Some countries see homosexuality as a crime punishable by death, while others are open to diversity and make no judgment on the basis of one’s sexual orientation.

Japan, where gay rights issues rarely become political topics like in the West, remains tepid on the issue.

Although various openly gay celebrities appear on television comedy and variety shows, experts say sexual minorities in Japan face discrimination and the government does little on behalf of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people, known by the abbreviation LGBT.

Following are some questions and answers pertaining to gay rights in Japan:

Is Japan gay-friendly?

Homosexuality in premodern Japan was not taboo. Descriptions of same-sex relationships are found in some of the oldest literature, including the eighth-century “Kojiki.” The mainstay religions Buddhism and Shinto did not explicitly prohibit homosexuality, and gay relations were not uncommon until the 19th century.

Unlike some countries, including Iran, Sudan and Pakistan, where homosexuality can be punishable by death, Japan has no legal ban.

But Azusa Yamashita of the online news site GayJapanNews said Japan shouldn’t be considered advanced just because it does not execute sexual minorities.

“The government is slow to acknowledge the rights of LGBTs compared with Western countries,” Yamashita said, explaining that Japanese law does not permit same-sex marriages or civil unions that provide equal rights to LGBT couples.

“There is no legal protection against discrimination or any comprehensive law for the rights of LGBTs, and the government’s support remains insufficient,” she said.

What difficulties confront the LGBT community in Japan?

Other than being denied the right to marriage, the Public Housing Law effectively bans LGBT couples from renting public housing. The spousal abuse law excludes the right of same-sex partners to protection from domestic violence.

The Human Rights Committee of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights released a report in October urging Japan to reassess policies that discriminate against LGBTs.

“The committee is concerned about discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons in employment, housing, social security, health care, education and other fields regulated by law,” the report says, urging Japan to halt any discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation.

Do sexual minorities stand up for their rights?

Yes, but such movements are not as coordinated or as politically effective as those in North America and Europe.

Japan’s sexual minorities began jointly staging gay pride parades in the early 1990s.

Kanako Otsuji, a former member of the Osaka Prefectural Assembly, made headlines in 2003 for coming out as a lesbian. She was Japan’s first declared homosexual politician.

Last year she failed in her attempt to become the first openly gay member of the Diet, losing in the Upper House election.

LGBT rights also saw a historic shift in 2004 when the government allowed transsexuals to rewrite their registered sexuality on certain conditions.

The Shinjuku 2-chome district in Tokyo, designated a red-light district until 1958, has prospered as one of the world’s renowned gay meccas.

But coordinated protests for LGBT rights have not grown as vocal as those in the West, and due to a lack of unity gay rights parades in Tokyo have yet to become established annual events.

Do Japanese LGBTs feel satisfied with their lot?

Yamashita of GayJapanNews claims she has “never met a LGBT person who is content with the Japanese government’s policies.”

“They would just rather remain silent instead of becoming a cause of friction in society,” she said, suggesting the public is not as open-minded toward sexual minorities as it seems to be.

“We need to create an environment that not only refrains from discriminating against homosexuals but acknowledges their rights,” she said.

During an interview with The Japan Times in 2005, ex-Osaka assembly member Otsuji reiterated the need to shift public perception on LGBTs.

“I want a society where you can talk about your sexual orientation as casually as you would left-handedness or right-handedness,” she said.

How does the government describe sexual minorities in school textbooks?

Although the education ministry in a 1979 guideline deemed homosexuality an obstruction to nurturing a sound heterosexual relationship, it has since withdrawn the statement. Textbooks that mention homosexual couples have been approved by the ministry and are in use at schools.

The Justice Ministry also informs the public about homosexuality through its Human Rights Bureau, saying prejudice and discrimination against sexual minorities must be eliminated.

Yamashita of GayJapanNews questions whether such steps really get the word out.

“The government must understand that LGBTs in Japan are seeking not only an end to discrimination but want basic human rights as individuals,” she said.

What are some recent trends concerning LGBTs in Japan?

Gay-related terms have regularly been turning up on annual buzzword lists chosen by editors of Gendai Yogo no Kisochishiki (Encyclopedia of Contemporary Words).

The term “on-e mans” (sister-men), which is also the title of a popular television program featuring openly gay celebrities, made the list in 2008. The pick reflects the growing number of popular LGBT TV celebrities, including Ai Haruna and Ayana Tsubaki.

In 2007, transvestite makeup artist Ikko’s signature slang “donda ke?” came in to fashion with its accompanying finger snaps. The term, which made the top 10 list of buzzwords, is generally used to mean “what the hell?” or to express amazement.

“It’s good that such people are making appearances on TV and are being accepted, but I’m concerned that most of them are being featured as comedy characters,” said Hiroshi Mochizuki, a staff member at GayJapanNews.

Although TV programs in the U.S. have come to depict sexual minorities as ordinary people and as a part of the common community, their portrayal in Japan may cause misunderstandings of the characteristics of LGBTs, he said.

How do opponents feel about gay marriage?

Although conservative Christian groups vocally reject gay marriage, Japanese religious groups haven’t been as outspoken about the issue.

In a 2003 statement titled “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons,” the Vatican said there are “absolutely no grounds” to consider homosexual marriage to be even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.

“Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law,” it said.

The Vatican has said that while homosexuals must be regarded with respect, compassion and sensitivity, homosexual behavior cannot be approved of nor can homosexual unions be legally recognized.

Can homosexuals in Japan expect their situation to improve?

Mochizuki from GayJapanNews remains optimistic and hopes legislation will be modified within a decade to accommodate sexual minorities.

“It took more than three decades for sexual minorities to begin obtaining rights in the U.S., but Japan does not have any religious restraint,” he said. “We just need one small start, which will hopefully trigger a larger movement for the rights of LGBTs.”

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

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