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Japan’s religious right resists marriage equality

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Plaintiffs with a banner for a same-sex marriage lawsuit at the Fukuoka District Court, Fukuoka City, Japan, 8 June 2023 (Photo: Reuters/The Yomiuri Shimbun).

In Brief

Marriage equality and LGBTQ+ rights have become widely discussed in Japan following the G7 summit in Hiroshima and a recent decision in favour of same-sex marriage by the Nagoya District Court. The movement for marriage equality is experiencing popular support not seen before, with numbers in favour of reform in popular polls far surpassing those against, especially with younger generations.

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Support for marriage equality is widespread among Japan’s political parties, with the ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) being the only major party against reform. While the party sponsored a recent ‘LGBT understanding promotion bill’, by the time it was passed by both houses the text had been diluted to the point where members of Japan’s LGBTQ+ community considered it close to meaningless.

Among the factors contributing to the LDP’s reluctance to openly support the country’s LGBTQ+ community is the reliance of the LDP on support from conservative religious organisations. Japan does not have a popular conservative religious movement corresponding to evangelicalism in the United States, but the LDP has still maintained close ties especially to two organisations — the Unification Church and the Shinto Association for Spiritual Leadership.

The assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe in 2022 shed light on connections between the LDP and the Unification Church. A number of prominent LDP politicians have utilised the church in electoral work, and while it is unclear whether or not these individual politicians share the church’s beliefs, they pay lip-service to maintain support.

LDP lawmakers have often expressed sympathy with the Unification Church in their opposition to marriage equality, with a number of lawmakers at Unification Church events in opposition to marriage equality. The influence of the church over LDP policymaking has had important implications for Japan’s policies on gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights.

While the LDP’s ties to the Unification Church have been mostly hidden from public view, the party maintains a more open relationship to organised Shrine Shinto, including the Association of Shinto Shrines, and its political branch, the Shinto Association for Spiritual Leadership. Shinto institutions have played a role in lobbying for a number of political reforms, including the ongoing attempt to revise the 1947 constitution.

Though the Shinto Association for Spiritual Leadership is outspoken on its views about traditional gender-roles, the organisation is not particularly focused on issues related to LGBTQ+ rights. The topic of marriage is often discussed in the Shinto Association for Spiritual Leadership’s publications, but mostly in connection to the question of retaining family names after marriage.

Same-sex marriage is not a particularly prioritised issue for the Shinto right, but the Shinto Association for Spiritual Leadership has taken a clear position against marriage reform and the partnership system introduced in some municipalities. But since Shinto does not really have any doctrinal basis for opposing same-sex relations, the Shinto Association for Spiritual Leadership has had to rely on other kinds of arguments, often borrowed directly from Christian lobbyists.

One example of this can be found in an article published in the magazine Kokoro in June 2022, where constitutional scholar Hidetsugi Yagi outlined his arguments against the partnership system. These included a conservative depiction of marriage as an institution solely devoted to protecting nuclear families and promoting reproduction, but he also included a basic view of homosexuality as mostly a social phenomenon, borrowed directly from Christian conversion therapist Neil Whitehead.

This reliance on conservative Christian writings in what is purportedly ‘Shinto’ opposition to LGBTQ+ rights can also be seen in a leaflet published as a collaboration between conservative LDP lawmakers and the Shinto Association for Spiritual Leadership in July 2022. The leaflet argued that homosexuality is a psychological disorder, and was informed by current evangelical Christian discourse. This included an excerpt from a lecture by the Christian theologian Yang Sang Jin.

The degree to which opposition to same-sex marriage in Japan is informed by foreign trends is striking. Following a video posted in May by fifteen ambassadors to Japan in support of LGBTQ+ rights, many conservatives reacted in anger on social media platforms, arguing that this was an attempt to force a Western problem upon Japan. While those working for marriage equality in Japan are informed by trends in other democratic countries, supposed traditionalists appear to be equally informed by foreign ideologies. This includes the influence of conservative Christianity on the Shinto establishment’s views on the issue of marriage equality.

Much like in other democracies, opposition to marriage reform in Japan is spearheaded by vocal religious organisations. At the same time, it is important to note that neither the Unification Church nor the Association of Shinto Shrines work as mass organisations, and the success of their political campaigns depends mostly on their usefulness in LDP electoral politics.

In the case of the Unification Church, this usefulness is clearly waning, with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida calling on all LDP lawmakers to sever their ties to the church. Some LDP lawmakers still utilise these organisations as part of their electoral work, but it is unlikely that conservative religious organisations without a major popular support base will be able to hold back the party in the long run. As popular opinion changes, the pragmatic politicians of the LDP are likely to follow.

Ernils Larsson is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Multidisciplinary Research on Religion and Society at Uppsala University, Sweden.

 

2 responses to “Japan’s religious right resists marriage equality”

  1. This piece offers clear perspective and sharp analysis. Especially eye-opening for me was this observation that ‘While those working for marriage equality in Japan are informed by trends in other democratic countries, supposed traditionalists appear to be equally informed by foreign ideologies.’ This, I think, would lead us to think about one of the next questions that, then what actually and really is the Japanese vernacular thinking or attitude -so to speak – about same sex marriage? Probably the author of this paper is already working to crack this mystery, and if so I look forward to reading the outcome when it gets published.

    Similarly difficult to grasp is the Japanese public’s attitude towards the Johnny’s scandal of sexual abuse. It surely was a Japanese tabloid that first took up the issue, then in the 1990s the NYT picked it up – but the news fizzled out. Recently the BBC picked it up, and it fizzled again. Then some in the FCCJ re-ignited the issue. But I don’t see Japanese fandom of boys-idols or their entertainment news eager to pick up this topic at all. Yesterday there was even a news that the UN Human Rights Commission is going to investigate – again a foreign accuser. What is the reason behind Japanese tendency to ignore Johnny’s abuse? The FCCJ person above explained there is ‘Omerta’ in Japan, but this kind of take is, well, a naked Orientalism. It only annoys JP conservatives (including me) while not convincing and will do nothing productive. It would be more convincing to say that the Johnny’s scandal is consumed by fandom and the industry as a sad romance fitting BL genre than to say this!

    Anyways there seems to be quite a substantial gap between innate understanding of sexuality and justice between contemporary Japan and contemporary West. What I was impressed in this paper was the objective, non-crusading or non-charging attitude by the author. That must be critical in researching a complicated, delicate question like sexuality and culture.

  2. Thanks for an informative analysis. While the influence of the Unification Church has been widely known now since the assassination of Abe in July 2022, I was not aware of the Shinto Association. One the one hand, Kishida merits some praise for calling on LDP members to sever their ties to the Unification Church. On the other hand, his power within the LDP is limited by the fact that he heads up a smaller faction. How aggressively can he push party members to drop their affiliation without triggering a lot of intraparty turmoil which could threaten his position as PM? As Shinto is endemic to Japanese culture and society how actively can he work to lessen the Association’s influence?

    Finally, one underlying dynamic is not noted here: the extent to which homophobia is playing a role in the opposition to marriage equal rights. The fear and hatred of LGBTQ people that some have is very intense. As can be seen in many other countries they do not change their views very readily. LDP members and others who are opposed to marriage equal rights will not step aside without a big struggle.

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