An uptick in coronavirus cases in Japan has prompted a new state of emergency declaration and sparked debate here about the upcoming Olympics in Japan. The International Olympic Committee and health and sport authorities will work out the feasibility of the world’s greatest athletic event in the coming months.
In the meantime, Japanese lawmakers would do well to remember the Olympics is more than a sporting competition, but also a pivotal moment for the country’s international image. In 1964, as Japan was beginning a period of rapid economic growth, the Tokyo Olympics signaled to the world that it had put post-war isolation behind it. Now, as the world grapples with the pandemic’s upheaval, Japan can and should use the Olympics to signal that it is serious about being a global human rights leader.
It is now six months until the torch is scheduled to be lit at the Tokyo Olympics. The Tokyo 2020 Summer Games are advertised as celebrating “unity in diversity” and “passing on a legacy for the future.” Leaders promise to welcome everyone with Japan’s unique hospitality known as omotenashi. But Japan still has work to do — especially in enacting an anti-discrimination law to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and athletes in a way that meets international standards.
Japan is an established democracy with rule of law and an active civil society, yet Olympic athletes and visitors may be surprised to learn that there are no national anti-discrimination laws on sexual orientation and gender identity, or race and ethnicity. Recent surveys show that 3 to 10 percent of people in Japan identify as LGBT. Yet LGBT people in Japan face stigma and discrimination. Japan does not recognize same-sex marriage, and as Human Rights Watch documented in a 2019 report, transgender people are forced to be surgically sterilized if they want legal recognition of their gender identity.
“In Japan, we have only one known openly out active athlete,” Fumino Sugiyama, a transgender man and a former member of Japan women’s national fencing team, told Human Rights Watch. “Many Japanese LGBTQ athletes remain in the closet from fear and stigma, unable to live their lives openly and safely in society. Even after retirement, there are only a few known out athletes due to the heavy social pressure. After I publicly came out, many athletes, including Olympic medalists, reached out to me and said, ‘I cannot come out before I retire.’”
According to a 2020 study by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, 36 percent of lesbian, gay or bisexual people and 55 percent of transgender people report they experienced difficulties in the workplace. A new study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranked Japan second worst among all OECD member countries in basic legal protections for LGBT people.
For six years, LGBT groups in Japan have pressed the government to pass legislation to protect their rights, and their progress is seen in sharply improved public attitudes. A recent survey showed that 88 percent of the population agrees the country needs a law to protect LGBT people.
The Olympic platform can be a key driver of change, with its inclusive approach on LGBT rights, and the demands of athletes to use their voice for change. “In sport we are all equal,” International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said at the opening of Tokyo’s Pride House, the new LGBT community center established in 2020 ahead of the Olympic Games.
Already in October 2018, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government adopted an ordinance that protects LGBT people from discrimination in line with the Olympic Charter. This municipal Olympics law was a direct result of a human rights consultation tied to the Olympics, and has proven popular — but has also shown gaps in protection across the country and the need for a national approach.
The International Olympic Committee has announced its expectation that Olympic hosts will “prohibit any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” It is also significant that global sponsors of the Olympics have adopted their own inclusive policies and back legislation to uphold LGBT rights in Japan.
Regardless of how Tokyo 2020 plays out in 2021 — with some or no fans, major restrictions or minor ones — passing landmark legislation to protect LGBT people and workers would ensure that those words become a reality. And it would become part of Japan’s permanent Olympic legacy.
Minky Worden is director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, and editor of “China’s Great Leap,” a book on the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Kanae Doi is the Human Rights Watch Japan director, and an appointed expert on sustainability and human rights for the Tokyo Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games.
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