Japan placed itself in the world spotlight with its successful Olympic bid, which must have seemed like a good idea at the time. In retrospect, one suspects that the country regrets its success, as it moves to hold the event in the midst of the current pandemic, against the wishes of 80% of the population. Japan is currently in the international news daily, and not for the reasons it would like: Tokyo 2021 will forever be remembered as the Covid Olympics. But, perhaps even worse for this government, the increased attention the Olympics brings with it is also attracting unwanted attention to Japan’s human rights record.
Just last month, in a meeting about proposals to legislate against anti-LGBT discrimination (they eventually failed), members of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic party described LGBT people as “morally wrong” and “unnatural”, in that they “fail to ensure the continuation of species.” These comments raised an outcry in Japan and abroad, where they were evaluated in light of the commitment to anti-discrimination in the Olympic charter; Human Rights Watch said that Japan should get a gold medal for homophobia. This was probably not the publicity Japan was hoping for when it pitched for Tokyo 2020.
These remarks shouldn’t have shocked anyone, being as they are consistent with the country’s historic treatment of LGBT people; it is the only nation in the G7 coterie of liberal democracies that doesn’t allow same-sex marriage, for example (despite 65% of the population supporting it). Trans people like me are at the sharp end of Japan’s state-level queerphobia. The country’s policy on gender transition is particularly draconian: those who wish to change their gender on formal documents are required to receive a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria, to have surgical interventions leaving them sterile, to have no children under the age of majority, and to be unmarried. This last condition seems related to the unlawfulness of same-sex marriage: by default, married people who transitioned would end up one. This is precisely my own situation.
I am a trans woman with US citizenship. This means I was able to change my gender paperwork in the US, but not in Japan, where I have lived for 20 years and have permanent residency, since I’m married and a parent of minor children. I thought I could bypass Japan’s transphobic bureaucracy by virtue of my nationality. It turns out I couldn’t.
When I went with my new American paperwork to update my paperwork in Japan, I discovered an obstacle. While I was able to update documents such as my residence card, I couldn’t on others that indicated my marital status, since doing so would create a de facto same-sex marriage. My wife and I were given a choice: either I could live with different genders on different paperwork, or we could dissolve our marriage. We chose a third option: to crowdfund a lawsuit.
This month, we are filing our suit against the Japanese government to force them to recognise my gender transition while keeping our marriage intact. If successful, we’ll be in the first official same-sex marriage in Japan. Since I also have children who are minors, we’d also set a precedent for trans people with families. For me, this is important: while we of course want to improve our own situation, our main aim is to empower others with even fewer options than we have. For example, transitioning for some immigrants might mean having to leave the country, as their visas are contingent on their marriages.
Japan’s longstanding hostility to immigrants has reached a fever pitch during the pandemic. Throughout the past year, the government has insisted on coronavirus as a “foreign problem”, and in March of last year, suddenly closed its border to everyone without a Japanese passport; I was unable to return home for three months, despite being a permanent resident in Japan. After a brief period of relative laxity, the border closed again in December, and remains closed. Throughout, Japanese nationals passed in and out freely, and weren’t even required to quarantine until December. Of course, this xenophobia intersects toxically with queerphobia.
One class of people currently able to receive visas are family members of Japan residents, but because Japan bans same-sex marriage, LGBT couples – much less people who with other non-normative family structures – are not eligible. My own family is one of these: my wife, partner and I plan to live together in Tokyo, but my partner has been waiting for six months to enter the country. We haven’t seen each other for a year.
From where I’m standing, the rhetoric of the Olympics – equality, fairness, unity – has had no effect on Japan’s state-sponsored xenophobia and homophobia – though not a surprise, given the reality is that the Olympics are little more than a corporate sporting event. This may change as the Olympics draw closer and scrutiny intensifies; on 21 May, an open letter signed by almost 500 academics was published, demanding Japan to change its border policies. Meanwhile, we hope our own and other similar lawsuits will have some effect on Japan’s homophobic marriage laws, though the Japanese court system moves at a glacial pace. For now, Japan seems to be prioritizing the Olympics above the lives of potential immigrants, which is unlikely to change without external pressure from other governments, which has not been forthcoming. It may well be that nothing changes until September. Unfortunately, Japan’s current stance on LGBT rights also looks to be in a holding pattern.
Elin McCready is a professor in the Department of English at Aoyama Gakuin University, Japan.