Last month, Shibuya same-sex partners like Bob Tobin and Hitoshi Ohashi were forced to travel to progressive destinations like California in order to say their vows. And even then, those unions were deemed illegitimate by the Japanese government. But April 1 was a new day for the Tokyo ward’s LGBT community, as its local district assembly became the nation’s first to recognize same-sex marriage.
By Kyle Mullin
“I’m thrilled. It’s a major step forward,” Tobin—an author and Tokyo resident who also runs an art gallery with his partner—tells Tokyo Weekender during a recent interview, adding that he hopes the announcement will set a precedent in the capital’s 22 other wards, along with other cities across the country. “There are a lot of challenges ahead, but these challenges will be overcome—and soon.”
Akiko Shimizu, an associate professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at Tokyo University, is far less optimistic than Tobin. She says that many members of Tokyo’s queer community find the new statute “disconcerting” because those same-sex partnerships still need to approved by the head of the ward before they can go on to be recognized officially.
“There are a lot of challenges ahead, but these challenges will be overcome—and soon.”
Shimizu adds that the statute, as is, leaves her with many questions, such as: “What will the criteria be for the head of the ward to accept these couples? How are they going to decide who’s to be approved? What will the consequences of that kind of ‘approval’ be for the various existing forms of gay partnership in Tokyo?”
So far, her questions have gone unanswered. In an earlier Facebook post she also raised concerns about the new statute being used as a political ploy designed to distract the public from Tokyo’s rampant gentrification and evacuation of homeless people ahead of its hosting of the 2020 Summer Olympics. Pointing out a limitation initially misunderstood by a major news agency, she cautions that the statute “is NOT a legalization of same-sex partnership or marriage (ABC is misleading in this regard). Shibuya has made it very clear that the so-called ‘recognition’ isn’t legally binding.”
And yet, she couldn’t help but concede in the post that “Protecting LGBT rights is important in #Japan, where the ntl. gov. has zero regard for them. Shibuya’s measure = an important step forward.” But Shimizu ended the post writing: “we must keep in mind what human rights violations this ‘step forward’ is coupled with. One right doesn’t make other wrongs go away.”
“We must keep in mind what human rights violation this ‘step forward’ is coupled with. One right doesn’t make other wrongs go away.One right doesn’t make other wrongs go away.”
Despite Tobin’s joy at hearing about the approval of the statute, he acknowledges some of the limits of the new statute. “I understand her [Shimizu’s] concerns and they are legitimate. We should not have to get this kind of approval. It’s a bad aspect—but think of this—there is so much attention given to this issue now because of Shibuya—it’s a first step.”
Aside from raising awareness and sparking discourse about LGBT issues, the bill should also remove restrictions that have kept queer couples from visiting each other in the hospital and renting apartments together, according to a recent Reuters report.
Tobin says such restrictions remind him of the subtler societal barriers the queer community has had to negotiate. When he worked as a professor at Keio University, Tobin says he said that many of his gay Japanese colleagues wore wedding bands and talked in a coded language to ward off bigotry. He adds that “all of this takes effort and the fear of being found out prevents people from doing all they can do.”
He has equally unsettling memories about the prejudice he faced during his first professorship in California, an incident that taught him lessons about homophobia that would last a lifetime. “In the worst cases, closet cases make life miserable for those who are out. In California where I was a professor, a gay closeted dean heaped his vitriol on those of us who were out and sabotaged our efforts, which in some cases meant denial of tenure.”
But now, Tobin—whose upcoming book “Starting Your Beautiful Life,” will, in part, discuss a number of LGBT issues—prefers to focus on the future, and what the new Shibuya bill can offer the community. He’s not concerned with the statute’s finer points, or its potential flaws. Instead, he’s more interested in its deeper implications.
“Sure there might be some potential problems like taxes, legal standing, hospital visits, dealing with parents, and so on,” he says of the bill’s potential loopholes, before pointing out the crux of the matter, in his mind: “It’s more about societal understanding and recognition for me.”