“Tax dollars are wasted on gay couples... They can’t reproduce and are thus ‘unproductive.’”—Mio Sugita, Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmaker
“There’s no need to legalize gay marriage... Homosexuality is like a hobby.”—Tomohide Tanigawa, LDP lawmaker
“It’s best not to make a big fuss about these things.”—Toshihiro Nikai, Secretary General of the LDP
TOKYO—The Liberal Democratic Party in Japan, which is neither very liberal nor very democratic, has had a problem with hate speech at least since the party leader, Shinzo Abe, became prime minister in 2012.
For many years, all Japan’s problems were blamed on the small group of Korean Japanese (zainichi). But in recent weeks a new scapegoat emerged for Japan’s social problems and declining birth-rate: the LGBT community.
The current ugliness began in late July with Mio Sugita, who allegedly was recruited to join the LDP last year by Abe himself. She has flaunted extremist views before. No surprise there. But this time she declared that tax money shouldn’t be wasted on gay couples because they can’t reproduce. Then a long-forgotten video of her emerged in which she laughs while discussing the high suicide rates of LGBT people in Japan.
For weeks, Sugita’s party seemed to condone her views. But the Japanese people and even the self-censoring media are not letting this one slide, and now even within the LDP there have been angry and pointed exclamations of disgust.
But were any lessons learned?
Currently, roughly 8 percent of the population identify themselves as LGBT. While Japan does not legally recognize same-sex marriage at a national level, local governments, including the Shibuya and Setagaya wards of Tokyo, have used ordinances to recognize same-sex partnerships. Other prefectures are taking similar measures.
Beverage maker Kirin, e-commerce giant Rakuten, and some other Japanese corporations are moving ahead with policies to provide the same paid leave for marriage, childbirth, and other life-changing events to same-sex couples. (Note that even Japan’s stodgy corporations are able to conceive something that LDP politicians can’t seem to grasp: yes, even same-sex couples can have children.)
Yet while Japan is progressing in some arenas, it’s still not easy to be LGBT in a country where conformity is king. Amnesty International summarizes the situation succinctly. “In Japan, LGBT people still face discrimination at home with their families, at work, in education, and access to health services. Although individuals can officially change their sex in Japan, they are then not able to get married and they have to undergo sterilization, as well as gender confirmation surgery. Some politicians and government officials even make explicitly homophobic statements in public.”
Sugita lit the fire by contributing an article titled Support for ‘LGBTs’ Has Gone Too Far! to the August issue of SHINCHO 45, a conservative monthly magazine, which was published on July 24. The title of the issue was “How Asahi Shimbun Is Destroying Japan.”
The Asahi Shimbun is one of the more liberal newspapers in the country and has been compared to the New York Times. The Asahi is strongly disliked by Prime Minister Abe, who has publicly attacked the paper, and who has in his meetings with President Donald Trump told him, “I hope you can tame the New York Times the way I tamed the Asahi.” Long before Trump was calling the press, “the enemy of the people,” Abe was making effective use of that tactic. (When Steve Bannon called Abe, “Trump before Trump” he wasn’t far off the mark.)
In her piece, Sugita elaborates on her theory that the Asahi’s excessive reporting on LGBT issues has made the topic a trendy talking point for campaigning politicians, thus gaining undue support and attention. She states that Japan has always historically been tolerant of homosexuality, unlike other religious cultures, and asserts that the LGBT population in Japan does not face any discrimination.
There is some truth that LGBT people have rarely faced persecution for religious reasons in Japan, but to say there is no discrimination against them flies in the face of reason and facts.
According to Sugita, if there is any discrimination it is not a systemic problem but a personal problem between individuals and families. She further argued that she herself has no problem with LGBT individuals and therefore she speaks for all Japanese people.
After failing to recognize any existing issues, she states, “LGBT people are not reproductive so we must not be spending tax money on them.” She went on to express her fear of the continuing trend of allowing and acknowledging “abnormal” sexual preferences and how that would be the downfall of Japan as a nation.
And then there’s this:
“If we allow diversity and recognize many sexual preferences, things won’t just stop with gay marriage. For example, we’ll have brothers marrying each other, parents marrying their children, maybe even pet marriages, or marriage to machines. Overseas, there are these kinds of people starting to appear.”
As soon as the issues of the magazine were lined up on the shelves, the internet was ablaze with anger from its liberal corners, while steady support streamed in from the conservative LDP backers and the netto-uyo (Japan’s right-wing internet troll brigade).
The General Secretary of the LDP at first refused to condemn Sugita’s article. “People are entitled to their own opinions,” he said. Sugita added fuel to the fire by tweeting on her account that she had received support from party members for her views at "Cabinet minister levels,” but then later deleted the tweet.
Sugita has been peddling her views for many years now and after the article came out, a clip of a TV show, From The Land of The Rising Sun, surfaced on the internet with translated subtitles. In the video, Sugita seems to laugh off the high suicide rates of the LGBT community, saying that still does not mean the government needs to prioritize support.
