Hot Button Issues

Hot Button Issues

A week ago, Jinja Shinpō carried two opinion pieces that discussed gay marriage.

One was part of a regular spot where the journalists on the paper write about their own thoughts. The author mentioned that they were watching a drama in which gay men were the main theme, which provoked them to investigate, and discover that there were three dramas about gay men in the spring season. “It seems to be a bit of a boom at the moment.” They went on to mention a number of prefectures (two this year, fourteen more from next year) that were dropping the “gender” box from high school application forms. They say that the Shinto world is going to need to decide how to handle this in jinja soon.

Next, they report recent statistics showing that 2.7% of Japanese identify as LGBT (in Japanese, this is “LGBT” — the acronym is fairly transparent, because the Japanese terms for the four elements are often just the English terms in katakana), and if you add in people who say “I don’t want to decide/I haven’t decided yet”, then the number goes up to 8%. They say that 26 countries and territories have recognised same-sex marriage, with Taiwan becoming the first in Asia last month. Finally, they say that while it is impossible to bundle all sexual minorities together, the Diet has recently been discussing same-sex marriage and greater acceptance. Because this is connected to the traditional Japanese family, they hope that it will be discussed “shinchō ni”.

(They sign themselves as “bear”, which is probably not significant.)

“Shinchō ni” means, roughly, that you agree that something needs to be done about a situation, and broadly agree with what has been identified as a problem, but have serious doubts about some or all of the popular proposals for solutions.

The other was more about marriage ceremonies in jinja, and only really briefly touched on same-sex marriage, to say that there were disagreements over whether it should be legally allowed, so they would avoid saying anything for and against, but that both the majority and the minority should be happy, and Shinto ceremonies have nothing to do with the law in any case, so the important thing is what is being requested or promised, and there are lots of personalised formats.

Now, in terms of support for LGBT rights, these are not exactly strongly supportive articles. The important point is that they are in the house newspaper of what most Japanese would probably identify as the most religiously conservative organisation in the country. Neither article is strongly opposed to LGBT rights, and the second appears to assume that opinion on same-sex marriage will be divided within the Shinto world.

This is, I think, symptomatic of one of the big differences between Japanese and western culture. LGBT issues are simply not a hot button topic here. Conservatives tend not to be positive, because LGBT people were not highly visible when they were young (unless they were manga or anime fans), but it isn’t a central issue for them.

NHK, the national broadcaster, has handled LGBT issues in the human interest slot of its morning news program a few times recently. There was a piece about the photographer who is doing a series of coming out photographs (which mostly focused on a trans straight man), and another one a while back about the increased availability of suitable underwear for trans people who did not want surgery. (Apparently, surgery is extremely rare among trans people in Japan.) As far as I am aware, these completely failed to be controversial. Similarly, while I seek out manga because it deals with Shinto, it almost all includes LGBT characters, and that feature is typically not the main focus of the story. I haven’t done a systematic survey of manga aimed at teenagers, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest to discover that more than half of it includes at least one LGBT character. (In the ones I can think of right now, there is a woman who presents as male (not a trans man), a supporting character who is a lesbian, but has a crush on another character who isn’t and so has to deal with that, and a character who is a kami and both male and female, depending on the occasion — and when the human characters ask why they do not appear as both genders when they are a fox, they point out that they do, and are shocked that the humans can’t tell.)

On the other hand, heteronormative assumptions are still very much the standard here; that is another side of it not being a hot button issue. You certainly can’t say in any simplistic way that Japan is ahead of the west on these questions, but the social position of LGBT people here is very, very different from that in the USA.

One thought on “Hot Button Issues

  1. Such a good article! I’m glad you covered this. I’m so surprised this was in the Jinja Shinpō!

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