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Political shift gives hope to gays

by Mariko Kato

The possible power shift in Sunday’s general election signals change for many, and one minority interest group is daring to hope it will bring about the biggest change yet.

The nation’s gay and lesbian community, which has long been calling for an antidiscrimination law to protect their rights, has seen similar bills proposed and scrapped in the Diet for nearly a decade.

The likelihood that the Democratic Party of Japan, the last party to submit such a bill, will dominate the powerful House of Representatives in an alliance with the Social Democratic Party, which speaks out for homosexual rights, has raised hopes that the inertia may at last be overcome.

This was echoed by Boris Dittrich, advocacy director of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender program at Human Rights Watch, who visited Japan last month. He met with key opposition party figures to discuss Japan’s future on issues of sexual orientation.

“There is no law in Japan that protects people who are being discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation,” Dittrich told reporters on July 22.

“So for instance, a landlord would evict somebody because he is gay or she is lesbian and there is no law that you can refer to for protection,” he added. Dittrich himself was a publicly gay politician in his home country, the Netherlands, where he was a pioneer in securing homosexual rights.

In Japan, a government-sponsored antidiscrimination bill submitted to the Diet in 2002, but later abandoned, would have protected the rights of homosexuals along with other groups, including “burakumin,” or descendants of former outcast communities such as tanners, according to Kanae Doi, Tokyo director of Human Rights Watch. The 2002 bill and another one proposed by the DPJ were both scrapped because the lower chamber was dissolved before they could be fully deliberated and voted on.

Dittrich expressed hope that similar legislation is introduced if there is a change of power in Sunday’s election.

“I am very confident that a new government would want to change all kinds of policies, and this issue could very well be one of them,” he said.

But Dittrich may be too optimistic in thinking that if a DPJ-SDP ruling bloc replaces the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito coalition, this will yield significant change.

The DPJ’s campaign platform unveiled last month indicated the issue of human rights violations based on sexual orientation is not its priority.

The party said it will “aim at creating a society in which human rights are respected and take effective measures when such rights are infringed upon,” without specifying the rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals or transgender people.

Satsuki Eda, who headed the team that proposed the DPJ’s version of an antidiscrimination bill in 2005, admitted the wording is vague. By custom, as the president of the House of Councilors, Eda is nominally an independent.

“Although I wouldn’t want people to feel they can rest easy (if the DPJ comes to power), they can be depended upon,” Eda told The Japan Times after meeting with Dittrich.

Although Japan does not legally discriminate against homosexuals the way Singapore and many Islamic and African nations do, Eda said he was not comfortable claiming this means discrimination does not exist here.

The bottom line is that the issue of gay rights has been on the back burner for years and currently there are other hot political topics, particularly the ailing economy.

Eda explained that both LDP and DPJ members are divided within their parties on the issue of gay rights, and the 2005 DPJ bill was abandoned partly because there were debates about the exact definition of “rights” for homosexuals.

Eda said gay and lesbian issues do not immediately invite sympathy in the Diet, noting that when a law was enacted in 2003 to allow people with gender identity disorder to change the way their sex is listed in family registries, advocates of the law, including himself, had to convince other members that it would not favor gays or lesbians in particular.

“The fact that we had to say that shows that some people view homosexuals with a critical eye,” he said, noting issues regarding gender identity disorder have gained more understanding in Japan.

SDP leader Mizuho Fukushima, who also met with Dittrich during his trip, agreed human rights is a sensitive topic in the Diet, and the subject of sexual orientation faces a particularly tough time as people do not necessarily feel it is relevant to them.

“It is easy to feel sorry for victims of domestic violence, for example. But with homosexuals, some may feel that as long as they exist in the margins of society, that’s fine,” she said. However, this vagueness could be used to pass a law, she added.

“Because people are not really aware of the issue, it might be easier to pass laws without making people feel wary, since if there is a big controversy, it often makes it difficult,” she said.

Discrimination against gays and lesbians is not a particularly visible issue in Japan and lobbyists are not very vocal.

“Not all homosexuals want to come out, and some want to just live happily in their own way, without seeking to change the system or commit to politics,” Fukushima said.

If the DPJ wins Sunday, Fukushima predicts a slow but steady improvement in homosexual rights.

“It won’t be, for example, that same-sex marriages will be recognized immediately. But for now we must educate people, eradicate bullying and make people understand that these problems exist in society,” she said.

Dittrich was unable to meet with representatives of the LDP during his trip. But Kiyoko Yokota, counselor at the civil liberties bureau of the Justice Ministry, told The Japan Times that homosexual rights remains an important issue for the present LDP-New Komeito government.

“It is very important to erase discrimination against sexual orientation, along with other discrimination concerning human rights, such as race, age and gender, and this will not change,” she said.

According to Human Rights Watch’s Doi, Japan is falling behind global standards by not having an antidiscrimination law other than that protecting gender equality.

“An antidiscrimination law exists almost everywhere else in the world. But in Japan, since there is no law protecting sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity or race, it is difficult for such people to prosecute,” she said.

Doi added that while none of the opposition parties is making human rights the focus of the campaign, she hopes the burakumin movement, a more central force with which the DPJ is more likely to cooperate, will push for an antidiscrimination bill after a shift in power.

While key lawmakers and activists see a ray of hope that the expected change in government will pose a brighter future for the gay and lesbian community, those on the ground remain cautious.

“We don’t think that just because there is a change in power there will be big changes,” said Masao Kashiwazaki, director of OCCUR, a nongovernmental group that counsels and gives legal advice to homosexuals and HIV patients as well as pursuing human rights.

“It will be difficult if the parties don’t overcome differences and work together,” he said.

There is an “ambiguous tolerance” toward homosexuals in Japan that makes it difficult to solve problems, Kashiwazaki explained.

“As long as you’re quiet, people are tolerant, but the fact that homosexuals need rights is not widely recognized. Some feel that since there is no obvious discrimination as there is in the West, such as pressure from religious groups, we should not complain,” he said.

According to Kashiwazaki, many who call OCCUR for advice say they feel isolated.

“Matters of homosexuality are not really taught in sexual education, and it is still taboo to have a homosexual in the family or in the workplace. They need to go underground for information or to meet other homosexuals, resort to pornography or dating Web sites,” he said.

Gays and lesbians in Japan face serious problems, including HIV, bullying and suicide, and the use of derogatory words related to homosexuality in everyday conversation can make them feel bullied, Kashiwazaki said.

“If they hear someone saying to someone else, ‘You’re a creepy homosexual’ or ‘They’re so friendly they’re like lesbians,’ they feel as if it’s being aimed at them,” he said, adding that until gays and lesbians feel OK to come out, discrimination will remain.

However, Kashiwazaki said a change in government may be a defining first step on the road to more recognition. “We do feel the door will open, so when it does we have to make sure it doesn’t close again.”