March 3, 2015 / 6:23 AM / 4 years ago

Small step by Tokyo district could be giant leap for LGBT equality

TOKYO (Reuters) - Same-sex couples in Japan are awaiting the results of a debate in a Tokyo local assembly that may give them what their Western counterparts have long had: a chance to step out of the shadows.

Bob Tobin (R) and Hitoshi Ohashi (L), a same-sex couple, holding their hands look at a picture of them on the day they were married in San Francisco in 2014, during an interview with Reuters at their house in Tokyo February 25, 2015. REUTERS/Yuya Shino

The proposal by Tokyo’s Shibuya ward to recognize same-sex partnerships from April may seem insignificant compared with the United States, where gay marriage is legal in all but 13 states. But it is the first such move in Japan, where the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community is all but invisible.

“It’s as if the door has opened up a little. It may be much less than we expected, but the first bit is really hard,” said Hitoshi Ohashi, who runs a gallery out of the Tokyo apartment he shares with his partner, author Bob Tobin.

“We must have the same guarantees and rights,” added Ohashi, whose marriage to Tobin in California lacks legal standing in Japan. “For that, the best thing is to show people we are here.”

In Japan, legally binding civil unions remain a distant dream for the LGBT community, with same-sex partners often unable to rent apartments. Being openly gay is taboo, and many sport fake wedding rings or enter marriages of convenience.

Which is why the February announcement on the proposed statute came as a surprise. Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s 23 wards, is home to a trendy youth district as well as many embassies.

Mayor Toshitake Kuwahara, a proponent of diversity, said it was a natural step.

“We had no intention of showing off,” Kuwahara told Reuters.

“We just wanted to do something for citizens who might be suffering due to LGBT issues,” he said, comparing the proposal to “throwing a stone into a pond to create a stir”.

The proposal, submitted on Monday, has sparked mainstream media coverage and social media debate. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was asked about it in parliament.

“We need to be very careful when considering whether or not to change the constitution to accept same-sex marriage as this issue touches on the fundamentals of how we live,” Abe said.

Public opinion on the bill appears to be divided largely along generational lines, with younger people more accepting.

“It’s common sense that people of the opposite sex attract each other, so somebody older like me can’t accept same-sex couples,” said 70-year-old Junji Sato.

Opinion is divided even within the LGBT community. Some note that the statute, which has few legal teeth, only guarantees rights for couples without extending the same to individuals, and that it may have been hurriedly put together to burnish Tokyo’s image before it hosts the 2020 Summer Olympics.

“Rather than aiming to improve the rights of people who live here, it appears to be an image booster aimed outside of Japan,” said Akiko Shimizu, an associate professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at Tokyo University.

“It’s better than zero, but I think we need to pay close attention to how it’s being used politically.”

Still, awareness of gay rights is up. Abe’s wife, Akie, took part in Tokyo’s annual Pride Parade in 2014, and a lawmaker who was a candidate to head the main opposition Democratic Party mentioned LGBT rights in his campaign.

Slideshow (5 Images)

Setagaya and Toshima wards in Tokyo, and the city of Yokohama, are considering moves similar to Shibuya.

“Gay people have always been invisible, but this really takes us out of the shadows,” said Tobin.

“If you have to hide part of yourself and not bring your whole self to work, your whole self to life, you lose, the company loses, and the country loses.”

Additional reporting by Hyun Oh and Shiori Ito; Editing by Tony Tharakan

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