Since 1995, a “kanji of the year” has been selected by national ballot and announced on December 12. The kanji is meant to represent the events of the year. The kanji selected for 2015 is 「安」, which means “safety”. The topic of everyone’s minds this year was the Abe administration’s reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution and Japan’s ability the practice “collective self defence”, that is, the ability to come to the aid of an ally even if Japan is not under a direct attack. This contentious topic sparked a huge (and ongoing) national debate, and stirred people young and old to protest in the streets for months until PM Abe essentially pushed the bill through the diet and into law.

I on the other hand, believe there is another kanji worth noting this year, and that is 「性」, which means “sex” or “gender”. Indeed, 2015 was the year where rights for sexual minorities appeared in the news more and more regularly, and also the year where the Japanese LGBT movement truly gained momentum and the dream of same-sex marriage in Japan finally began to feel like a possibility. Let’s take a look at some of the happenings over the past year.


Same-Sex Partnership Certificates

In what felt like a bolt from the blue, Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward announced on February 12 that it was considering creating “Same-Sex Partnership Certificates”, that while not legally binding, would create pressure on rental companies and hospitals to treat same-sex couples as equivalent to married couples. The ordinance passed on March 31, and the first certificates were issued on November 5th. Setagaya Ward, also in Tokyo, passed a similar ordinance and also began to offer the certificates on November 5th.

Following Shibuya’s and Setagaya’s examples, other cities across Japan have begun to create their own initiatives to recognize same-sex couples and eliminate gender discrimination. The city of Takarazuka in Hyogo Prefecture and Iga City in Mie Prefecture have both announced their intentions to issue similar certificates in June and April 2016, respectively.

While some have been critical of the certificates due to their non-legally binding nature, many also believe that they are an essential first step towards creating LGBT awareness and showing support for LGBT people, as well as putting pressure on the Japanese Diet to eventually allow legal marriages for same-sex couples.

Speaking of the National Diet, shortly after Shibuya announced its intention to certify same-sex partnerships, Abe quickly shot down the possibility of same-sex marriage in Japan, claiming that it was not what was envisioned when the constitution was written. PM Abe referred to Article 24 of the Japanese constituion, which states that “Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes”. However, many lawyers have remarked that the article simply refers to gender equality in the decision to get married, not necessarily that the couple has to be of opposite sexes.

PM Abe’s remarks did not discourage a group of 455 LGBT individuals who lodged a human rights violation complaint with the Japan Federation of Bar Associations (JFBA) on July 7th. The individuals claimed that Article 24 did not in fact prevent them from marrying their partners, and also listed the many ways that those in same-sex relationships are at a disadvantage and treated unequally in Japanese society. For example, same-sex couples are unable to designate their partners as insurance beneficiaries in the event of an accident, and for couples consisting of a Japanese citizen and non-Japanese citizen, the Japanese citizen is unable to provide a spousal visa because the marriage is not recognised in Japan (though there are ways to get a same-sex marriage between non-Japanese individuals recognized in Japan). If and when the JFBA gets around to reviewing and researching the case, a report in favor of same-sex couples, while not legally binding, could push Japanese lawmakers to approach the topic of same-sex marriage according to a new set of guidelines. This is something to keep an eye out for in 2016.


Support For LGBT Individuals 

Up until this year, it was estimated that sexual minorities in Japan consisted of 1 in 20 people, or about 5.2% of the population. However, that number was revised in April when advertising company DENTSU announced that according to its newest survey, 1 in 13 people reported being LGBT. This constitutes 7.6% of the population, or approximately 9.67 million people.

In 2015, support for sexual minorities has reached never before seen levels, with NPO groups working with local governments and businesses to educate them on how to create an all-inclusive and equal society.

In July, Naha City in Okinawa declared its support for sexual minorities at the Pink Dot Okinawa event and said that the city would work to eliminate prejudice, offer consultation services and also give government workers sensitivity training. However, they stopped short of offering the aforementioned partnership certificates.

All across Japan, NPO groups have been working with businesses, giving sensitivity training to companies where discrimination against sexual minorities can be a problem between coworkers and in regard to customers as well.  There are still many problems that must be addressed, such as homophobia, transphobia (especially when it comes to job hunting), and sexual harassment.

As some wedding venues have begun to offer services to same sex couples, some progressive companies have begun to extend benefits such as a monetary gift and marriage leave, which were previously only offered to heterosexual couples. In addition, cell phone companies have begun to offer “family plans” for same-sex couples living at the same address. These small but meaningful policies are beginning to give same sex couples a sense of legitimacy that is still not provided by the national government.

NPO groups have partnered with schools to address the plights of LGBT students across Japan. A nationwide survey declared that 44% of gay and bi teens were bullied at some point during their schooling, with some even turning to self-harm. It has been found that Japanese teachers are poorly equipped to handle issues related to sexual minorities, and as such, students rarely learn about them. The lack of initiative from the national government has lead NPO groups to take the lead in educating teachers and students about sexual minorities. This may be due for a change, as it was reported in October that the new Minister of Education has recognized that “sexual-minority students at elementary and junior high schools have been left out”, and is currently considering the best way to begin to accommodate these students.


What to expect in 2016

As things stand now, I believe that the movement for recognition and equality for sexual minorities is bound to continue through 2016, lead by the efforts of NPO groups who are educating the public and working with local governments, businesses and schools. Businesses, always looking to broaden their company base, appear to be eagerly learning about sexual minorities, which I think is ultimately good, even though some companies are probably just excited about tapping the potential of the LGBT market.

In addition to Shibuya, Setagaya, Takurazuka and Iga offering same-sex partnership certificates, I think we can expect other cities to either declare support for and/or offer their own certification.

Though it’s nice to see that the Ministry of Education is aware of the struggles that LGBT children are facing at schools, I don’t believe that the ministry is well equipped to make a huge change in policy in a short period of time. Having had worked in a Japanese high school, I saw absolutely no efforts to talk about sexual minorities, and efforts to talk about equality were more about eliminating racial prejudices rather than gender prejudices.

In my own survey of what students thought about gender differences and expectations, I found through talking with students that they were blissfully unaware of how differently males and females are treated in Japan. Adults on the other hand, are aware of the differences (and inequalities), but most have a “that just how things are” attitude. I believe that even if the government attempts to educate school teachers about different genders, sexualities and prejudice towards sexual minorities and force teachers to pass that information on to the students, it would go contrary to the strict genderization that takes place in the current school system to prepare students for “male” and “female” roles in society. In addition, the educators themselves would have to get over their own hardwired thinking and prejudices as well to be able to teach such sensitive topics. Therefore, I think that for the time being, NPO groups will continue to lead in educating people about sexual minorities.

In what will probably be the last piece of LGBT related news in 2015, the Democratic Party of Japan recently announced its intention to submit an LGBT bill calling for the government to ban discrimination against sexual minorities. They plan to submit the bill on January 4th. The results of this bill will certainly be something to look forward to in the coming year.

Especially as we move closer and closer to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, I think that the Japanese government will begin to feel pressured to create legislation that extends protections and grants equality for sexual minorities, and it will be up to the the work of NPO groups, local governments, businesses, educators and the public to make this goal a reality.

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