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    Unstoppable: The March for LGBTIQ Equality in Japan

    By John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney–

    Unstoppable. That’s the word that summed up our feelings about the Japanese LGBTIQ movement after participating with over 200,000 other people in the recent 2-day Tokyo Rainbow Pride celebrations. A large rainbow festival took place on both Saturday, April 22, and Sunday, April 23, in Yoyogi Park, near the very popular and trendy Shibuya and Harajuku districts in Tokyo. Marches through these busy neighborhoods took place on both days.

    Saturday was the Tokyo Liberation March, an intersectional march whose message was the need for society to embrace all minority groups on their own terms as different from the dominant majority culture. The march included diverse Japanese minority groups, such as Ainu, the indigenous people of northern Japan, and emphasized how minority groups should not have to prove their resemblance to the majority in order to be respected and be free from discrimination. This message of liberation is especially meaningful and powerful in Japanese culture, where pressure to adhere to perceived public norms is immense and constrains not only LGBTIQ people, women, and other visible minority groups, but indeed also any Japanese person who does not want to conform to apparent societal expectations.

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney with Makiko Terahara, lead attorney in the
    Tokyo marriage equality litigation

    Sunday was the Pride Parade, featuring numerous contingents and floats. Marriage For All Japan, was one of the largest contingents, composed not only of queer couples and LGBTIQ activists, but also of members of the Japanese parliament, known as the Diet. Numerous community groups participated in the march along with multiple domestic and international companies, who also had booths at the festival. Corporate support for LGBTIQ equality is crucial in this nation, in which business plays an outsized role in political life. But we were very pleased to see that community groups marched first in the parade with business groups following later.

    Perhaps most politically significant about this year’s pride events was the outspoken presence of numerous ambassadors from G7 countries and other pro-LGBTIQ countries who spoke forcefully about the need for equality in Japan as well as elsewhere in the world. The eyes of the world are on Japan this week as the annual G7 conference opens on May 19 in Hiroshima. As readers of this column may know, Japan is the only G7 country without either marriage equality or civil unions, with five of the seven nations having full marriage equality. A 2020 OECD report found that Japan was next to last, just above Turkey, of the 35 OECD counties when it came to LGBTIQ legal rights.

    Plaintiff couples leading the Marriage For All Japan contingent

    British Ambassador Julia Longbottom, whose daughter recently married her wife in the U.K., gave a powerful and personal appeal for equality. Dutch Ambassador Peter van der Vliet took a not-so-subtle jab at the ruling Jimintō (LDP) party, which is now scrambling before the G7 conference begins to try to pass an LGBT “understanding” bill that still provides no substantive legal protections for queer people. The ambassador proclaimed that “better understanding is the starting point not the goal. Discrimination in any form is not part of free society.” Argentinian Ambassador Guillermo Hunt gave inspirational remarks about his nation’s leadership on marriage equality, recognition of gender identity, and non-binary people’s rights. Many ambassadors invited festival attendees to visit their nations’ booths at the festival.

    U.S. Ambassador Rahm Emanuel’s turn to speak came last, and he took full advantage of it. He thanked the crowd for their patience in staying attentive for all the speeches, a virtue for which Japanese people are famous. But he immediately entreated queer people not to be patient when it comes to equality. Emanuel explained that the U.S. also had a booth at the festival, but he boldly implored the crowd not to stop at the booth, but instead to march right on by and into the streets to make their voices demanding equality heard. Two days later he followed up with a tweet: “The equality countdown begins now. As I said at Tokyo Rainbow Pride and will say again: no one should have patience when it comes to equal rights for all. This is the time; this is the moment to have your voices heard and our values adhered to … .” 

    In addition to his impassioned rhetoric, Emanuel also sounded a softer tone both at Pride and on Twitter. At Pride, he praised Japan as a beautiful home with people with beautiful hearts, urging the government to open that welcoming home to all people. And on Twitter he echoed: “It’s time for a new era where members of the LGBTQI+ community feel at home in” both countries, recognizing that the full equality had not yet been achieved on either side of the Pacific.

    Emanuel’s reminder about the beauty that lies in the heart of Japanese culture and people resonates greatly with us and is the reason we are very hopeful when it comes to the future for LGBTIQ rights in Japan. Those feelings were palpable when the two final honorees took the stage at the end of the Pride festival.

    They were renowned 74-year-old singer and television personality Kenichi Mikawa, who is openly gay and is known not only for his music but also his outspoken opinions; and long-time LGBTIQ activist Teishiro Minami, who is now over 90 years old. Minami has been a tireless queer activist for decades, serving as chief editor for gay magazines, a leader in the fight against HIV/AIDS—and an organizer of the very first Tokyo Pride parade in 1994. That parade began with only 50 marchers but grew to over 300 strong as onlookers joined in as the parade progressed. Today, many thousands of people march. Seeing Minami and Mikawa on stage brought one word to our minds in thinking about the future of the Japanese LGBTIQ rights movement:  unstoppable.

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.

    6/26 and Beyond
    Published on May 18, 2023