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As sports fans count down to the start of the Tokyo Olympics in July, the eyes of LGBTQ activists are firmly focused on the Diet, or Japan’s legislature, with the goal of using the global spotlight to end discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning and queer people.

More than 100,000 people have signed a petition calling on the government to pass an LGBTQ equality law before the games open on July 23 to honor their key themes of celebrating “unity in diversity” and “passing on legacy for the future.”

“We have seen through history the power of the Olympics to mobilize athletes and fans to speak out for what they believe in,” said Hudson Taylor, founder of Athlete Ally, a U.S.-based advocacy group backing the petition.

“Sport teaches us that we are stronger when we stand together, and now is the time for the global sport community to stand in solidarity with the LGBT community in Japan.”

Taylor pointed to African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos who were sent home from the 1968 Olympic Games for their raised-fist protest against racism on the podium, and the 2014 Winter Olympics protests against Russia’s anti-gay laws.

Apart from a spell in the 1870s, gay sex has never been illegal in Japan. Yet, in a race to modernize over the last century, LGBTQ rights were largely swept under the carpet in a culture with strong family-focused attitudes, activists say.

Being openly gay remains largely taboo, although acceptance of homosexuality in Japan rose to 68% in 2019 from 54% in 2002, a poll by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center found.

Taiwan became the first place in Asia to legalize same-sex marriages in 2019.

LGBTQ campaigners won a symbolic victory last month when a Sapporo court ruled that not allowing same-sex couples to marry was “unconstitutional,” although the gay couples who brought the case lost their claim for damages for being unable to wed.

“(The ruling) is an encouraging boost to many same-sex couples,” Suki Chung, regional campaigner at Amnesty International, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“But considering their current difficulties in dealing with the pandemic and the arrangements for the Summer Olympics, I do not foresee that the Japanese government will introduce legislation to allow marriage equality … before the games.”

International spectators have been barred from the Olympics, which were postponed last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and participants must wear masks at all times except when eating, sleeping or outdoors in a drastically scaled-back event.

Health authorities in Japan fear that variants of the new coronavirus are driving a fourth wave of the pandemic. Olympic Torch relay events have been cancelled in Osaka, where the government has implemented stricter measures due to record infections.

A bill to legalize same-sex marriages was brought to Japan’s parliament by opposition parties in 2019 but failed to progress after it was unable to win the backing of conservative lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Athletes and activists have spoken out in support of an equality law ahead of the games, highlighting that the governing Olympic Charter bans “discrimination of any kind,” including on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Fumino Sugiyama, a transgender activist and former fencer on Japan’s national women’s team, has called on athletes worldwide to push for change, adding that many Japanese LGBTQ sportsmen and women are scared to come out as they fear discrimination.

“The Olympics is only a start of something. We have to push and create new laws like the anti-discrimination law,” Sugiyama told the Human Rights Watch website. “We can’t look back and say: ‘Oh there was a big party, but nothing changed.’ What we leave to the next generation is what’s important.”

Shiho Shimoyamada, Japan’s only openly gay athlete who plays for women’s football club Sfida Setagaya FC and used to be a midfielder with Germany’s SV Mappen, is also backing reform.

“I believe that the sports world has the potential to create a society that recognizes, accepts, and respects differences,” she said on the Athlete Ally website.

Despite the opportunity brought by the Olympics, analysts believe Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is unlikely to push for reform before parliament closes in June.

Gon Matsunaka, director of Marriage for All Japan, said the lobby group is already looking to the October elections for the House of Representatives, or lower house.

“Marriage equality and LGBTQ-related laws will be a big issue for voters,” he said.

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