Rainbow in the East: LGBT Rights in Japan

Society Lifestyle

A new ordinance in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward recognizing same-sex partnerships has drawn headlines around the world and started wider discussion of LGBT issues within Japan. Sociologist Sechiyama Kaku examines the recent history of LGBT rights in Japan, including a 1990s court case that proved to be a turning point.

The acronym LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) is still not well-known in Japan, and this in itself indicates that awareness of issues relating to sexual minorities lags behind more progressive nations. When referring to transgender people, the term seidōitsusei shōgai (gender identity disorder) was common until recently, but the use of the word “disorder” is seen as problematic, so seibetsu iwa (gender dysphoria or incongruence) is coming to replace it.

Although there are no precise demographic statistics, a range of surveys appear to indicate that approximately 5% of people are LGBT, which means on average at least one student in every school class. However, Japan has been slow to address this reality, and even the difference between homosexuality and gender dysphoria is not widely understood.

Japan is not alone in this respect, however. Equality based on sexual orientation, unlike the case for race or gender, is only clearly included as a right under a handful of national constitutions.

At present there is also insufficient backing at the United Nations to pass a resolution on LGBT rights, and some countries still impose the death penalty for consensual homosexual behavior. But just as freedom of thought and conscience was a human right gained in the nineteenth century, and the right to livelihood (as typified by “the right to maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living” in Article 25 of Japan’s Constitution) emerged in the twentieth century, it now seems possible in the twenty-first century to recognize rights related to sexual orientation.

Former Tolerance for Homosexual Love

Until around the end of the nineteenth century, Japanese society was extremely tolerant of love between men, and homosexual behavior by samurai, priests, and others was viewed as normal. This was quite different to the situation in Europe, where the influence of Christianity meant that homosexuality was considered a sin and treated as a crime punishable by law.

In the Meiji era (1868–1912), homosexual activity became associated with student dormitories, as depicted in Mori Ōgai’s Vita Sexualis and elsewhere. However, late Meiji modernization led to the adoption of the Western medical conceptions of homosexuality as an illness, so that this behavior was increasingly seen as abnormal.

The world’s first gay rights movement was sparked by a 1969 incident in Manhattan. At the time, homosexuality was illegal and a police raid on a gay bar was nothing unusual, but in this particular case it met with resistance that escalated into protests that came to be known as the Stonewall riots from the name of the bar. Today, LGBT supporters mark the June anniversary with displays of the rainbow flag.

A Turning Point for Homosexual Rights

In Japan, the Fuchū Youth House incident of 1990 became a turning point. Although not generally heard of, it is the most significant event for considering issues related to the country’s sexual minorities. It began when the Japan Association for the Lesbian and Gay movement, commonly known as Occur, used the Fuchū Youth House, a public accommodation facility run by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. Previously, the group had used the facility without revealing that it was a homosexual organization, but some members suggested that they should be open and seek the understanding of others.

After discussing the matter, the group announced at an evening session that its aim was to promote homosexual rights. This led to homophobic remarks by other users of the center when passing in the corridor or using the bathing facilities. Members had hoped to be given the chance to clear up misunderstandings, but this was not forthcoming. Moreover, when they subsequently tried to use the Fuchū Youth House they were refused permission.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government justified its decision based on its policy of single-sex rooms, arguing that the possibility of gay and lesbian people having sexual intercourse within the rooms would create an unwholesome environment for young people. Occur responded in 1991 by filing a suit at Tokyo District Court.

In 1994, the court ruled that it was not possible to deny use of the facilities unless there was a clear probability that there would be sexual activity, and that since no such probability existed in the case of Occur, the plaintiffs were awarded an almost complete victory. The court garnered attention by giving a neutral definition of homosexuality as a sexual orientation in which people are attracted to others of the same sex, and formally acknowledging the prejudice and oppression against gay and lesbian people in society.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government appealed to the Tokyo High Court claiming that in 1990 it had not had accurate information and therefore had no choice but to refuse permission. The court’s 1997 judgment was a highlight of the case. It not only decided entirely in favor of the plaintiffs but also made the following statement: “It is necessary for government bodies to show meticulous consideration for homosexuals, as a minority, and to ensure their rights and interests are upheld. It was unacceptable then and is unacceptable now for a public authority to be indifferent to or ignorant of these points.”

The message of the judgment was that ignorance is no excuse. For this reason, the details of the incident should be required study up to the high school level. As with sexual and racial discrimination, it is unacceptable not to be aware that prejudice based on sexual orientation is wrong. The judgment represented a severe criticism of contemporary Japanese society. But despite the message that ignorance is no excuse, why have so few people had the opportunity to learn about the case in all the years that have passed since 1997?

A Swift Response to Transgender Issues

Moving away from LGB, I would next like to consider transgender issues. In July 1996, the Saitama Medical School ethics committee submitted a report that acknowledged the existence of transsexualism and allowed for treatment, including sex reassignment surgery, as a reasonable medical practice. This was a critical moment for increased awareness.

In 1997, the Japanese Society of Psychiatry and Neurology introduced guidelines for diagnosis. The issue was brought to much wider attention in 2001, when Ueto Aya appeared as a student with gender dysphoria in the popular junior high school drama 3-nen B-gumi Kinpachi sensei (Teacher Kinpachi of the Third-Year B Class). Then, in 2003, the Act on Special Cases in Handling Gender for People with Gender Identity Disorder was passed, allowing people medically diagnosed with gender dysphoria to change their gender on family registries, providing that they meet certain conditions, such as being at least 20 years old and unmarried.

Although the Fuchū Youth House incident was a key event for homosexuality in Japan, awareness dated from the Meiji era and gay magazines such as Barazoku (Rose Tribe) had been on sale since the 1970s. By contrast, when writer Torai Masae received female-to-male sex reassignment surgery in the United States in 1988, this was the first time that many in Japan had heard about transgender issues, so the history is relatively brief.

Despite this, the government swiftly drew up legal measures in response, far quicker than for matters related to homosexuality; and it appears that the reason for this was that gender dysphoria was seen as a medical “illness.” It had “symptoms,” which could be “treated.” Meanwhile, homosexuality was viewed as a personal inclination to be dealt with at the individual level.

First Step is Providing Basic Rights

In April 2015, the first ordinance in Japan recognizing same-sex partnerships came into effect in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward. Laws of this kind are already common in Europe and same-sex marriage is legal in several countries, particularly in northern Europe.

In Japan, the phrase, “Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes” in Article 24 of the Constitution is seen as an obstacle to same-sex marriage. However, some legal scholars believe that same-sex marriage should be permitted since the initial purpose of the article was to prevent marriages from being decided by heads of household rather than those to be wed, and it does not prevent “both sexes” from being interpreted as two women or two men.

Immediate legalization of same-sex marriage is unlikely in Japan. But an urgent topic for discussion is the question of whether to allow something equivalent to a civil partnership, which would be effective in such basic life situations as giving consent for operations or making hospital visits to a partner, moving into an apartment together, and inheriting or receiving insurance payouts.

(Originally written in Japanese and published on April 30, 2015. Banner photo: Model Ichinose Ayaka (left) and actress Sugimori Akane (right) at a press conference held at their symbolic wedding ceremony on April 19, 2015, in Shinjuku, Tokyo; © Jiji.)

homosexuality gay LGBT lesbian bisexual transgender gender dysphoria same-sex marriage civil partnership