Japan has been very slow at taking steps toward the full protection and realization of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT1) persons.
In December 2008, Japan joined sixty-five other countries at the 70th Plenary Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in reaffirming the human rights that should be enjoyed by “all human beings regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”2 Japan was also one of twenty-three countries that voted on a Human Rights Council resolution adopted in July 2011 on commissioning a study to document “discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, in all regions of the world."3 Both national and local governments have been taking actions in order to support and enhance the understanding of LGBT persons. However, the Japanese government has so far failed to come up with comprehensive policies to address the abuse of rights based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
In 2012, the Cabinet approved the General Principles of Suicide Prevention Policy which for the first time pointed out the high suicide rate of members of sexual minorities and the urgent need to promote adequate understanding and reduce prejudice against LGBT children among school teachers and other educators. In 2016, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) published the guidelines for school teachers on how to handle kids in relation to their sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI). In 2017, the Ministry also updated the Basic Policy for the Prevention of Bullying to cover sexual and gender minority students. However, the MEXT’s latest revision of the national school curriculum guidelines does not refer to such students at all.
As for workplace environment, the National Personnel Authority amended its regulation on the prevention of sexual harassment to explicitly include “remarks and behavior based on prejudice regarding sexual orientation or gender identity.” But the regulation, which came into effect in January 2017, does not cover local government offices and the private sectors. In the same month, the Cabinet approved additional changes in the Sexual Harassment Guidelines for Employers prepared by the Ministry of Labor, Health and Welfare. The guidelines now provide that companies should appropriately address the sexual harassment of LGBT employees, but the specific forms of such harassment have not been clearly stated.
There are also other LGBT-related legal improvements at the national level such as the Act on the Prevention of Spousal Violence and the Protection of Victims (2014) and the Fourth Basic Plan on Gender Equality (2015). But since there is no comprehensive anti-discrimination law that prohibits discrimination against sexual minorities, LGBT persons still face legal difficulties and discrimination in various fields including education, housing, health, workplace, and marriage.
Several cities and wards have started the system of issuing certificate of recognition of same-sex union since 2015. In Tokyo, the Shibuya ward office started issuing such certificate in 2015, followed by other ward offices (Setagaya ward in the same year, Bunkyo ward in 2017, and Nakano ward in 2018). Other cities, namely, Takarazuka, Naha, Iga, Sapporo, Fukuoka and Osaka subsequently started issuing such certificate. The issuance of certificate by local governments is based on their own administrative guidance, rather than on an ordinance (as in the sole case of Shibuya ward). While most local governments that issue the certificate refer to same-sex union, three cities (Sapporo, Fukuoka and Osaka) recognize couples even when only one of the partners is a LGBT person (e.g., a heterosexual couple with one partner being a transgender person).
The certificate of recognition of same-sex union is meant to reduce discrimination against LGBT persons, and is not equivalent to a marriage certificate which remains available only to heterosexual couples.4 Yet the certificate is seen as a recognition of the right of same-sex couples to enjoy basic needs in public and private transactions such as allowing them to live as couples in municipal housing facilities, obtaining family discount for mobile phone contracts, allowing one of the partners to access the medical records of the other partner, and making themselves beneficiaries of life insurance schemes they obtain.
As part of the preparation for hosting the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 2020, the Governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, pledged to work for the enactment of an anti-LGBT discrimination ordinance and create as a result a LGBT-friendly region in Japan. On 19 September 2018, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government submitted the first draft of the bill on human rights ordinance that contains provisions restricting hate speech and forbidding discrimination against LGBT persons. In the meantime, the cities of Tama and Kunitachi in Tokyo integrated the concept of SOGI into existing local ordinances for gender equality.
The local government measures are expected to help increase acceptance and recognition of the rights of LGBT persons, who still face social obstacles in their daily lives.
The major hurdle is the lack of common understanding of the rights of sexual minorities among members of the ruling party (Liberal Democratic Party [LDP]). LDP has failed to take action on the recent comments made by two of its Lower House members, Mio Sugita who described the LGBT persons as “unproductive”, and Tom Tanigawa who opposed same-sex marriage law because he treated same-sex relations as a “hobby.” The 2016 LDP statement on having a society that does not need people to come out with their sexual orientation did not recognize same-sex marriage and called for “careful consideration in introducing the same-sex partnership system.”5 This LDP stance not only hinders the steps toward enactment of laws on prohibition and elimination of discrimination based on gender and sexuality but also exacerbates misunderstanding and bigoted views on LGBT persons.
Although the Japanese Constitution provides for equal rights for all, sexual minorities still suffer from lack of protection against discrimination and lack of recognition of their full and equal enjoyment of human rights in employment, housing, and so on. This situation forces them to suffer in silence.
It is crucial to enact a comprehensive law on all forms of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. And to ensure that such legislation would have a positive impact on society, the national and local governments should work closely with civil society, private firms and educational institutions.
Halim Kim is a staff member of HURIGHTS OSAKA.
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1 “LGBT” is used in this article instead of LGBTI, LGBTQ+, or LGBTQIA+ because it is commonly used by both national and local governments in Japan.
2 See 70th Plenary Meeting, United Nations General Assembly, 18 December 2008, A/63/PV.70, page 30, https://undocs.org/A/63/PV.70.
3 See “Human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity," Human Rights Council resolution, A/HRC/RES/17/19.
4 Those who changed their assigned sex at birth registration (from male to female, or vice-versa) are qualified to marry as heterosexuals.
5 See “The Basic Idea of Our Party to Aim for a Society that Accepts Diversity in Sexual Orientation and Sexual Recognition” [Japanese] (LDP), https://www.jimin.jp/news/policy/137893.html.