Gay marriage challenges Japan’s view of love and law

There is a lively debate in Japan about whether two people of the same sex can get married.

Some gay and lesbian couples have held wedding ceremonies and a few local and governments have offered legal recognition to same-sex partnerships.

However, that is not the same thing as a legally recognised marriage.

Campaign for change

Earlier this month, a group of campaigners tried to use the courts to change the situation.

Five lesbian and eight gay couples filed lawsuits across the country seeking damages of 1m yen (£7,000/ US$9,000) for each person for being denied the same legal rights as heterosexual couples, according to the AFP Agency.

“Why don’t we even have the simple choice of whether or not to get married?” asks Yoko Ogawa, who has been in a partnership with a woman for 25 years.

The article explains that Japan’s constitution stipulates that “marriage shall be only with the mutual consent of both sexes” and the government says this means same-sex marriage is “not foreseen” in the constitution or civil law.

Of Love and Law

This week, I raised this point with film director Hikaru Toda, who has made a fascinating documentary called Of Love and Law.

The film focuses on two openly gay lawyers, Kazu and Fumi, who are campaigning for legal recognition for their own marriage and those of their clients.

I asked Toda San if Kazu and Fumi believe that constitutional change is required before gay marriage is legalised. She replied that this is not their opinion and said that many constitutional experts agree with them.

Their idea is that the constitution can be interpreted in a new way, rather than being rewritten.

Constitutional Law

Japan has not revised its constitution since it was written by the American occupiers at the end of the Second World War.

To change it is an arduous task, requiring massive political effort and a public referendum. The Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has committed himself to go down this route in order to revise a section of the constitution which relates to security and defence.

In doing so, Mr Abe hopes to change Japan’s Self Defence Force into an army with the capacity to fight internationally. It is a divisive issue and a constant source of debate within the Japanese media.

As the film Of Love and Law illustrates, it even brings people out onto the streets in protest. So clearly constitutional change involves a lot of argument and protest, both of which make the Japanese feel uncomfortable.

Gentle approach

Social change in Japan usually occurs when there’s a general agreement about the best way forward.

It therefore makes sense that the lawyers who want to change the status of marriage are seeking to avoid unnecessary confrontation.

And given that social attitudes towards homosexuality are rapidly changing – particularly among young people in Japan – I expect that they’ll find widespread support for their idea within a generation.

Japan’s Emperor called upon to apologise to South Korea

The relationship between Japan and its neighbour South Korea is in a mess.

Politicians from the two countries are still disputing events which date back to the first half of the last century, when Japan occupied the Korean Peninsula.

Japan says it’s apologised enough for past misdeeds. South Korea disagrees.

Find out what lies behind the grievances – and why the issue matters so much to the rest of Asia – in this week’s Japan Story blog.

Events which took place before and during the Second World War are continuing to cause political tension in East Asia.

South Korean and Japan are raking through painful memories of the period when Korea was occupied by Japan, especially the treatment of so-called comfort women who worked in brothels, serving soldiers from the invading Imperial army.

Wave of grief

In January this year, a former Korean “comfort woman” named Kim Bok-dong died at the age of 92. Thousands of people joined a large memorial event in Seoul. Some mourners held up banners demanding that “Japan must apologise.” A prominent South Korean politician demanded an apology from Emperor Akihito himself, who is due to abdicate at the end of April.

The tone of the protests dismayed the Japanese establishment. In Tokyo, the Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga, said the politician’s comments were “deplorable.”

Sympathy and solidarity

Since President Moon Jae-In took office in 2017, he has discovered that showing sympathy with survivors of the Japanese occupation boosts his popularity, particularly among nationalists.
It has also struck a chord with many Korean women. Campaigners draw parallels between the comfort women issue and the current debate about exploitation, highlighted by the Me Too movement. They say that the mistreatment of vulnerable women needs to be publicly challenged, whether it occurred in the last century or is still happening today.

