Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the country’s ban on same-sex marriage is not discriminatory, insisting that constitutional freedom of marriage only envisions heterosexual unions, a comment that triggered criticism he is backtracking despite his recent apology and meeting with LGBTQ people.
Kishida’s governing Liberal Democratic Party, known for its conservative family values and reluctance to promote gender equality and sexual diversity, is virtually the main opposition to legalization of same-sex marriage and other measures of equality for LGBTQ people.
Asked by an opposition lawmaker at Tuesday’s parliamentary budget committee if he thinks a same-sex marriage ban constitutes discrimination, Kishida said “I don’t think disallowing same-sex couples to marry is unjust discrimination by the state.”
His comment sparked criticism from opposition lawmakers and LGBTQ activists, who questioned whether Kishida was backpedaling to show consideration to ultra-conservatives in his party who oppose sexual diversity.
Kishida said after meeting with LGBTQ representatives in mid-February that he “strongly felt the need for discussion” and would consider the voices of the people and in parliament, as well as rulings in several ongoing lawsuits and measures in local municipalities.
Kishida on Wednesday repeated his position that a same-sex marriage ban “is not unconstitutional” and denied that he is prejudiced. “I believe I do not have a sense of discrimination (on the issue),” he said. “And I have never stated I’m against it.”
Former Kishida aide Masayoshi Arai’s discriminatory remarks last month about LGBTQ people ignited nationwide outrage, and prompted a renewed push for the Kishida government to enact an anti-discrimination law even after the official was sacked.
Arai told reporters in early February that he wouldn’t want to live next to LGBTQ people and that citizens would flee Japan if same-sex marriages were allowed.
Toru Miyamoto, a Japanese Communist Party lawmaker, asked Kishida on Wednesday about his meeting with LGBTQ representatives and whether he really meant his apology. Miyamoto also noted recent media surveys and local government initiatives introducing non-binding same-sex partnerships, and told Kishida that support for same-sex marriage now represents the majority of public opinion.
Since the controversy erupted, Kishida appointed a special aide for LGBTQ issues and instructed his party to prepare legislation to promote understanding for LGBTQ rights.
Activists are now urging the government to enact anti-discrimination legislation before Japan hosts a summit of the Group of Seven industrialized nations in May in Hiroshima. Japan is the only G-7 member that has not recognized same-sex marriage or enacted an anti-discrimination law for LGBTQ people.
But his own previous comments — including that allowing same-sex marriage would change society and family values and must be carefully considered — were also seen as an indication of his reluctance to promote equal rights for LGBTQ people despite his pledge to create an inclusive and diverse society.
Campaigns for equal rights for LGBTQ people have been stonewalled especially by conservatives in Kishida’s governing Liberal Democratic Party. An attempt to enact an equality awareness promotion law ahead of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics was quashed by the party.
While surveys show growing public support for same-sex unions, government efforts to support sexual diversity have been slow in Japan and legal protections are still lacking for LGBTQ people. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people often face discrimination at school, work and home in Japan, causing many to hide their sexual identities.
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