The Japan Times recently ran an article titled “Same-sex marriages? Japan’s been there, done that, kind of” on November 16th as part of its “bilingual” column. The piece borders on satire with the amount of carelessness it exhibits when discussing the current state of LGBT rights in Japan. As most articles of this nature, it repeats the tired practice of drawing upon Japan’s history of monastic and militaristic homosexual relationships in earlier periods as a way of saying “Look everyone! Japan has always been liberal and permissive, you outsiders just don’t understand Japanese culture”.
The truth is, Japan has never had “same-sex marriages”, and the practice of wakashudo (若衆道), where older samurai men took adolescent boys under their wings as lovers and apprentices, became obsolete once the winds of modernity came to Japan and ushered in the Meiji Era. Sexual relationships between men were banned in the year Meiji 6 (1873) under the keikan kitei (鶏姦規定, sodomy laws), and offenders of these laws would face choueki (懲役, imprisonment).
While otokodoushi (男同士, male camaraderie) was still an encouraged and important part of Japanese culture, a separation was created between those “normal” interactions and douseiai (同性愛, homosexuality) the latter of which began to be studied with scrutiny as the importation of western ideology into Japan continued during the Taisho Era. Consistent with western ideology at the time, it was then that homosexual desire came to be considered a hentai seiyoku (変態性欲, abnormal sexuality), and the identity of douseiaisha (同性愛者, homosexual) was born. The implementation of this new system of values led Japan to begin to view homosexuality as it was viewed in the west; a mental illness.
The takeaway after reviewing this history is that, because Japan came to align its value system with that of the west, homophobia has taken hold over the past several decades. While otoko no kizuna (男の絆, male bonds) are a valued part of Japanese culture, a very solid line has been created between heterosexuality and homosexuality, and in modern Japan, being homosexual can still have a dire effect on family, work and all other relationships.
The Japan Times article references a gay Japanese man who claims that he feels liberated as a gay person in Japan, because he is lucky enough to have a partner and a supportive group of friends. He also claims to be happy that he is excused of the burden of caring for his parents (but there is a strong implication that they either disowned or excommunicated him due to his lifestyle).
This touches upon another aspect of the Japanese LGBT rights movement in Japan, where there are actually a number of Japanese LGBT people who are unsure of whether gay rights are necessary. Some are even bothered that LGBT people are getting exposure, because it has created a risk that they themselves will be exposed and receive scrutiny from those around them after all these years of hiding.
I have even come across opinions of non-Japanese claiming that because there isn’t an engrained Christian value system like in the United States, approaching Japanese LGBT rights in a manner that models the American movement is misguided and cannot be applied to Japan.
In my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth. Over the past century, Japanese values have evolved to mirror the west in regards to the treatment of LGBT people, and due to this, I believe that the fight to break down homophobia and transphobia and garner support will have a lot to gain if it follows the American model. Of course, there will be differences, and it’s hard to see what obstacles lie ahead, but you need to start from somewhere, right? While religious opposition isn’t the biggest problem here (even though there are a number of Japanese Christians in Japan), there are arguments against same-sex marriage claiming that the family structure in Japan will collapse and everyone will suddenly want to get gay married, which is something those in the west have heard time and time again.
In addition, the issue of Japan’s shrinking birth rate is also an issue on many people’s minds, and the argument that same-sex marriage will cause even less children to be born is also pervasive. That might actually be true to some point, due to many closeted gays and lesbians marrying a straight partner and bearing children out of a sense of duty to their family. But on the other hand, same-sex couples can also contribute to society in other ways, perhaps by adopting children and raising them into productive members of society, or simply by being able to help the economy as consumers. As of this year, many companies in Japan have begun to study the spending habits of LGBT people, and some estimates suggest the LGBT market could be worth roughly 6 trillion yen (about 49 billion USD).
To sum up, Japan has never had true same-sex marriages, and the situation for LGBT people in Japan isn’t as heiki (平気, all right) as some people would like you to believe it is. But I’m sure that same-sex marriages will happen in Japan, in time.
Additional reading→ The Gay of the Samurai (Tofugu)