New NPO brings same-sex marriage equality into Japanese public debate

TOKYO —

Same-sex marriage is making headlines around the world, particularly in the U.S. where this year alone, a wave of legal victories for marriage equality has swept across 15 states. In Japan, however, where same-sex marriage remains illegal, this same issue has received relatively scant media attention.

A new organization is seeking to change that. Equal Marriage Alliance Japan (EMA Japan for short) was founded in February of this year as the first NPO advocating solely for legal same-sex marriages in Japan, and already it is making a stir in social media, as well as academic, business and political circles. The founder and president of EMA Japan, Kazu Terada, lived for many years in Denmark, where same-sex marriage was first legalized in 1989. Having seen for himself the wider benefits that marriage equality brought to Danish society, he is now determined to bring same-sex marriage rights into the arena of Japanese public debate.

Changing entrenched attitudes may not be easy. A recent Kyodo news poll found that public opposition to marriage equality remains high at 52.4%. However, this resistance to change seems puzzling in a country where there is little overt homophobic discrimination. Historically, Japanese culture has had a tolerant attitude to same-sex relationships and lacks the religious doctrine that can fuel discrimination in other countries. Paradoxically, it is this lack of overt discrimination that has made change difficult, by creating a lack of awareness and an indifference to LGBT rights.

EMA Vice President Jeffrey Trambley says, “The challenge is to educate society at large that inequalities exist. A very small percentage of the Japanese population claims that they know someone gay or lesbian. Obviously, they do know LGBT people; it’s just that they are not open about it. Making a society in which people feel more comfortable coming out is key. Once people know someone personally, it’s awfully hard to justify denying them their rights.”

Many spousal rights denied to same-sex couples 

And the spousal rights denied to same-sex couples are many. To name but a few, same-sex couples cannot benefit from the tax deductions and inheritance rights that are due to married couples. They cannot apply for joint housing loans. In a medical emergency, a same-sex partner cannot make decisions on behalf of their loved one, and perhaps most upsetting of all, in the event of death, a same-sex partner has no legal entitlement to attend the funeral.

But beyond these legal rights and benefits, Terada believes that marriage equality would bring social validation to the whole LGBT community. “The social meaning of the right to marry could be the most important benefit. When legal discrimination ended in Denmark, society became much more open. There were fewer instances of bullying in schools because the new law sent a message of tolerance and acceptance. Parents of those with homosexual children didn’t have to worry about their future. They could be confident that their children would be treated fairly before society and the law.” 

Trambley adds, “I think of closeted people working in Japanese companies and those that cannot come out to their families. It’s hard for them that they can’t be themselves. Even if a person doesn’t want to get married, to have an easier time being yourself in society, this is a major benefit of marriage equality.”

Realistically, though, is change possible? Terada remains optimistic: “One important point to remember is that the Japanese civil code does not literally prohibit same sex marriage. Same sex marriage is interpreted as illegal because of the gender-specific language used throughout the code. If we want to change the laws, we just need to insert one article stipulating that all terms be interpreted as gender neutral. Some believe that a constitutional amendment is necessary to change the laws, but many legal experts agree this is not the case.”

And EMA Japan has been busy. In just a few short months they have lectured at Tokyo University, spoken to business leaders affiliated with Keidanren, and presented a workshop to the Kofu Chamber of Commerce in Yamanashi. Their online petition now has over 3,000 signatures and two prominent politicians have also expressed support. Both Taro Kono, former senior vice justice minister in the ruling LDP party, and Goshi Hosono, former secretary-general of the opposition DPJ, have met with EMA members and agreed that marriage equality is vital for Japan’s future prosperity. Further political support will prove essential, so the directors of EMA Japan are asking petition signatories to also supply their zip codes. They can then tell Diet members that supporters of same-sex marriage are in their electoral districts.

Terada says, “Politicians need to know that this is a key issue for Japanese voters when elections roll around.”

Trambley sees the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as a catalyst for change. “The Olympics and Paralympics are a huge opportunity for Japan to create a legacy of openness and acceptance. Especially after the negative press Russia received when its anti-gay laws were put into force, Japan should see the 2020 games as a chance to show the world the true meaning of ‘omotenashi.’”

