Same-Sex Marriage in Japan
Or The Post In Which Stereotypes Regarding Softball Players Are Further Perpetuated
With a review of Japan’s history of homosexuality out of the way, I now have the pleasure of talking about, well, now. Ok, maybe not now, but definitely last week. More specifically about some thoughts that arose from observing an EFL class (English as a Foreign Language) that took place last week.
The topic was same-sex marriage. Each student had to decide if they were for or against it and then give reasons why, in English, in pair discussions. Observing this class was kind of an exciting opportunity for me to see how these first-year students interact with the sexual identity framework that is so inherent to English discussion of LGBTQ issues, as well as to take an informal poll of my generation’s opinion on same-sex marriage.
At present, Japan does not allow same-sex couples to marry. However, same-sex marriages between Japanese citizens and foreign nationals are recognized as legitimate by the Japanese government provided the marriage is legal in the foreign national’s home country and that the wedding took place there. Though previously there was some fuss over the granting of visas for this purpose. There is no legal precedent in Japan that defines marriage as “between a man and a woman,” though if the matter were taken to court it is likely that this would be the ruling. The legal debate hinges on Article 24 of the Japanese constitution, which explicitly deals with consent and equality in marriage. “Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of the spouses as a basis. 2) With regard to choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce and other matters pertaining to marriage and the family, laws shall be enacted from the standpoint of individual dignity and the essential equality of the sexes.” However the term ryousei (両性), which is translated here as “both sexes” and “the sexes,” does not strictly imply man and woman and is in fact much more ambiguous. At present, only a minority of legal scholars accept this more fluid interpretation of ryousei, and thus the popular interpretation goes unchallenged. For now, those gender-queer couples that do want the legal and financial benefits of marriage are beginning to use adoption as the equivalent of a civil-union. One partner adopts the other and they are added to the family registry (koseki) in much the same way a husband or wife would be. (Also, I would totally recommend reading up on the function of family registers in Japan)
All that said, same-sex marriage is not really an issue on the public radar. To borrow a phrasing from Barbara Summerhawk, in Japan, such ‘minority issues’ are often handled “in the most innocuous and ambiguous way possible in the interest of avoiding direct confrontation.” (Queer Japan; 10) As a result, public opinion on both the pro and con side of the same-sex marriage debate are rather lukewarm. Most visibly lacking is any heated conflict over the morality of homosexuality or the sanctity of marriage as an institution. In fact the concerns on both sides seem to be much more practical, a practicality which is especially apparent in statements regarding same-sex parenting. The following is a brief outline of students’ opinions and let me tell you, it’s pretty interesting to see a very familiar issue discussed in an entirely different context where the lines are drawn in rather different places.
Those who said ‘Aye’
Of the 24 students in the class, 18 said they were in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage in Japan, most of whom had a study abroad experience in America or Australia which ‘exposed them’ to gay and lesbian culture. A few of the other girls who had not studied abroad said they had met a lesbian couple on their softball team and became friends. Regardless of where, one of the commonalities amongst the aye-sayers was meaningful interaction with gay and lesbian people. Almost all admitted to feeling an initial discomfort and then, through continued interaction, gradually coming to the conclusion that gay-love is no different from hetero-love and thus same-sex marriage is no different from heterosexual marriage. Furthermore, many students cited the legalization of same-sex marriage in other countries such as Canada, Spain, and the Netherlands as reason for Japan to do so as well. Most students expressed a belief that if the Japanese government were to allow same-sex marriage and make an effort to make people aware of the issue, public opinion would follow suit and discrimination would diminish. However, in every instance when the topic of adoption came up, students categorically opposed the idea on the grounds that the children of same-sex couples would be bullied and harassed by their peers. There were also concerns about the assumed confusion that would come with not having both a male and female parental figure.
Those who said ‘Nay’
The remaining 6 students, all male, said that they were against the legalizing of same-sex marriage, and without the morality argument founded in Judeo-Christian beliefs, their reasons came from ‘common sense and rationality.’ 2 students opposed same-sex marriage on the grounds that Japan is not ready for such a change, that there would be a backlash from the public and that the heightened visibility of queer couples would result in an increase of overt discrimination. Both of these students suggested the government take steps to educate the public before changing any laws, which still sounds like somewhat of an ‘aye’ to me. Out of the other 4 students, some expressed discomfort with the idea of two men kissing, some feared the potential transformation of straight men into gay men, and all cited the well-being of adopted children and inability of same-sex couples to reproduce as reasons against same-sex marriage. Again, there was no mention of homosexuality as morally wrong.
Of course, the idea that legalizing same-sex marriage would produce ‘more gays’ is preposterous, and furthermore I do not think the law exists to comfort heterosexual men who are insecure with their own sexuality. But the issue of child-bearing and rearing is an important one if for no other reason than both the pro and con side of this student debate had very similar opinions. In regards to the well-being of children adopted by same-sex couples, I think many people grossly overestimate the ability of heterosexual couples to raise children, given that even in Japan the divorce rate is about 30% and steadily rising. As for the inability to produce children, there are many heterosexual couples who are unable or choose not to have children, and I suspect any legal proscription on that would be met with very harsh feelings. Still, it’s no secret that many citizens are concerned about Japan’s growing elderly population and low birthrate, a concern that is easily mobilized against same-sex couples, however irrationally.
From the opinions of this random poll of students, it seems that exposure is really the most convincing argument, and in the same way that those students who did personally know gay or lesbian individuals were more accepting of their relationships, I suspect that getting to know someone who was raised by same-sex parents would calm most of the concerns regarding the issue.
There’s also the heteronormativity inherently built-in to the institution of marriage to be considered, but I don’t feel like getting into it.