The First Place In East Asia To Welcome Same-Sex Marriage | KERA News

The First Place In East Asia To Welcome Same-Sex Marriage

May 11, 2015
Originally published on May 17, 2015 7:10 pm

Over Tokyo's Rainbow Pride Weekend in late April, Ren married her partner of four years, Yae, on stage before hundreds of Japanese strangers. They were proud to tie the knot and be part of a milestone in Japan and East Asia, a region where same-sex partnerships have never previously been recognized.

While same-sex marriage has become increasingly common in the U.S. and Western Europe, it's still rare in other parts of the world. There are signs of change in some parts of Asia. New Zealand legalized same-sex marriage in 2013 and Australia recognizes civil unions. Vietnam this year repealed a law banning same-sex marriages, though it does not officially recognize them.

No place in East Asia recognized same-sex marriages until late March, when Tokyo's trendy Shibuya ward passed a local ordinance granting same-sex couples the right to partnership certificates.

The ceremony quickly followed for Ren and Yae, who are keeping their last names private. They are among several couples that have had ceremonies recently.

"We didn't know this was going to happen," Ren said. "It was very quick."

While not legally binding, the certificates give gay couples rights to hospital visitation and shared rental agreements in the ward. Shibuya leaders expect businesses will honor the ordinance.

"Everyone has a right to become happy and they should be equal and everything, but maybe for some people in some way there had been some feeling that blocked their attitude to have more understanding towards these things," said Toshitake Kuwahara, the Shibuya ward mayor who oversaw the passage of the measure.

While the Japanese don't oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds, change has come slowly for LGBT measures in Japan partly because of a cultural paradox. The Japanese value harmony so much that the LGBT community hasn't faced overt discrimination.

"For better or for worse, Japan is a place that doesn't have a lot of conflict," said Fumino Sugiyama, the organizer of Pride Weekend. He's a transgender man who is now able to marry his girlfriend.

"If there were a lot of hate crimes or people felt danger, or if you weren't allowed to participate in government because you were LGBT, we would be like, 'Let's fight!' But we're not really rejected. As long are you don't make a fuss, you can get by. That's one of the big reasons it hasn't been a bigger issue," Sugiyama says.

But activists are raising their voices now. When polled by Kyodo News last year, 52 percent of Japanese said they opposed same-sex marriage rights.

"I think they were so bound to tradition in some ways, especially with the family and the way they register their family, and so any change to the family and that idea about the family is a challenge," said Jeffrey Trambley, vice president of the Equal Marriage Alliance in Japan. The non-profit is pressing lawmakers to consider granting more rights to same-sex couples.

Now, the Shibuya ordinance is paving the way for other locales.

Tokyo's Setagaya ward and the city of Yokohama are considering similar same-sex partnership policies. And a path toward marriage equality that starts in local areas — and widens — should be a familiar one for Americans. That the issue became politically viable at all is a big sign of change for Japan.

Chie Kobayashi contributed to this story.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We are going to go to a city ward of Tokyo now. This spring it became the first Japanese municipality to grant partnership rights to same-sex couples. NPR's Elise Hu was recently there and reports the move is raising hopes that more of Japan will follow suit.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: All the emotions of your wedding day are hard enough to handle as it is, but throw in a throng of news photographers following your every move and thousands of strangers gathered to watch you wed, and it's enough to render a bride speechless.

REN: I am so nervous now (laughter).

HU: Ren, who's keeping her family name out of the festivities, is about to marry her partner, Yae, on stage during Tokyo's Rainbow Pride festival. This ceremony almost didn't get to happen at all.

REN: We didn't know this going to happen. (Laughter).

HU: When did you learn you could get married?

REN: Just one month ago.

HU: That's because it wasn't until late March that the Shibuya ward, a trendy district of Tokyo, passed an ordinance OK-ing partnership certificates for same-sex couples. Considered a marriage equivalent, the measure gives LGBT couples rights to hospital visitation and shared rental agreements.

TOSHITAKE KUWAHARA: (Speaking Japanese).

HU: Toshitake Kuwahara made it a point to come to this ceremony. He's the Shibuya ward mayor who oversaw the passage of the measure.

KUWAHARA: (Through interpreter) Everybody has right to become happy, and they should be equal in everything. But maybe for some people, in some way, there had been some feeling which blocks the attitude to have more understanding towards these things.

HU: Change has come slowly, partly because of a cultural paradox. The Japanese value harmony so much that the LGBT community hasn't faced overt discrimination.

FUMINO SUGIYAMA: (Through interpreter) For better or for worse, Japan is a place that doesn't have a lot of conflict.

HU: Fumino Sugiyama is the organizer of pride weekend. He's a transgender man who's now able to marry his girlfriend.

SUGIYAMA: (Through interpreter) If there were a lot of hate crimes or people felt danger, or if you weren't allowed to participate in the government because you were LGBT, we would be like, let's fight, but we're not really rejected. As long as you don't make a fuss, you can get by. That's, I think, one of the big reasons it hasn't been a bigger issue.

HU: Sugiyama and activists like him are raising their voices now against entrenched attitudes. Fifty-two percent of Japanese said they oppose same-sex marriage rights according to a Kyodo News poll last year. Jeffrey Trambley helped start the Equal Marriage Alliance in Japan to help change some minds.

JEFFREY TRAMBLEY: I think they are so bound to tradition in some ways, especially with the family and the way that they register their family, so any changes to that idea about the family, I think, is a challenge.

HU: Trambley's nonprofit is pressing lawmakers to consider granting rights to same-sex couples nationwide.

TRAMBLEY: We'll try every sort of way to get them to start thinking about it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Japanese).

HU: Shibuya's revolutionary move has made for at least one happy couple. Our bride and bride got hitched without a hitch.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Japanese).

(APPLAUSE)

HU: And the new ordinance is paving the way for other locales. Tokyo's Setagaya ward and the city of Yokohama are now considering similar same-sex partnership policies. Elise Hu, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.