Japan’s main ruling party approved a watered-down version of a bill on “promoting understanding” of the LGBTQ community, in apparent haste to show progress on the issue days before the country hosts the Group of Seven summit.
The Liberal Democratic Party approved the measure Tuesday, general affairs chair Toshiaki Endo told reporters. The revised bill weakens a previous reference to discrimination not being tolerated, instead saying only “unfair” discrimination shouldn’t be allowed. The party is aiming to submit the legislation to parliament before the leaders’ meeting begins on Friday.
“This is a great step forward,” Endo told reporters. “We have made efforts to move forward on a bill that it’s difficult for everyone to agree to 100%.”
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida had come under pressure from other members of the G-7 to show unity on promoting equality for sexual minorities. His country is the only one of the seven not to recognize same-sex unions or offer legal protection against discrimination.
But Japan’s bill does not call for civil rights protections and falls far short of rights provided in many Western countries. Still, the LDP may be looking for a baby step forward that could help pave the way for a successful summit, potentially bolstering voter support for Kishida.
But criticism of the LDP’s position has come from a variety of fields. Big business groups have complained the lack of legislation hampers efforts to recruit global talent. The head of Japan’s business lobby Keidanren said in March he was “ashamed” of how Japan had fallen behind its peers.
Polls have shown the majority of the Japanese public is in favor of passing the LGBTQ bill, and even of allowing same-sex marriage, although this doesn’t apply among people over 70.
Adding to the pressure on the Kishida government, U.S. Ambassador to Tokyo Rahm Emanuel posted a video to Twitter on Friday, in which ambassadors and diplomats from 15 missions call for a ban on discrimination against sexual minorities.
Discussion of the law had been stalled for years. A scandal over discriminatory remarks made by an aide to Kishida in February prompted him to push his party to revive it in an effort to control the damage. The aide was fired.
Kishida has referred to a need to treat the idea of marriage equality with “extreme caution.” He told reporters last month he wanted to monitor the progress of a series of lawsuits challenging the lack of marriage rights for same-sex couples.
There are also pockets of resistance among conservatives in the long-ruling LDP. They have effectively blocked any outright ban on discrimination and hit back at pressure from other countries, while lawmakers who have sought progress on the issue have faced a barrage of criticism.
“This LGBT problem, it’s the same as the problem of feminism,” Shoji Nishida, an upper house LDP lawmaker, said in a video on his YouTube channel. “It means crushing established values, established ways of thinking, and changing them.”
Other conservatives have taken a more supportive line. Keiji Furuya, an LDP lawmaker and former minister for national resilience, said the bill on promoting understanding could be a stepping stone toward introducing a tougher law with penalties for discrimination further down the line.
“Once people have understood, you can go on to make the law stronger,” he said in an interview. “At this point, they might be doing it without realizing. The public don’t have a full understanding of the reality that a certain number of LGBT people exist, they are born that way.”
Activists say the lack of progress is causing anguish for many. A study in Japan published by nonprofit organization Rebit in October found almost half of LGBTQ people in their teens had considered suicide in the previous year.
“It’s important to ban discrimination,” said Hiroto Shimizu, who transitioned from female to male and recently published a children’s book on LGBTQ issues. He criticized the LDP for debating the issue without input from those directly involved. “Even children understand that discrimination is bad.”