Time to Outlaw LGBTQ+ Discrimination in Japan

Society Politics

Outrage over discriminatory remarks by a senior aide to the prime minister has breathed new life into the effort to pass Japan’s first national law promoting social inclusion of sexual minorities. But many LGBTQ+ activists have deep reservations about the bill currently under review by the ruling party.

Fallout from Discriminatory Remarks

In February this year, Arai Masayoshi, an executive secretary to Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, triggered a firestorm with his off-the-record remarks about the government’s position on same-sex unions and other LGBTQ+ rights. Speaking in the Prime Minister’s office on February 3, Arai told reporters, “I don’t even like to see [sexual minorities],” and stated that he “wouldn’t want to live next door” to a same-sex couple. Guaranteeing equal rights for same-sex couples “would have a major impact on society—a negative one,” he said. “All the aides are against it.”

Soon after the remarks were leaked, Kishida dismissed Arai in hopes of quelling the public uproar. But LGBTQ+ activists and supporters demanded more substantive action, citing Japan’s unfulfilled commitment as a Group of Seven country. In the end, the aide’s comments had the effect of resurrecting a bill to “promote public understanding of diversity in sexual orientation and identity,” which had been languishing since 2021. However, the LGBTQ+ community is by no means united behind the “LGBT understanding promotion bill.”

In the following, we will look at the legal and social circumstances surrounding sexual minorities in Japan and consider the shortcomings of the bill currently under review within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Comparing Japan’s progress in legislating LGBTQ+ rights with that of other G-7 countries, we will consider what the Japanese government must do, as this year’s G-7 chair, to meet the expectations of the international community.

Problems and Fragmentary Progress

The suffering and hardship experienced by sexual minorities in Japan is well documented. A 2022 survey by the nonprofit group ReBit found that 48.1% of LGBTQ+ teens had entertained thoughts of suicide over the previous year, and a full 14.0% had actively attempted it—roughly four times the overall rates for that age group. A 2019 government report on diversity in the workplace stated that a mere 8.6% of lesbians, 5.9% of gay men, 7.3% of bisexuals, and 15.3% of transgender individuals had “come out” to at least one fellow employee. It also found that between 60% and 70% of LGBTQ+ individuals had not confided in anyone outside of the workplace. This is powerful testimony to the fear of discrimination and persecution that forces so many people in Japan to hide their true sexual orientation and gender identity.

In response to this situation, roughly 60 municipal governments in Japan have adopted ordinances prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, and more than 200 have instituted “partnership” systems, issuing certificates that make it easier for same-sex couples to secure certain rights and benefits. At the same time, a growing number of Japanese companies have begun offering equal benefits and rights to same-sex couples.

Public attitudes toward same-sex unions are changing as well. In a 2019 nationwide opinion poll conducted by Kawaguchi Kazuya of Hiroshima Shūdō University, 87.7% of respondents supported the enactment of laws and ordinances banning discriminatory behavior against or bullying of sexual minorities.

Nonetheless, Japan has yet to enact any national statute prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Promoting the enactment of such a law is the core aim of the Japan Alliance for LGBT Legislation, an umbrella organization established in 2015. In cooperation with a supra-partisan parliamentary group devoted to LGBTQ+ issues—referred to below as the LGBT caucus—J-ALL has lobbied the government to allocate funds to address challenges facing sexual minorities. We have provided expert testimony at the request of party and government policy makers and have worked to make the concerns of the LGBTQ+ community heard at the government level.

In 2018, largely as a consequence of these efforts, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government enacted the Ordinance Seeking Realization of the Principle of Respect for Human Rights Outlined in the Olympic Charter, which bans discrimination for reasons of sexual orientation or gender identity. In addition, under the so-called Power Harassment Prevention Law (a revision of the Act on Comprehensively Advancing Labor Measures, Stabilizing the Employment of Workers, and Enriching Workers’ Vocational Lives), passed in 2019, businesses are required to take steps against harassment or unwanted “outing” of sexual minorities.

“Understanding” Is Not Enough

In 2021, the LGBT caucus drafted a bill establishing a permanent government program and administrative apparatus to “promote public understanding of diversity in sexual orientation and gender identity.” Unfortunately, this “LGBT understanding promotion bill” contains no provisions prohibiting the discriminatory treatment of sexual minorities, something J-ALL has advocated since its inception.

