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