Tokyo Disneyland is an odd place to make a political statement, but the theme park now hosts same-sex wedding ceremonies.
When a lesbian couple tied the knot there at a commitment ceremony in its Cinderella Castle in 2012, what was dubbed Japan’s first gay wedding had Mickey and Minnie in attendance as celebrants, all decked out in wedding finery.
At first Disneyworld had balked over what is always a critical issue: What to wear? The couple was asked if one of them could wear a dress and the other a tuxedo — but in the end they both got to wear dresses.
Given its family-friendly reputation based on predictable banality and mainstream entertainment, Disneyworld’s edgy venture into the business of gay weddings is a symbolic victory of sorts even though the government doesn’t recognize such unions. Japan may enjoy a vibrant tradition of homosexuality, but polite Japanese society tends to avoid the subject rather than embrace it.
The global trend favoring human and civil rights in this regard is evident in the growing number of nations legalizing gay marriage. In Europe, such civil unions are widely accepted. In May, France became the 14th country to legalize gay marriage, joining Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, the Netherlands (the first to do so), Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and Uruguay.
Britain is, in part, the latest to join the select club, with its parliament having passed a bill that gained the Queen’s assent in July 2013 to legalize same-sex marriage in England and Wales only — Scotland is doing it separately and Northern Ireland demurred. Civil partnerships for gay couples have been legal in the United Kingdom since 2005.
In the United States, gay marriage was first legalized in 2004 and is now on the statute books in 13 states in addition to Washington, D.C., though it remains illegal in 35 states. Recently, the Supreme Court overturned California’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage that was passed four years ago.
Overall, the recent 2013 Pew Poll on Homosexuality conducted by the Washington-based Pew Research Center found 51 percent of Americans favor same-sex marriage while 42 percent are opposed.
In the Asia-Pacific region, this year New Zealand became the first state to sanction gay marriage, while Australia’s current prime minister, Kevin Rudd, has promised he will enact similar legislation in Australia if he is returned to power in the upcoming general election. Rudd has previously opposed his own party’s support for gay marriage, but as he is desperate for votes he has decided to play the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) card.
At least Down Under, gay voters feel wooed as their agenda has suddenly leapt into a national election campaign. And indeed, that Pew poll found 79 percent of Aussies believe society should accept homosexuality.
Who’s next? Vietnam is considering sanctioning same-sex unions and will probably vote on legislation in 2014 with the backing of government ministries. What would revolutionary communist leader Ho Chi Minh think of that?
Tolerant Thailand has positioned itself as the go-to destination for gay travelers, and this year started public hearings on civil unions.
In Taiwan, legislative hearings began this year and there is strong public support for gay marriage (55 percent for versus 37 percent against), but pivotal conservative politicians are unlikely to act.
In April 2013, the Singapore High Court rejected a petition to repeal a colonial-era British law criminalizing sex between men; although never enforced, acts of “gross indecency” — what a phrase — can be punished by up to two years in prison.
In June, a Pink Dot event held in the usually buttoned-down city-state to promote gay rights attracted 21,000 people. Though Singapore has tried to loosen up over the past decade or so, managing to shed its puritan image with some success, gays want more.
In Malaysia, the colonial legacy of anti-gay discrimination remains powerful, reinforced by conservative Islamic values.
Next door in Indonesia, the country with the highest Muslim population in the world, at around 205 million, homosexuality is actually legal in most places — though Aceh is a prominent exception.
Nonetheless, the 2013 Pew Poll found that 93 percent of Indonesians surveyed do not think homosexuality should be accepted. There the law seems to be more progressive than public attitudes — though it’s difficult to square that with evident reality.
Despite the Philippines being largely Roman Catholic, 73 percent of respondents there said society should accept gays. This is one of the few exceptions to the Pew Poll’s general finding that “acceptance of homosexuality is particularly widespread in countries where religion is less central in people’s lives.”
So what about Japan?
Overall, the 2013 Pew poll found that 54 percent believe society should accept homosexuality — up from 49 percent in 2007 — while 36 percent disagree. However, there is a wide gender gap regarding the acceptance of homosexuality, with 61 percent of women holding a positive view compared with 47 percent of men.
The generation gap is even more marked, as 83 percent of Japanese aged 18-29 said homosexuality should be accepted, compared with just 39 perccent of those aged over 50.
Yet in South Korea the generation gap was found to be even wider — the largest in the entire global survey. There, 71 percent of the younger cohort were accepting of homosexuality versus only 16 percent of the older cohort.
In Japan, meanwhile, gay marriage is part of a broader debate about the changing nature of the modern family and human rights. The Constitution guarantees equal treatment and bans discrimination, but for Japan’s LGBT community, this remains an unrealized dream. Gay couples are denied equal rights ranging from income-tax treatment to joint mortgages, inheritance and pensions. This constitutes discrimination and imposes financial penalties on gay couples that seem unconstitutional.
The courts have been an interesting battleground for redefining the family in contemporary Japan.
Illegitimate children have long suffered discrimination, and strikingly so when it comes to inheritance. But it appears that the Supreme Court may soon strike down a law that limits their share to one half of a legitimate child’s because it contravenes Article 14 of the Constitution that guarantees equality under the law and bars discrimination.
Let’s see what happens and whether this might create an opening for Japan’s gays.
Public opinion is not an obstacle to gay marriage in Japan. But openly gay politicians are rare and political parties don’t actively court this constituency.
A major barrier to legalizing gay marriage is the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). In the election campaign for the Lower House in December 2012, the LDP expressed its opinion that no additional measures are required to protect the rights of gays and lesbians. Responding to a survey distributed by Shikoku-based Rainbow Pride Ehime, the LDP also dashed hopes for equal social security and inheritance treatment, responding that, “These systems should be intended for heterosexual couples.”
Yet again, the LDP dinosaurs seem out of step with public attitudes and values.
Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.