On Feb. 13, Asahi Shimbun’s daily Vox Populi, Vox Dei column mentioned Morizo and Kiccoro, the official mascots of the 2005 World Expo held in Aichi Prefecture. These two “woodland fairies” supposedly hailed from Seto, which issued them the same resident cards (jūminhyō) held by everyone who lives in the city. In the space designated for “sex,” Morizo’s card read “currently under study,” while Kiccoro’s said “mystery.” Asahi’s anonymous columnist emphasized the playful nature of the fictitious cards, pointing out that gender was a “nonissue for these cuddly mascots.”

The latest TV commercial for DC Card gets into similar territory. For years, the credit card service has used two uniquely Japanese creatures, a tanuki (raccoon dog) and a kappa (water sprite), in its ads. Since neither manifested any gender-identified physical or behavioral attributes, nobody ever wondered which sex they were, but in the new commercial we see them getting married in what looks like a European town. Since the kappa wears a veil, the viewer assumes it is female and the tanuki is, by logical extension, male. But why do we have to make those assumptions? The fact that these two beings are forming an inter-species union (or something less zoological, since kappa are imaginary) throws the whole matter of what qualifies as “marriage” into question. The only real point as far as the ad is concerned is that they now constitute a happy family.

Asahi used the Morizo-Kiccoro story to show how sexual minorities are becoming more accepted and the term LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) is “gaining currency” in Japan. However, Japan’s peculiar affection for cute mascots of any kind embraces diversity in a way that society in general may not.

What prompted Asahi to bring the issue up was a recent proposal made by Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward to issue certificates to same-sex couples that acknowledge their relationships as being “equivalent to marriage.” Thus, regardless of what their fellow citizens think of them, same-sex couples who live in Shibuya would be able to enjoy at least some of the legal benefits reserved for married people.

If the ward’s purpose is to start a discussion, then it succeeded. Shortly after the local assembly made its announcement, someone asked Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a Diet debate for his views on same-sex marriage, and he said that the Constitution would make it difficult to realize, a pronouncement legal scholars dismissed. Though Article 24 says that marriage is a bond between “both sexes,” it also points out that it’s a matter of free choice. One family law professor told Tokyo Shimbun that while the national charter does not mention same-sex marriage, it also doesn’t specifically exclude it.

But Japan’s postwar Constitution has never been quite what people think it is. Japanese courts and bureaucrats get around it easily, as evidenced by the Abe Cabinet’s bending of war-renouncing Article 9 to allow Japanese forces to come to the aid of threatened allies. For the LGBT community a more genuine obstacle to matrimony is the Civil Code and family register (koseki), which prohibit same-sex marriages bureaucratically. As it stands, people who marry can’t even choose to use separate names, so changing the koseki to reconfigure labels like “husband” and “wife” would seem doubly difficult.

But while the Shibuya certificate would not mean an LGBT couple is legally married, it could, as Asahi pointed out, “contribute to changing people’s perceptions about discrimination … based on someone’s sexual orientation.” Earlier this year, the cosmetics company Lush Japan circulated a petition to promote “the diversity of love” by demanding Toshima Ward recognize same-sex marriages and only managed to collect 900 signatures in 20 days. After the Shibuya announcement, however, the number of signers doubled, and by the time the company submitted the petition, it contained 3,500 names. Moreover, another Tokyo ward, Setagaya, and the city of Yokohama are both talking about issuing similar certificates, so maybe all the movement needs is better publicity.

Nevertheless, Tokyo Shimbun wonders if the motives aren’t as pure as they sound. While Shibuya aims to be the standard-bearer for LGBT acceptance, its minority rights record isn’t spotless. In 2010, the ward assembly awarded the naming rights for Miyashita Park to Nike, and following a related renovation kicked out all the homeless people and locked the park at night behind a chain-link fence. As one 52-year-old indigent man told the newspaper, “I guess (Shibuya) likes gay people but considers us eyesores.” A representative of the homeless support group Nojiren added that the Shibuya assembly “should treat all socially vulnerable people on an equal basis,” and when Tokyo Shimbun confronted an assembly member with this contradiction, he dismissed the charge by saying that the ward provides welfare, as if that were the end of it.

Even lesbian activist Yuki Tsuchiya was critical, and suspects that Shibuya’s same-sex certificate proposal is not a measure to “address a human rights problem” but rather a means of selling Shibuya as a “hip place.” Taiga Ishikawa, a gay former member of the Toshima Ward assembly, admitted that “removing homeless people” from the park is “unfortunate,” but still gives Shibuya credit for “showing understanding” toward LGBT residents.

Whether or not it is self-serving, Shibuya’s move does give the media an excuse to cover the issue. When the Grammy-winning British singer Sam Smith was in town the same week to promote the Japan release of his debut album, almost all his interviews focused on his being gay.

“I want to get married and have children,” he told Nikkan Sports, answering a question the tabloid probably would not have asked prior to the Shibuya announcement. Tolerance and acceptance are functions of understanding, which can’t happen without the free and open exchange of information.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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