Mio Sugita, who was not available for comment, is, like many female politicians welcomed into the LDP, an extreme right-winger and fiercely loyal to Abe. This is important to understand because she is a microcosm of the few women that manage to gain power within the LDP, which has more or less been ruling Japan since the party was founded in 1955. Even when LDP lawmakers are female in gender they are rarely feminists and often echo the sexist and extremist views of Nippon Kaigi, the right-wing Shinto cult, or are members of it. This group helped Abe stage a political comeback after his bumbling exit from power in 2007; most of his handpicked cabinet members belong to the group.
Sugita has denied Japan’s military used sex slaves in World War II, saying it’s a left-wing myth that is also promulgated by Koreans as “they spread their lies around the world.”
She also aroused the ire of many in and out of Japan after appearing in the BBC documentary Japan’s Secret Shame which centered around rape victim and journalist Shiori Ito. The film is a painful yet empowering look at the realities Ito faced after standing up to not only her alleged rapist, who was a close personal friend of the prime minister, but the system itself –– which discourages women from even filing charges.
While many supported Ms. Ito, the film features Sugita as a voice of opposition, essentially calling Ito a criminal. She suggests that in Ito’s case, that Ito is to blame. “There were clear errors on her part as a woman –– drinking that much in front of a man and losing her memory.”
The outrage about Sugita’s article was not confined to the internet. Thousands of LGBT and non-LGBT citizens came together last Sunday, July 27, and organized a large protest in front of the Liberal Democratic Party headquarters demanding Sugita’s resignation.
Erika Bulach, a 20-year-old student majoring in social sciences, went because she felt it was the only way to make politicians pay attention to the problem. “Sugita’s comments, they’re part of the sexist comments that accumulate on a daily basis here. I wanted to actively protest. More so than the general public, Japan’s political elites lack a moral compass when it comes to sexual harassment, LGBT discrimination, or sexism. It’s hard to believe that one of the very few females to become a member of parliament would say something like that. It was very disappointing.” She said she was surprised at the broad spectrum of people who came, old, young, men, women, straight, and LGBT. “It was inspiring.”
Nanami Uchiyama, an 18-year-old college student who also went to the protests, was impressed that people came from all over the country. “Sugita’s remarks are unforgivable but possibly they come from sheer ignorance. Sex education in Japanese public schools is a joke. Sexual diversity or sexual identity isn’t discussed and at most there’s a vague discussion on contraception and STDs.” She and many others learned of the protest from twitter and social networking sites and decided to go. This Sunday yet another protest is being planned.
Partly due to the protest, the LDP could no longer ignore public sentiment. There were also videos posted on social networking services which showed conservative journalist and Abe cheerleader Yoshiko Sakurai explaining that Sugita received an official endorsement from the LDP for the 2017 Lower House election because Abe personally considered her to be an outstanding politician. To his credit, Abe’s only real rival for power in the party, former Minister Of Defense Shigeru Ishiba, bluntly condemned Sugita’s writings on July 28 at a speech in Hyogo Prefecture.
Finally, in an effort to shut down the story, the LDP posted a notice on its website, dated August 1, that acknowledged that Sugita’s remarks “lacked consideration for others” and that she was going to be instructed on how to behave properly. Sugita responded with a comment that she would take the reprimand seriously. Abe, cornered at a speech on August 2, did not condemn Sugita or ask her to apologize or retract her remarks. Instead he said, "It is the policy of the government and ruling party…. to seek a society where human rights and diversity are respected.”
The Japan Alliance of LGBT Municipal Legislators released a statement August 3 that gave the LDP credit for at least acknowledging there was a problem, but saw the response as substandard: “When you consider how her [Sugita’s] remarks hurt not only LGBT, but families without children, women, people who are handicapped or in financial difficulty, she should apologize or retract what she has said. As a member of Parliament, she has also not lived up to her responsibility to explain herself.”
But prejudice bordering on pathology runs deep in the LDP. Just as the furor seemed to be subsiding, the internet was set ablaze again by a July 29 video of on a web program in which LDP Lower House member Tomohide Tanigawa, 42, declared, “It’s not necessary to legalize same-sex marriage... Homosexuality is like a hobby.”
The tone-deaf attitude towards the LGBT community by Japan’s ruling party is part of a pattern of picking on the weak in society, blaming them for being weak and then for society’s wider problems. When people dare to assert they have rights, the LDP pushes back even harder, whether against LGBT people, or foreign workers, or women, or third-generation Korean-Japanese, or the press –– when things go wrong the minorities get blamed.
Partially blaming LGBT for Japan’s declining birth-rate is not as difficult as addressing the real reasons people don’t have children: a lack of real job opportunities for women, gender inequality, single-parent poverty, the destruction of labor laws so that lifetime employment is a pipe-dream, endemic overtime resulting in (karoshi) people working to death, sexual harassment on the job, maternity harassment. The wealthy old men who run the party don’t have any conception of working hours so long and wages so low that dating is difficult, getting married a challenge, and raising children is impossible. All of this while there is rising poverty as Abenomics fizzles out.
It’s a lot easier to wage a war on LGBT people than it is to wage a genuine war on poverty.