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Shinto and LGBT Scandal

I’m afraid this is going to be a long post.

One of my patrons asked me about The Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership (Shintō Seiji Renmei, literally “Shinto Political League”) distributing a pamphlet saying that homosexuality was a mental disorder. This is not entirely wrong, but it is also a bit misleading.

So, let us clarify what actually happened. (TL, DR: It was an internal pamphlet reporting an invited talk given by a Christian professor at a study session, not a statement of Shintō Seiji Renmei policy.)

Back in early February (the 7th, to be precise), Shintō Seiji Renmei held a study session in Tokyo at which three people gave presentations on issues connected with marriage and sexuality. (This was reported in detail on the front page of Jinja Shinpō on February 28th.) Judging from the order in which things were listed, the most important issue was “Fūfu Bessei”, which means “husbands and wives with different surnames”. As I have mentioned before, this is a really hot button issue for Shintō Seiji Renmei, and they have officially published material arguing that the family will collapse if this is allowed. (They are fine with husbands taking their wives’ surnames — that has a long tradition in Japan. The two of them just have to have the same surname.) The opening remarks by Revd Uchida, the head of Shintō Seiji Renmei, emphasised that Shintō Seiji Renmei was opposed to separate surnames, and went on to say that diversity was very important, as long as it did not destroy the family. It is important to note that the members of Shintō Seiji Renmei who spoke did not directly criticise LGBTQ+ lifestyles or identities.

The three presentations were given by Professor Shimada, of Fukui Prefectural University, Professor Yang, of Hirosaki Gakuin University, and Professor Ikëya, of Nagasaki University.

Professor Ikëya works on child abuse, child poverty, and child development, and her basic stance seems to be that a stable family is very important for children. Her objection to different surnames was that it weakens the unity of the family, and is likely to provoke conflict over the surnames of the children, both of which would be bad for the children.

Professor Shimada was talking about the legal situation around LGBTQ+ rights, and arguing that Japan did not need specific laws to prevent discrimination against sexual minorities, because such discrimination wasn’t really a major problem. As evidence, he mentioned the number of dramas that cover LGBTQ+ themes, and the number of out celebrities, along with the fact that this is not a social issue. (I should note that I believe he is correct on both of these observations.) He then drew attention to problems he perceived with the law in the USA, and argued that Japan should avoid them. To be honest, he came across as tolerant in the strict sense: I don’t think he approves of LGBTQ+ activities, but he thinks that people should be allowed to do them if they want to.

Professor Yang (who, I think, spoke second) was the problem. He said that LGBT people were all suffering from acquired mental disorders, and could be cured.

Two points should be made about Professor Yang. First, he is a Christian, teaching Christian education and ethics at a Christian university. He has been ordained by a Methodist church in the US, and has studied in Chicago. Second, he appears to be a Zainichi Korean. (This is based on his name and his affiliation with a Korean Christian church in Japan.) In other words, he is a member of both a religious and an ethnic minority, and not a member of the religion associated with Shintō Seiji Renmei. Shintō Seiji Renmei inviting him is like a right-wing Christian political pressure group in the US inviting a Black Buddhist to talk to them about why abortion is psychologically damaging to women.

A broader point that needs to be made about the speakers at these sessions is that, although Shintō Seiji Renmei only ever invites people with positions that they think they will find congenial (I should try to get them to invite me — that would shake things up a bit), the invited speakers do not represent Shintō Seiji Renmei’s position. Indeed, it is not uncommon for them to say things that Shintō Seiji Renmei does not agree with, particularly when it comes to the details.

The controversy arose because this study session was incorporated into a pamphlet which was distributed to the Diet members who are affiliated with the group in the Diet that has close links to Shintō Seiji Renmei. (This gets complicated, as technically they are completely separate groups — I don’t think any Diet members are formally members of Shintō Seiji Renmei. However, for all practical purposes, this is the Diet members’ branch of Shintō Seiji Renmei.) The chair of the meeting at which the pamphlet was distributed encouraged all the members to read it. Most likely, one of the members did, found Professor Yang’s speech, and got annoyed about it. This then leaked to the press, and the scandal ensued. (Note that this booklet was only for distribution within that group of Diet members, so the leak indicates that at least one member of the group strongly disagreed with this part.) I could be cynical and suggest that the person who recommended that everyone read the booklet actually hadn’t — after all, it was material provided by Shintō Seiji Renmei.

