Japanese fete LGBTQ progress, demand marriage rights as G7 summit looms

(This April 23 story has been corrected to say ‘unions,’ not ‘marriage,’ as G7 member Italy recognises the former and not the latter, in paragraph 2)

By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) – Cheering, flag-waving crowds gathered in Tokyo on Sunday for the first full Pride parade in four years, celebrating advances in LGBTQ rights but demanding Japan join other advanced nations in legally recognising same-sex marriage.

Change is slow in Japan, which hosts a summit next month of the Group of Seven industrial powers as the only member of the G7 that does not recognise same-sex unions.

But growing support from the nation’s top business lobby and major companies is putting pressure on the government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his conservative ruling party.

Organisers estimated 10,000 people marched in Sunday’s parade in the downtown Shibuya district. Participants said they realised how their nation lagged the rest of the G7 but were hopeful of change.

“Japan is really far behind … We will fight until the entire country has same-sex marriage,” said Himama, sporting a pink-dyed goatee and declining to give his real name out of consideration for family members.

“I think the government is both pretending to see us and pretending not to, but that change will really start happening from here on in.”

Masako Mori, a special adviser to Kishida on LGBTQ affairs, attended, but did not mention same-sex marriage in brief remarks before the parade began, instead urging “greater understanding of LGBTQ.”

Crowds lined the sidewalks, waving rainbow flags and shouting “Happy Pride” at marchers, who included a group from Taiwan – the only Asian nation with same-sex marriage.

Since the last pre-pandemic Pride parade in 2019, the number of Japanese municipalities allowing same-sex couples to enter partnership agreements has surged from 26 to around 300, covering some 65% of the population. These do not allow partners to inherit each other’s assets and deny them parental rights to each other’s children. Hospital visits are not guaranteed.

Kishida in February sacked an aide who sparked outrage by saying people would flee Japan if same-sex marriage was allowed, but the premier remains noncommittal about same-sex marriage, even as polls show some 70% of the public in favour.

“Circumstances in each country are different, and I believe it is important to proceed with discussions carefully,” Kishida told a foreign media roundtable on Thursday.

Japan’s constitution refers to marriage as being between “both sexes” and mentions “the equal rights of husband and wife”. Allowing same-sex marriage would require amending the civil code.

Some lawmakers have vowed to pass a law promoting “understanding of LGBTQ” before the summit. Activists and business leaders say this is a good step but falls short, noting that Japan at last year’s G7 summit committed to ensuring equal rights and anti-discrimination measures for LGBTQ.

Masakazu Tokura, head of the powerful Keidanren business lobby, said in March he found the gap between Japan and other countries on LGBTQ issues “embarrassing” during a trip to the U.S.

The situation has long limited the talent pool for global firms, but even traditional Japanese companies now find their international competitiveness endangered without diversity, including LGBTQ rights.

“Basically all the debates would be by Japanese men, and that made it hard to grow as a global firm,” said Chika Sato, chief diversity officer at NEC.

Foreign sponsors dominated the early days of Tokyo Pride, but this year’s roster includes Japanese firms from Panasonic and manufacturer IHI to Japan Post and Mitsubishi Materials.

“Conservative politicians’ idea of traditional family may be hard to change, but the idea of boosting Japan’s economy will definitely resonate,” said Takeharu Kato, a member of the activist group “Marriage for All Japan” and a lawyer in a landmark 2021 case over LGBTQ marriage rights.

NEC has in recent years promoted diversity in-house and grants LGBTQ couples some of the same benefits as married couples. Some 100 employees were scheduled to march in the parade. An NEC subsidiary is a sponsor, though not the parent company.

(Reporting by Elaine Lies; Additional reporting by Yukiko Toyoda; Editing by William Mallard)