This is a deplorable shortcoming. As things stand, an employer can fire an employee simply for being a lesbian (to take an example from real life), and it is very difficult to appeal the termination. Moreover, once a law to “promote understanding” is enacted at the national level, future local ordinances are likely to focus on the same feel-good objective instead of banning discrimination against sexual minorities. In short, the legislation now under consideration could have the paradoxical effect of slowing progress by local governments and industry in the area of LGBTQ+ rights.

In 2021, opposition from conservatives in the LDP prevented the government from submitting the bill to the Diet, and it has been on hold ever since. But in February, in the wake of Arai’s comments, Kishida ordered the LDP to review the bill and submit it for deliberation during the current session of the Diet. Once again, we must question the point of enacting toothless legislation that would do so little to address the actual challenges facing LGBTQ+ people in Japan.

Honoring the Elmau Communiqué

Among the world’s industrially developed countries, Japan stands out for its failure to establish a legal basis for LGBTQ+ inclusion and equality. More than 80 countries worldwide have laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, including all the G-7 countries but Japan. Multiple international indexes have given Japan low marks for legal inclusion and equality. In a 2020 report on LGBTQ+ inclusivity, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked Japan number 34 out of 35 OECD countries with respect to legal protections and guarantees.

Furthermore, under current Japanese law (Act on Special Cases in Handling Gender Status for Persons with Gender Identity Disorder), one of the five conditions for legal gender recognition requires adults to have no reproductive glands or whose reproductive glands have permanently lost function. This requirement has come under harsh domestic and international criticism as a violation of human rights.

The G-7 Leaders’ Communiqué signed on June 28, 2022, in Elmau, Germany, includes the following statements under the heading of gender equality:

“We reaffirm our full commitment to a sustained focus on realizing equality between women and men as well as transgender and non-binary people, and to ensuring that everyone—independent of their gender identity or expression or sexual orientation—has the same opportunities and is protected against discrimination and violence. . . .

“We reaffirm our full commitment to achieve comprehensive SRHR [sexual and reproductive health and rights] of all individuals, and stress the importance of access to emergency sexual and reproductive health services in humanitarian crises. We recognise the essential and transformative role of SRHR in gender equality and women’s and girls’ empowerment, and in supporting diversity, including of sexual orientations and gender identities.”

The significance of these passages cannot be overstated. The 2021 G-7 Leaders’ Communiqué (adopted at the Cornwall summit) had gone only so far as to state that “gender equality intersects with other characteristics and our actions need to take account of these intersections in a meaningful way, including . . . violence and discrimination against LGBQTI+ populations.” By contrast, the Elmau communiqué unequivocally calls on each country to protect sexual minorities, including transgender and nonbinary people, from discrimination and violence. Having signed onto these commitments as a participant in the G-7 Elmau Summit, Prime Minister Kishida has an international responsibility to act on them. Kishida apparently hopes that the “LGBT understanding promotion bill” will pass for such action, despite its lack of anti-discrimination provisions. That is unlikely in the extreme, especially after Kishida’s own senior aide was heard spewing sentiments antithetical to those embraced at Elmau.

Japan’s Prestige on the Line

I am writing this while visiting Australia for Sydney WorldPride 2023 and the LGBTQIA+ Human Rights Conference. I have spoken with activists, government officials, and UN representatives from around the world about Japan’s “LGBT understanding promotion bill,” and almost all have responded with astonishment and disgust. After all, in the international community it is taken for granted that anti-discrimination legislation is a basic prerequisite for LGBTQ+ inclusion and equality.

Arai’s discriminatory remarks and Japan’s ongoing failure to enact meaningful LGBTQ+ rights legislation have served as a stark reminder of Japan’s arrested development when it comes to the protection of sexual minorities. The situation has also forced many to question whether Japan is equal to its responsibilities as G-7 chair in 2023. To dispel these doubts, Japan must promptly enact anti-discrimination legislation as a prerequisite for protecting sexual minorities from the discrimination, violence, and other human-rights violations that they face on a daily basis.

With the May G-7 Hiroshima Summit in the offing, the Japanese government is under intense scrutiny from human-rights advocates at home and abroad. How will it respond?

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: The Tokyo Rainbow Pride parade in Yoyogi Park, held on April 24, 2022, after a two-year hiatus. © Jiji.)

human rights minority LGBTQ