Out in the World: Japan's first gay elected member of parliament visits SF

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Friday September 16, 2022
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Taiga Ishikawa, the only out member of the Japanese legislature, looks at a piece of the original rainbow flag during his tour of the GLBT History Museum. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Taiga Ishikawa, the only out member of the Japanese legislature, looks at a piece of the original rainbow flag during his tour of the GLBT History Museum. Photo: Rick Gerharter

San Francisco's GLBT Historical Society Museum welcomed Taiga Ishikawa, Japan's first gay member of parliament, during his recent visit to San Francisco.

Ishikawa, 48, is Japan's highest-ranking and only LGBTQ politician currently serving in the House of Councilors, the upper house of Japan's parliament, known as the Diet. Elected in 2019, he is a member of the Constitutional Democratic Party, the country's largest opposition party.

Ishikawa was the second out LGBTQ member to be elected to the nearly 700-member parliament. Kanako Otsuji, 47, a lesbian, served in parliament from 2017 to 2021.

San Francisco was the last stop on Ishikawa's tour of the United States. He toured the GLBT Historical Society Museum for an hour August 30.

Ishikawa paused for a long time in front of the exhibit of gay men in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. Leaning in to examine the details, he listened and asked questions as Andrew Shaffer, a gay man who is interim co-executive director of the GLBT Historical Society, explained how LGBTQ Japanese Americans were among those who lost their homes and businesses when the U.S. government sent them to camps.

"I didn't realize that there were queer people in the internment camps," Ishikawa said, speaking through interpreter Camellia Nieh, who provided English and Japanese translation for Ishikawa throughout his U.S. trip.

Ishikawa said he was aware that Japanese people have been in San Francisco for a long time. He was aware of the internment camps during the war. He knew that queer people have long been in San Francisco.

"The fact that there were Japanese people who are gay here in San Francisco is something that just became more palpable to me coming here," he said.

Connecting the past with the present, Ishikawa expressed concern about persecution of LGBTQ people around the world, noting Chechnya.

The LGBTQ community is a "very peace-loving community" and the internment camps were "a result of war," he said, stating marginalized people, like the LGBTQ community, are often victims of such conflicts.

"I want to work within our community to promote peace in the world together," he said, stating that the LGBTQ community can connect and unify globally today. "I want to use that network to work toward peace."

Reflecting on his experience in the museum, Ishikawa said, "I'm very moved that you have created this opportunity for us to understand that gay people have been around throughout history."

Ishikawa also spent a lot of time examining the display for slain San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, which includes the suit he wore the day he was assassinated. Milk was California's first out gay elected official and San Francisco's first gay supervisor representing the city's Castro district. Disgruntled ex-supervisor Dan White shot and killed Milk and then-Mayor George Moscone in November 1978.

Giving hope for Japan

Japan is much different for LGBTQ people today than it was 20 years ago, Ishikawa explained. "In Japan, it was very rare for people to come out. It was normal for them to stay in the closet," he said about LGBTQ life two decades ago.

Japan decriminalized homosexuality in 1881. However, being gay remained taboo throughout the 20th century into the 21st century in the East Asian country. Like for many LGBTQ people around the world, the internet was instrumental for Ishikawa in connecting with the gay community.

"I was able to feel empowered and get more courage," he said, talking about how he started creating events for LGBTQ youth to break down isolation.

Ishikawa echoed Milk when asked what his message was for LGBTQ Japanese youth. "I want to tell them that there is hope. I want to give them hope," he said.

The 2008 biographical film, "Milk," inspired Ishikawa's LGBTQ activism and political career. He said he saw the movie soon after he came out at 25 years old. In 2011, he became Japan's first openly gay elected official when he won his bid for the Toshima ward.

Ishikawa does not expect to be the lone gay in Japan's parliament for long even though four LGBTQ candidates ran for office but did not win in the last election.

"I think just the fact that they were running for office in itself is very important," said Ishikawa, despite recent anti-LGBTQ sentiment on the rise in Japan's government.

The late prime minister Shinzo Abe opposed legalizing same-sex marriage. (Abe was assassinated in July.) In May, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Kazuo Yana, a three-term member of the House of Representatives, said at a private party meeting that LGBTQ people go against the preservation of the species, participants told the Japan Times. Eriko Yamatani made an anti-transgender comment days before Yana's anti-gay remarks, the paper reported. (LDP is a conservative party, despite its name.)

