As Japanese lawmakers grapple with a landmark same-sex marriage bill, campaigners fear it may die at the first legislative hurdle as lawmakers pander to aging voters and old traditions.
While surveys show overwhelming support for gay rights, most people who identify as LGBT say they keep their sexuality a secret in a nod to the reverence for harmony that pervades the country.
“Japan is a culture where people don’t want to stick out and cause trouble,” said Alexander Dmitrenko, co-chair of Lawyers for LGBT & Allies Network, an NGO that promotes LGBT rights.
“It’s also a very process-oriented society, where things take a longer time to happen,” added Dmitrenko, who worked on Canada’s LGBT laws.
He said the bill, while unlikely to lead to a new law, was only a first draft, adding: “As any lawyer will tell you, the first draft of any law is the hardest, so this is significant.”
The same-sex marriage bill — a first for Japan — was introduced earlier this month, and LGBT campaigners have already raised fears that right-wingers could stymie its passage, despite growing acceptance of gay, bisexual and transgender people.
“To be honest, it’s going to be tough to get this through parliament,” said Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Kanako Otsuji — the only openly gay member of the Diet.
“But the legislature is totally out of sync with the will of the people (on same-sex marriage).”
Otsuji and two other opposition party members submitted the bill weeks after Taiwan became the first place in Asia to allow same-sex marriage.
However, it faces the immediate task of passing through both houses of the Diet, both of which are controlled by a coalition led by the Liberal Democratic Party.
In its 2016 manifesto, the conservative LDP said “same-sex marriage is incompatible with the Constitution.”
“There are no plans in our party to debate any same-sex law at this point,” an LDP spokesperson said.
Written by postwar occupying forces, the Constitution says marriage must rest on the mutual consent of “both sexes.”
Yet the immediate hurdle is just to get the issue aired.
“Actually, the bill is unlikely to be even discussed in parliament,” said Hiroshi Ikeda, of the Same-sex Partnership Net Japan lobby group, citing a lack of support from opposition parties.
LDP and its coalition partner, Komeito, hold the key to which laws get debated and put to a vote.
Even if the bill fails to make it into law, LGBT activists believe it could still help trigger a much-needed public debate.
“It’s a major first step,” said Kazuhiro Terada, president of Equal Marriage Alliance Japan, an advocacy group.
“For a long time, same-sex couples were an invisible presence in society and they themselves had come to believe that same-sex marriage would never happen here,” he said.
Yet support for same-sex marriage is high.
The most recent 2018 survey by Dentsu Diversity Lab — part of ad giant Dentsu — found about 78 percent were in favor.
However, it also showed that those supporters are mainly young, urban and female, not the bedrock of LDP voters needed to persuade the party to change tack.
The survey shows the elderly and people living in rural areas, traditionally the most loyal LDP voters, are strongly against same-sex marriage.
Otsuji — the gay lawmaker — said there were people within the ruling coalition parties who would support the bill but they were unlikely to break ranks just now.
Apart from a spell in the 1870s, gay sex has never been illegal in Japan. Yet in a race to modernize and westernize over the last century, gay culture was swept under the carpet, activists say, relegated to the fringes with the few known LGBT celebrities often becoming the butt of jokes and comedy skits.
Despite a lack of religious prohibitions, strong family-centric attitudes mean the LGBT community has a relatively low profile compared to that found in other developed nations.
There are also no explicit laws protecting people from discrimination at work, or on issues from housing to public services, on the basis of sexuality or gender identity.
Gay rights activists are now pushing for a higher profile.
Thirteen couples marked Valentine’s Day by launching legal action against the government, demanding that the Supreme Court support their bid for marriage equality.
“The LDP is likely to use its majority to avoid debating same-sex marriage in parliament, but we are hoping the Supreme Court will at least respect the rights of the minority,” said Ikeda of Same-sex Partnership Net Japan.
Twenty-one cities, towns and wards have created partnership recognition certificates that, while lacking legal standing, help same-sex couples gain recognition and win benefits in some financial affairs and real estate matters.
The LDP, in its 2016 manifesto, says it remains “cautious” of the slew of certificates that have been issued since 2015.
Opinion among advocates for reform is also split on the best way to achieve marriage equality.
One activist, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of any impact on her business, said the bill might have jeopardized a bipartisan, anti-discrimination measure being considered by lawmakers by putting ruling parties on the defensive.
“It is just grandstanding,” she said.
“This bill won’t amount to anything and may actually make things worse for us. We are a culture where people are turned off by conflict and place a high value on harmony.”
According to Dentsu Diversity Lab, a little more than 65 percent of LGBT respondents said they had not come out to anyone at work or home, with many citing prejudice and a lack of acceptance.
But the LDP has also tiptoed toward acceptance.
Last year, it announced plans — if not details — to look into a bill dedicated to a “promotion of understanding of LGBT.”
The bill has yet to surface but it has already been criticized by LGBT advocates as likely to fall short of one that would cover anti-discrimination or same-sex marriage.
“Still, it’s better than nothing,” Terada said.
“There will eventually be more and more LDP members supporting us,” he said.
“Eventually, I think there will be a chance we will see a conservative-led marriage equality bill.”