So, a group affiliated to Shintō Seiji Renmei did distribute, to members of the Diet, a booklet that included a report of a homophobic presentation by a Christian. This is not even the position of Shintō Seiji Renmei, much less the group of Diet members. I have seen an English source saying that the ruling LDP claimed that LGBT people were mentally ill, and that’s wildly inaccurate.

Is it a problem? Yes. Shintō Seiji Renmei should never have asked Professor Yang to speak. Is it indicative of deep-rooted homophobia in the Shinto establishment? No.

What are the longer term implications?

My impression from reading reports of Shintō Seiji Renmei’s discussions of LGBT issues over the years is that Professor Shimada is much more representative of their views than Professor Yang. To be honest, I have joked in the past that they would probably be willing to accept same-sex marriage, as long as the couple had to have the same surname. (Note to progressives in Japan: try offering that as a compromise position. You might be surprised.) Professor Yang is definitely homophobic, but I don’t think the Shinto establishment is, and I do not think that this presentation is a sign that this is changing.

The Shinto establishment in general is more aware of LGBTQ+ issues than it has been in the past, for the simple reason that those issues are more visible in Japan now than they have been. This is not provoking any strong opposition, but, equally, it is not provoking strong support. They tend to be opposed to same-sex marriage, but only because they are opposed to any form of marriage other than the one that was introduced in imitation of the west in the Meiji period — which, for some unfathomable reason, they refer to as “the traditional Japanese family”.

Homosexuality is remarkably absent from the main Shinto traditions, to the point that I have yet to come across a clear reference to it. This includes an absence of references to it being wrong. (Incest and sex with chickens are listed as sources of kegarë, pollution, but homosexual sex is not.) As a result, the default position of the Shinto establishment is passive tolerance. Personally, I would like the tolerance to be a bit more active. For example, I would like Jinja Honchō to issue an internal notice stating that Jinja Honchō has no problem with jinja performing gay wedding services (such services have no connection at all to legal marriage in Japan, even for heterosexual couples), so that chief priests who are personally more positive about it can do so without worrying about what Jinja Honchō would think.

On the other hand, I don’t think that the Shinto establishment should be actively promoting LGB issues, because they don’t really have anything to do with Shinto. Shinto priests should be able to do so without worrying about their jobs (if they are LGB themselves, for example), but there is no reason for the establishment to engage actively with this issue. It would be rather hypocritical of me to want them to get actively involved in this issue when one of my main problems with their campaigning on the constitution is its lack of connection to Shinto. (As well as the fact that I disagree with their preferred changes.)

TQ issues are rather different, because there are numerous instances in the myths of unclear gender boundaries. I am not aware of any clear examples of transgender figures, but there are a lot, including Amaterasu Ōmikami, who blur gender boundaries in important legends. Similarly, a lot of sacred dance involves blurred gender boundaries. Shinto actually has very good reasons to campaign for increased gender equality and reduced rigidity of gender roles and expectations, and I would like to see the establishment doing that. I’m not holding my breath, however.

Still, as I have said before, I am not about to stop working with Jinja Honchō just because I disagree with them on some issues.

So, to summarise a very long post. Shintō Seiji Renmei invited a Christian homophobe to speak to a study session, and I think that was a mistake. I think it was a mistake internally, as well, because I do not think his position reflects theirs. The Shinto establishment’s position on LGBTQ+ issues has been one of quiet, passive tolerance, and I do not see that changing anytime soon.

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9 thoughts on “Shinto and LGBT Scandal”

  1. Is Shinto Seiji Renmei related to the Jinja Honcho?

    “They tend to be opposed to same-sex marriage, but only because they are opposed to any form of marriage other than the one that was introduced in imitation of the west in the Meiji period — which, for some unfathomable reason, they refer to as “the traditional Japanese family””

    Personally as a traditionalist, I think Japanese men should be able to marry multiple commuting wives again. /s

    “TQ issues are rather different, because there are numerous instances in the myths of unclear gender boundaries.”

