friend in real estate bent the rules and granted them a loan in Kosuke’s name.

Last month, the pair sued the government to allow them to legally marry. They joined 12 other couples launching cases in district courts across the country as part of the greatest attempt at marriage equality in Japanese history.

Japan’s bid, led by activist group Marriage for All Japan, is inspired and guided by Taiwan’s landmark win to recognize same-sex marriage in May this year.

But to become the second country in Asia to legalize same-sex unions, Japan's more closeted LGBT community, who are inexperienced at activism, must battle a conservative, anti-LGBT government and a court system known to rule in line with the current politics.

“Thanks to our friends, we are living comfortably,” Masahiro, 31, told The News Lens. “But we know many LGBT people in Japan are not as comfortable as ourselves.”

Like most places in Asia, Japan’s failure to legally recognize same-sex couples denies them access to government housing, mortgages, inheritance, adoption, tax deductions, and other benefits.

But Masahiro cited Taiwan as the pair’s hope and inspiration. When they took a trip to Taipei earlier this year, they were amazed to see gay and lesbian couples proudly holding hands on the streets.

“[LGBT couples] became so bold and open,” explained Masahiro. Two months after the trip, they launched their court challenge.

Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

Challenging the Constitution

One of the 30 lawyers working on the marriage equality cases across four district courts, Takeharu Kato, told The News Lens their court argument is very similar to that of Taiwanese activist Chi Chia-wei’s petition, which paved the way for same-sex marriage legalization in Taiwan.

"The point is whether freedom is protected by the constitution and whether [denying same-sex couples the right to marry] violates equal protections,” Kato said.

Article 24 of Japan’s constitution lists marriage as between a man and woman. But lawyers are arguing for a new interpretation of the 1947 Constitution in line with changes in society. They say limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples contravenes equality and freedoms protected under the Constitution.

Rights lawyers have also referenced Taiwan in court filings to show that legalizing same-sex marriage has no negative impact on society.

Kato said research shows equal marriage is “beneficial to same-sex couples, [but] has no influence on opposite-sex couples” and that is a useful example for Japan.

Opponents, including ruling conservatives the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP), discourage against marriage equality. They have argued that same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, with lawmaker Mio Sugita went as far as to calling it “unproductive.”

Chief coordinator of Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan, Jennifer Lu, who has spent time training with Kato and other Japanese LGBT activists said Japan’s culture, society, constitutional system, courts, and stable democracy are all similar to Taiwan’s situation.

But she pointed out Taiwan’s equal marriage campaign rested on a strong, active civil society honed for decades campaigning for democracy, labor rights, and women’s rights. “This is the key reason we have a progressive result,” she said. “You need a lot of people.”

According to as survey by ReBit, only 12 percent of LGBT Japanese are out at work. If coming out remains only a dream for most LGBT Japanese, they are unlikely to be campaigning for equal marriage in public.

“LGBT people do not want to come out or join the political movement, it is very difficult to persuade them,” explained Kato.

In fact, two of the leaders of the Marriage for All Japan are not from the LGBT community, highlighting the lack of visible LGBT role models and activists in the field.

Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

Japan’s Marriage Equality Progress Is Slow Compared to Taiwan

Papers filed in court by Kato and his team cited recent surveys showing more than 70 percent of Japanese people support same-sex marriage.

However, Kato and other activists explained that the majority of these people simply believe same-sex marriage is not their business. “As long as it does not affect them, then they negatively support it,” Kato said.

With LGBT rights hitting the headlines like never before in Japan, the opinion of those who negatively support same-sex marriage could be easily altered or manipulated by conservative groups.

Marriage for All Japan, therefore, is working at discussion and education focus groups across the country to engage people in LGBT discussions, similar to Taiwan’s own campaign to combat misinformation ahead of the November 2018 referendums on marriage equality and LGBT education.

Japan’s bid for marriage equality also comes in a far more conservative political situation than in Taiwan. Ruling LDP lawmakers, who have a 60-percent majority in the House of Representatives, have been known to make homophobic comments.

In June, amid calls for action on LGBT rights, the LDP revealed a draft “LGBT understanding bill,” criticized by the community for failing to address either same-sex marriage or the need for anti-LGBT discrimination legislation.

Meanwhile, Activist-turned-politician for the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) Taiga Ishikawa, became the first openly gay male politician in the national legislature in July. He is pushing an equal marriage bill submitted by his party earlier this year.

"Compared to Taiwan, the pace is slow, but … Japan is steadily moving towards marriage equality,” Ishikawa told The News Lens.

Unfortunately, the LGBT community has to worry about the LDP’s growing popularity. LGBT activist Hideki Sunagawa warned of rising support for the LDP among an uptick in nationalism during Japan’s sluggish economic growth. "Now in Japan, what LDP doesn’t approve will not come true,” said Hideki.

Kato and other activists are therefore relying on a win in one of the five district court cases and their accompanying awareness campaigns to win public opinion and influence the LDP’s stance.

“If we win just one district court, this is a big push, a big impact on the people and the Diet [Japan’s parliament],” explained Kato.

The government is expected to appeal any district court win and the case would travel up through the courts to the Supreme Court within the next few years. But if the couples lose all of the court cases, Kato estimated, it would put the movement back at least 10 years.

READ NEXT: Taiwan’s Newlywed Same-Sex Couples Prepare for Landmark Pride Parade

TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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2019 Taiwan Pride: Queerness in Asia:

In May 2019, Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage, which makes this year’s pride month all the more meaningful for the LGBT community. To celebrate Taiwan's pride month, we're going to cover queer culture and LGBT progress in Taiwan and the rest of Asia.

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