The tactic is to publicly shame men for their misdeeds. In Korea, this often leads to rhetoric which portrays Japanese men as unrepentant aggressors. In the minds of many Koreans, there is little distinction between the actions of the wartime enemy and contemporary Japanese politicians, who are predominantly male.

Statue battle

The issue gains international attention through a campaign to erect statues of comfort women, portraying them as young victims of foreign rapists. In the past few years, the Korean government has helped pay for statues in many sensitive locations – including near the Japanese embassy in Seoul – as well as in San Francisco and in the Philippines.

The South Koreans are also applying financial pressure on Japan. Last year, the Supreme Court ordered Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal to pay reparations to Koreans who were forced to work during the period of Japanese colonial rule.

Japan insists it legally settled all claims relating to the war and occupation – including the comfort women issue – many years ago. The official view was outlined in a letter to the New York Times in February. It stated: “Japan has extended its sincere apologies and remorse to the former comfort women on many occasions.”

Hard to forget

Many people in Japan would now like the issue to go away, especially members of the business community. South Korea and Japan also common interests. For example, the famous Korean electronics company LG supplies TV panels to its Japanese counterpart, Sony. LG has warned that if the dispute lingers on, it could disrupt its Asian operations.

However, business leaders cannot do much to calm the anger and resentment which characterises the current mood. It seems likely to simmer for some time to come, despite the many changes which have taken place in the world since the darkest period in East Asia’s recent history.

China smiles while Japan shows its dark side

China and Japan staged major cultural events in London this week and their approaches could hardly have been more different.

The Chinese New Year celebration in Trafalgar Square was an enormous, colourful show, designed for a wide appeal and maximum impact on television.

The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme presented the dark side of Japan to a select audience of connoisseurs. Its title was intriguing: “People Still Call It Love” Passion, Affection and Destruction in Japanese Cinema.

I enjoyed both events. They emphasised important aspects of the way these two Asian countries see themselves.

Party in the square

China’s New Year party, staged under the famous statue of Lord Nelson, must have cost millions of pounds.

It carried a simple message: make friends with China and the benefits of international trade will flow your way.

I watched singers from the Peking Opera, some well known pop stars and troupes of dancers and drummers.

Belt and Road

Signs beside the stage drew the audience’s attention to the Belt and Road Initiative – China’s ambitious plan to restore the ancient silk trade routes taking goods from East to West. The project stretches all the way to London.

In fact, I moderated a conference about the Belt and Road the University of London last week, where many people expressed concerns about the implications of the project.

But the Chinese party in Trafalgar Square was not about political debate: it was a celebration, designed to show China in the best possible light.

Dark world

It takes less than five minutes to walk from Trafalgar Square to London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, where the Japan film festival took place. It was a completely different world.

I saw eight films over the course of the ten days and was fascinated by all the stories and characters.

The festival was brilliantly curated by Junko Takekawa, Senior Arts Programme Officer at the Japan Foundation. It provided an opportunity to see dramatic representations of many aspects of contemporary Japanese society.

Fighting and screaming

It was particularly interesting to see stories about working class people and rural communities.

The overall tone was dark. Here were the Japanese committing crimes, having affairs, fighting and screaming.

One striking film about sibling rivalry was called Thicker Than Water and showed the tensions between two brothers and two sisters.

After the screening, I asked the director Keisuke Yoshida if Japanese audiences take a visceral pleasure in watching characters express fury and passion on screen, given the taboo on such behaviour in real life.

He replied that the Japanese are patient and tolerant people – but only up to a point. He said that when their self-control is exhausted, they explode.


Was it brave of the Japanese to show this explosive aspect of their character?

Is China ready to get a bit more emotionally intimate with foreign audiences, too?

Perhaps other events will give me a deeper insight into China’s complex society and its people’s emotions.

I also hope I can get close enough to Chinese people to learn how they behave towards each other when they are not putting on a smiling face for foreigners.