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Summer Olympics put fight for Japanese LGBTQ legal protections under the microscope

Former Japanese national team fencer Fumino Sugiyama became the first trans Japan Olympic Committee board member and continues the fight alongside others.

JAPAN-RIGHTS-COURT-LGBT Photo by STR/JIJI PRESS/AFP via Getty Images

The 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics have placed a spotlight on Japan, focusing the world’s collective lens on the nation as Olympic events get underway.

But casting such a light doesn’t exclusively illuminate the positives, especially when sectors of Japanese society make attempts to direct that light on issues that deserve advocacy.

One such issue is the push for Japan’s government to recognize and support anti-discriminatory legislation for Japan’s LGBTQ population.

LGBTQ advocacy groups have pegged the 2020 Summer Olympics as a prime opportunity to apply pressure to the nation’s ruling party, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), to pass national protections for LGBTQ people for some time.

The Olympics host city, Tokyo, passed an anti-discrimination measure in 2018, years ahead of the Games. That measure’s passage, along with data from a 2020 survey that showed 88% of Japanese citizens “agree or somewhat agree” with laws banning discrimination against LGBTQ people, inspired hope that similar statutes could be implemented at a national level.

The Olympics taking place in the city also inspired hope that a bill could pass thanks to the International Olympic Committee amending its Olympic Charter’s non-discrimination policy to include bans on discrimination based on sexual orientation in 2014.

But the latest session of the Diet, Japan’s parliament, wrapped up in June without a vote on the nation’s version of the Equality Act. Even worse, discussions over the bill exposed the LDP’s continued misunderstanding of LGBTQ identities and led to homophobic and transphobic comments from LDP legislators that read like a bingo card of commonly used arguments against protecting LGBTQ people.

LDP adviser Koji Shigeuchi claimed that trans people’s existence threaten cisgender women, that equal protections for LGBTQ people would allow some to be “a man today and a woman tomorrow” and told a trans official in attendance that health insurance companies shouldn’t be forced to cover her hormon therapy because she “should live with the body you were born with.”

According to Human Rights Watch, Shigeuchi’s speech was titled “The LGBT issue is getting out of control.”

Other LDP officials have been quoted as saying “LGBT goes against the preservation of the human race.” Former cabinet minister Eriko Yamatani rolled out the usual comments about trans women’s participation in athletics as well, saying, “It is ridiculous that there are those that have a male body, but say they are women and therefore should be allowed to use the women’s restroom, or like in the U.S., participate in women’s sports and win tons of medals.”

All of those comments came as LDP officials publicly stated their desire to hammer out an LGBTQ anti-discrimination bill in the lead up to the Olympics and inspired Human Rights Watch to bestow a “gold medal of homophobia” to the nation.

LGBTQ advocacy groups, including Pride House Tokyo and the Japan Alliance for LGBT Legislation (J-ALL), responded to the comments from LDP officials and the Diet’s inaction ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics.

JAPAN-GAY-MARRIAGE
Fumino Sugiyama (right)
Photo credit should read YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP via Getty Images

“LGBT people in Japan, including athletes, are entitled to equal protection under the law, but currently there are a very limited number of openly out professional athletes in the country, and many remain in the closet from fear and stigma,” J-ALL director Yuri Igarashi told Human Rights Watch. “We expected the Olympic Games to be a wonderful opportunity to introduce and pass legal protections so that everyone in society can live openly and safely. It is extremely disappointing that this law did not pass this time.”

“How can athletes truly feel safe playing in a country where a member of the ruling party makes such discriminatory remarks? I can imagine this is particularly heartbreaking for the LGBTQ youth,” Pride House Tokyo executive director Gon Matsunaka added.

Prominent out Japanese athletes are also lending their voices to the movement in the hopes that the push placed on the Diet prior to the Olympics will continue after the games wrap.

Former Japanese national team fencer Fumino Sugiyama, who came out as a trans man after retiring over a decade ago, became the first trans board member of the Japan Olympic Committee earlier this month with the hope that changing sports could influence similar change in Japanese society.

Despite the JOC misgendering him when announcing his addition to the board, Sugiyama sees his position as a vital one to his continued advocacy.

“I want to help Japanese sports circles to include diverse perspectives and have more athletes feel psychological safety,” Sugiyama told Nikkei Asia. “When you are excluded from sports, it means you are also excluded from society. I believe sports and society are closely intertwined and if I can change sports, I can change society.”

Even with that hope, Sugiyama expressed disappointment that the Olympics will begin without a commitment from the Japanese government regarding LGBTQ equal protections.

“I was hoping the Olympics would push forward LGBTQ issues… that the Olympics would leave a positive legacy,” Sugiyama told Time Magazine. “I really hate to say this, but it has become a lot less hopeful.”

A decrease in hope hasn’t stopped the fight though. A coalition of organizations, including Human Rights Watch and J-ALL, called on Japan Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to “immediately and publicly commit to enacting an LGBT Equality Act” on Tuesday.

“LGBT people in Japan face intense social pressure and fewer legal protections than other Japanese,” said Human Rights Watch Japan director Kanae Doi. “Prime Minister Suga should immediately commit to passing an LGBT equality act to make LGBT equality a part of Japan’s permanent Olympic legacy.”