Today, there are many students and young professionals who are coming out. That doesn't take away the fact that coming out can be a scary process, Ishikawa noted, especially for transgender people. Japanese transgender people face the same challenges as transgender people around the world, he said.

Japanese transgender people can only legally change their name and gender on their identification if they've completed gender-affirming surgery. A movement for self-determination where surgery won't be required to change their legal documents is only beginning in the country, he said.

"It is a violation of our human rights to be forced to have surgery. That's not humanitarian," Ishikawa said.

"As a politician and as an adult, I want to create safe spaces," he added. "I want to change the laws so that discrimination won't be permitted. I want to create marriage equality. I want to give people hope."

Japan's quest for marriage equality

Ishikawa remains confident that marriage equality will come to Japan during his six-year tenure in office. He campaigned and won his election in 2019 based on a marriage equality platform.

"It will happen within the six years of my term, I am sure," he told Reuters after his election.

Same-sex marriage is illegal in Japan, though public support for same-sex marriage has grown, Ishikawa noted. A March 2021 poll by the Asahi newspaper found that 65% of Japanese supported gay marriage, while 22% opposed it, reported Reuters.

In 2015, the Shibuya ward office in Tokyo registered its first same-sex "partnership" certificate, ushering in a form of same-sex unions in Japan. Since then, more than 100 local governments legally recognize same-sex relationships in Japan, according to the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University in New York. However, the partnership certificates do not grant any legal rights, Ishikawa said.

Courts have issued conflicted rulings on same-sex marriage. Last year, a Japanese court ruled that it was unconstitutional to deny marriage to same-sex Japanese couples. In June, an Osaka District Court ruled a ban on same-sex marriage is constitutional.

In 2020, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations publicly stated prohibition of same-sex marriage is a serious violation of human rights in light of the constitution, according to APCOM, a Bangkok-based nonprofit organization that focuses on health rights of men who have sex with men.

Lawsuits seeking marriage equality are at various stages in the courts.

Ishikawa's election came during a wave of progress for marriage equality in Asia. Otsuji introduced the "Marriage Equality Act" and the "LGBT Discrimination Act" in June 2019. A month before that Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage.

LDP and its coalition party, Komeito, declined to debate Otsuji's bills, reported Reuters.

Three years later, same-sex marriage isn't legal in Japan, but Ishikawa's resolve is stronger than ever. Japan will have marriage equality despite an anti-LGBTQ backlash from some of the ruling LDP leaders, he told reporters at the end of his tour of the LGBTQ museum.

His optimism comes from several political factors that are about to come to a tipping point and the political power could usher in same-sex marriage in Japan, he explained.

While Ishikawa was traveling through the U.S. a government reshuffle was happening at home. He said a new government should be in place when parliament resumes at the end of October.

One of the biggest political factors is the Unification Church's political influence on Japan's LDP party, though Ishikawa said its opposition to same-sex marriage is unraveling. The Unification Church, more commonly known as the "Moonies," after its founder Sun Myung Moon, is a religious movement founded in South Korea in 1954.

Ishikawa called the church a "cult" and a "criminal organization" that brainwashes and tricks people in Japan into giving their money to the church.

LDP leaders' ties to the controversial church and scandal have made headlines in Japan since the killing of Abe, 67, Japan's longest-serving modern-day leader, on July 8.

Abe was allegedly assassinated by Tetsuya Yamagami while campaigning for party candidates. Ishikawa said Yamagami, whose mother was a member of the Unification Church, blamed it for "destroying his family." Abe's killing shone a light on the church and its political hold on Japan's LDP party members, 50% had ties to the church, reported The Diplomat.

"The fact that this criminal organization has strong ties to the Japanese government is a big problem," Ishikawa said. "It's extremely important right now to expose those crimes so that the politicians will sever their ties with the Unification Church." He said more politicians are cutting "off their ties to the Unification Church."

Privately, many LDP members support marriage equality, he said.

"If they actually cut off the relationship with this church, it's going to mean a huge change to attitudes in regard to marriage equality," Ishikawa said. "It might be surprisingly easy to establish gay marriage."

However, Ishikawa doesn't want the LDP to get the glory for passing marriage equality.

"The most important thing is we want to have regime change," he said about legalizing same-sex marriage. "We don't want the other political party to do it. We want to do it. When we're in charge, I'm looking forward to instituting marriage equality."

Ishikawa said real opportunities to make progress on marriage equality will come when he will have an audience with Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in January.

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

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