ryoko nakamuraBy RYOKO NAKAMURA

Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, one of the trendiest districts in Japan, became the first Japanese local government to recognize same-sex couples as “married.” The ordinance is to issue same-sex couples partnership certificates, which give them the same legal rights as married opposite-sex couples.

Under current Japanese constitutional law, marriage is allowed only between a man and a woman; therefore, the ordinance has no legal force. However, it will make it possible for same-sex couples to rent apartments or buy condominiums together and visit each other in hospitals, rights that were previously granted only to legally married couples and family members.

When I was growing up in Japan, sexual minorities were largely invisible in everyday life, except for a few celebrities who were “out” to the general public. That environment drastically changed after I moved to Maine for school.

From professors to classmates, friends, and doctors, numerous LGBT people came into my life during college. This population was no longer a “special group” that I only saw in media and entertainment.

Tokyo Shimbun article about Shibuya Ward's new law.
Tokyo Shimbun article about Shibuya Ward’s new law.

Sixteen years have passed since I left Japan. Now, more LGBT celebrities are on Japanese TV, and because they talk about their personal lives and because more information is available on the Internet, people in Japan have a better understanding and are more accepting of LGBT individuals and communities.

However, that doesn’t mean they are visible at schools, workplaces, or hospitals like here in the U.S. The progress still remains mainly within the entertainment industry and hasn’t reached the human-rights level yet.

Being “different” is rough in Japan. As a famous proverb — “A nail sticking out gets hammered down” — suggests, the fundamental concept of Japanese society relies on group harmony. Therefore, many Japanese LGBT people still hide their identities. Some even marry opposite-sex partners to avoid standing out.

According to Shibuya Ward officials, a survey finds that five percent of Tokyo residents identify as LGBT. This vibrant and cosmopolitan city’s move will make a big impact on Japanese society. In fact, Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward and the city of Yokohama are now considering proposing a similar ordinance.

At Rafu, I had opportunities to interview gay and lesbian couples about California’s same-sex marriage law. Through those interviews, I learned why and how it is important for them to have the same legal rights as married opposite-sex couples.

When I covered the emotional story of Marsha and Aiden Aizumi, a mother and her transgender son, a few years ago, my heart ached as I learned of Aiden’s pain, frustration, and sadness at being stuck in the wrong body for a long time as well as Marsha’s emotional roller-coaster ride.

The Huffington Post, an online news aggregator, posted an article on Dec. 12 last year about Shunkoin, a historic Japanese temple established in 1590 in Kyoto, which helps same-sex couples tie the knot. The article states that the temple has held weddings for five same-sex couples since 2010.

The deputy head priest of the temple said in the article that he wasn’t specializing in gay weddings there, but was accepting every couple regardless of their faith and sexual orientation.

He also said that most Japanese people think that LGBTs are only in foreign countries, so he hopes that performing these same-sex wedding ceremonies could make this issue more visible to the Japanese public.

It will probably be a long time before we see analogous changes in Japanese constitutional law, but with Shibuya Ward’s brave first step forward, I’d really like to see this discussed as a human rights issue among Japanese people, not just one of hayari, a passing fad, or something happening only in foreign countries.

Ryoko Nakamura is a reporter for The Rafu Shimpo’s Japanese section. Ochazuke is a staff-written column. Opinions expressed to not necessarily reflect those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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