So what can be done to support the cause? Terada says, “Talk about EMA Japan at your workplaces. Diversity is a buzzword at the moment. Follow and retweet us on Twitter or like us on Facebook. Check out our website and sign our online petition. Our goal is to amass 1 million supporters before the elections in 2016, so please join us on this journey to bring marriage equality to Japan.”

EMA Japan can be found at the following sites:
http://emajapan.org/
https://www.facebook.com/NPOEMAJAPAN
https://twitter.com/emajapan2013
Sign the petition here: http://emajapan.org/donate/advocate

 

Japan Today

  • -4

    Japankid

    .... say no to this.....

  • 6

    Stephen Knight

    In the U.S., a major catalyst for change was, oddly enough, the move toward benefits equality among major corporations, who recognized that acquiring and keeping the best employees would require them to extend to same-sex employees and their partners the same benefits and opportunities available to the rest of the workforce. Many large companies actively lobbied for legal recognition of same-sex partnerships (though not necessarily actual marriage) because it was good business to do so. In many cases, this got the ball rolling for wider social acceptance.

    That's less likely to be the case in Japan, where even the LGBT acronym remains unfamiliar to most, and the gay community itself seems unwilling to do anything that might upend their relatively peaceful status quo. But it's good to see NPOs like this one, and Nijiiro Diversity in the Kansai region, attempting to kick-start a broader social dialog.

  • 5

    Alexandre Dimeck-Ghione

    I hope so, beacause same-sex marriage is a first step for more equality ; and this equality benefits to everyone !

  • 2

    KamiShikkaku

    I understand why this article is in the lifestyle section (alongside stories about bras that can change color). Clearly it's a political issue.

  • 5

    Pukey2

    The founder and president of EMA Japan, Kazu Terada, lived for many years in Denmark, where same-sex marriage was first legalized in 1989.

    Registered partnerships, maybe, but the Netherlands was the first country to legalize same-sex marriage and that was in 2001, I believe. Denmark didn't follow suit until 2 years ago.

    As for Japan, I wouldn't hold my breath. Out of all the more tolerant/stable countries in Asia, I see Japan as being one of the slowest in actually doing anything to bring about equality for all (and I'm not just taking about LBGT rights). One thing it does have going for itself is, unlike South Korea and Hong Kong, and to a far lesser extent, Taiwan, it has not been infected by the worst parts of the religious doctrine of Christianity. Having said that, I do think that Taiwan, along with Nepal, Vietnam and Thailand are going to be the first to head towards the legalization of sex-same marriage someday soon (I think Israel might have something going on already). But I do wish this Japanese NPO the best.

    strangerland:

    They're ok with it if you don't talk about it, and keep it in its place (eg. shinjuku 2-chome).

    They're also ok with it as long as it's the funny, sissy-acting tarento on TV and not their own son or daughter.

    japankid:

    .... say no to this.....

    You can if you want to, but can I also turn up at your wedding and tell you you shouldn't marry. You don't agree with same-sex marriage? Then don't marry someone of the same sex. A simple as that. I do get sick and tired of people (mainly religious extremists) who think it's their business to tell other people what they can or can't do. And yet these types hate it when they have to defend their right to own a gun, preach in public or when they're being exposed as being in the closets themselves (many republican examples there). Family values? Puleeez - straight (or straight-appearing) conservative people are doing more than their fair share of wrecking the image of that.

  • 3

    Gudni Gudnason

    This is wonderful news, a debate is needed and education so that people understand the issue! We need equality in our world today and this is one thing that Japan is missing!

  • 2

    pointofview

    I don`t see a big change until the majority of senior citizen politicians are out of office. Far too narrow minded.

  • 0

    Elizabeth Heath

    I don't think the item's wild claim that 'Historically, Japanese culture has had a tolerant attitude to same-sex relationships' is true. You can't be out at work, at university and within many families. It's tolerated as long as you hide it or use it as something to laugh at. It's still the dark ages here in regard to LGBT issues.

  • 1

    Fouxdefa

    Homosexuality is not disapproved of here for religious reasons but for social ones. Historically people had to adhere to the pattern of "get married to someone of the opposite sex and have children to carry on the family name." The conversative idea about what constitutes a family is very strong here, evident in the way unrelated adoption is almost unheard of and the taboo of being a single parent or a stay-at-home dad for example.

    Homosexuality is tolerated, laughed at, indulged in here but only as long as it doesn't interrupt the "standard" picture of a Japanese family.

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