Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met with representatives of LGBTQ groups Friday and offered an apology over discriminatory remarks made by his former aide that sparked nationwide outrage and calls for the government to ensure equal rights.
Former Kishida aide Masayoshi Arai’s comments to reporters earlier this month that he wouldn’t want to live next to LGBTQ people and that citizens would flee Japan if same-sex marriages were allowed prompted renewed demands that the government adopt an anti-discrimination law.
Kishida said Arai’s remark was “deemed unjust discrimination and was extremely inappropriate” and offered an apology to LGBTQ activists in person: “I apologize sincerely for making all of you here and many other people feel uncomfortable.”
He also appointed former Justice Minister Masako Mori on Friday as his special aide in charge of promoting understanding for LGBTQ people and she joined the meeting.
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Kishida quickly fired Arai, his former aide, after he made the remarks. But the prime minister’s 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.
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.
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 sexual minorities. 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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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.
Amid the criticisms over the discriminatory remarks, Kishida has instructed his governing party to start preparing legislation to promote more understanding of sexual minorities, but ultra-conservatives in the party have already shown resistance. Activists say mere awareness promotion is not enough.
Gon Matsunaka, head of the Pride House Tokyo, told reporters after the meeting that Kishida said he hoped to approach the issue step by step and that “We expressed our wish to have more opinions from the (LGBTQ) community absorbed and our stories heard.”
Yuichi Kamiya, executive director of the Japan Alliance for LGBT Legislation, said he expected a move toward equal rights to “drastically accelerate.”
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More than 200 local municipalities, including Tokyo, have introduced partnership certificates for same-sex couples, allowing them to rent apartments and sign documents in medical emergencies and for inheritance. But the certificates are not legally binding and same-sex couples are often barred from hospital visits and accessing other services available to married couples.
During the meeting Friday, Kishida sought views from LGBTQ representatives, saying that further effort is needed “to achieve a diverse society where everyone respects each other’s human rights and dignity and can live a fulfilling life.”