    I wonder if places like Okinoshima would allow transmen?

    1. “Is Shinto Seiji Renmei related to the Jinja Honchō?”

      Yes. It’s a bit hard to say exactly what the relationship is, but it is very close. For example, Shintō Seiji Renmei’s central offices are inside Jinja Honchō. Essentially, Shintō Seiji Renmei does political campaigning for Jinja Honchō.

      “Personally as a traditionalist, I think Japanese men should be able to marry multiple commuting wives again. /s”

      But not even Hikaru Genji could make that work…

      “I wonder if places like Okinoshima would allow transmen?”

      It would depend entirely on the chief priest, and I do not know the chief priest of Munakata Taisha well enough to even hazard a guess.

  2. “The Shinto establishment in general is more aware of LGBTQ+ issues than it has been in the past, for the simple reason that those issues are more visible in Japan now than they have been. This is not provoking any strong opposition, but, equally, it is not provoking strong support. ”

    Oh, look, it’s raining.

    Fifteen or so minutes later.

    Oh, look, it’s stopped raining.

  3. ” As evidence, he mentioned the number of dramas that cover LGBTQ+ themes, and the number of out celebrities, along with the fact that this is not a social issue. (I should note that I believe he is correct on both of these observations.)”

    1) Media representation is not inherently a positive representation, especially when such themes reinforce stereotypes about LGBT people and gender roles (who is the “male” and who is the “female” in the relationship).
    2) Not sure what you can mean by it not being a social issue. Hidaka et al in 2008 conducted a survey of 2000 gay and bisexual men and found 66% had suicidal thoughts and 86% attempted suicide. Hidaka in 2006 found 50-60% of gay and bisexual males experienced bullying and 64% attempted suicide, and this rate declined only to 47% in 2019. In a 2005 study, 78% of LGBT students were found to have not learned anything about sexual minorities. Human Rights Watch documented a severe lack of support for LGBT youth in schools in 2016 with highly associated rates of suicidal tendencies. LGBT marriages are not federally recognized. LGBT people lack meaningful federal protections against discrimination. LGBT people absolutely need federal laws to protect them from discrimination because it is a social issue that starts in schools and continues into their lives later on.

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      “1) Media representation is not inherently a positive representation,”

      True, but neither is it necessarily negative. I haven’t seen all the media representations, but the ones I have seen have been fairly good.

      “2) Not sure what you can mean by it not being a social issue.”

      I mean that no-one is making a fuss about the LGBTQ+ representation and demanding that it be taken off the air because it is corrupting the children, as did he. It is significant that he could make this point to a right-wing conservative religious group without any members of the group objecting.

      I am certainly not saying that there are no problems for the LGBTQ+ community in Japan — that is obviously not the case.

      Incidentally, Japan is not a federal state.

  4. What a fascinating incident. On the subject of married couples taking a single surname, I’d like to offer a comparative story from another culture: in Quebec, many married couples keep their original surnames, but they give to their children a “hyphenated” surname. So if Jacques Ducharme and Marie Thereaux have a child named Robert, the child might legally be called (it’s the decision of the parents) Robert Ducharme-Thereaux or Robert Thereaux-Ducharme. My understanding is that this is a modern convention, which is allowed and somewhat encouraged by the provincial government as a way to preserve French language names, as the French are minority in Canada. (If a married couple only took the surname of one spouse, it would mean that over time some surnames would die out through this process.)

    1. Yes, it’s curious, isn’t it. I really don’t understand why the names are such an important issue for the conservatives. It doesn’t seem to have any grounding in anything — unlike, say, their opposition to female-descended Tennō. This makes it hard to offer rational opposition, which I can do on the female-descended Tennō issue.

        1. That would never happen. Either the spouses would be on different koseki, or a single koseki would have different surnames on it. And I don’t think that this can be the issue, because they never mention it. The focus is all on the names. They are currently quite keen on allowing people to use their pre-marriage names on bank accounts and licences (like foreign residents can with by-names), and that would lead to people having two surnames listed on official documents, quite possibly including the koseki.

          No, the problem really seems to be the names.

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