Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida apologized on Monday for homophobic remarks about same-sex marriage made by a former top aide, whom he fired last week. The comments drew attention to the country’s lagging LGBTQ rights as it prepares to host the Group of Seven summit this spring.
Kishida apologized Monday in parliament for Arai’s comments, which he said were “totally inconsistent with government policy.”
The apology reflected the ongoing fallout for Kishida, the leader of Japan’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party, who had said Saturday that the remarks were “outrageous” and that he had dismissed Arai from his post. Arai’s comments followed a warning from Kishida that Japan needs to be “extremely careful” in considering legalizing same-sex marriage, “as it could fundamentally change the structure of family life and society.”
The controversy renewed scrutiny over the lack of rights for LGBTQ people in Japan that are standard in other leading democracies. Japan is the only G-7 nation that does not allow same-sex marriage, and its legislature in 2021 failed to pass a bill that sought to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. Japan is set to host the annual G-7 summit in Hiroshima in May.
“A country where the government itself is leading the spread of discrimination is not qualified to host the G-7 summit,” said Soshi Matsuoka, who leads Fair, a human rights organization that provides support to LGBTQ people.
Matsuoka said that if attention moves on from the issue after Arai’s firing, “the government will surely repeat the same thing over and over again.”
He called on Kishida’s administration to “quickly enact actual legislation to protect the human rights of LGBTQ people.”
“As the G-7 chairing country, Japan’s position internationally must be questioned,” the Japan Alliance for LGBT Legislation said in a statement, citing Arai’s comments that all of the executive secretaries in Kishida’s administration shared his views on same-sex couples. J-ALL, as the group is known, added that even though Arai had retracted his remarks, “the views of the prime minister, as well as all members of the secretary’s office, should be questioned.”
In dismissing Arai, Kishida said his aide’s remarks were “completely inconsistent with the policies of the cabinet’s approach to respecting diversity and creating an inclusive society.” Arai had apologized to Kishida for causing him trouble “due to my opinions, as he does not think like that.”
A petition sparked by the commotion has called for Kishida’s administration to enact anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people. As of Monday evening local time, it had more than 20,000 signatures. Previously, advocates had pushed for anti-discrimination legislation to be passed before the Tokyo Olympics, which had touted diversity and inclusion, particularly for LGBTQ athletes.
Marriage For All Japan, an organization involved in litigation on same-sex marriage, submitted a document to Kishida’s office on Monday protesting the comments and demanding that steps be taken to legalize same-sex marriage and that a special adviser on LGBTQ rights be appointed.
The remarks put Kishida in an “awkward spot,” said Paul Nadeau, a visiting research fellow at the Asia Pacific Initiative. He said Kishida’s decision to fire Arai reflected his desire to keep LGBTQ issues out of the spotlight, as going too far to one side would anger his older, conservative base, and going too far to the other would “highlight how far [his party] is behind the general public.”
A poll by Japan’s Asahi newspaper in 2021 found that 65 percent of Japanese voters supported same-sex marriage, up from 41 percent in 2015.
However, Joe Takeda, a professor of human welfare studies at Kwansei Gakuin University in Japan, said most Japanese people who support same-sex marriage “don’t know (or don’t care) that Japan is the only G-7 country without same-sex marriage and don’t see lagging LGBTQ rights as a potential issue.”
Takeda said that while many Japanese people support same-sex marriage, they value domestic issues like the economy more, so they continue to vote for Japan’s ruling conservative party.
Tokyo prefecture moved last year to recognize same-sex unions, but much of Japan lacks similar protocols. In November, a court in Tokyo upheld the nationwide ban on same-sex marriage but said the lack of legal protections for such couples violated their human rights, sparking optimism that the tides could turn for LGBTQ rights in Japan.
Although Japan may be an outlier among leading democracies for LGBTQ rights, it is not alone among its Asian neighbors in lacking protections or marriage equality for LGBTQ people.
Activists in South Korea have pushed for an anti-discrimination bill, but efforts to pass the legislation in the socially and politically conservative country have been unsuccessful.
Taiwan, which legalized same-sex marriages in 2019, is alone among its Asian neighbors in doing so. Thailand has taken steps toward doing so but has not fully approved such measures.
Mio Inuma reported from Tokyo.