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Anti-LGBTQ remarks from top aide in Japan sparks outrage and hope for change

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There's public outrage in Japan over discriminatory remarks about sexual minorities from the prime minister's office. The response to this scandal is giving LGBTQ advocates hope that this may be an opportunity for change.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Masayoshi Arai was the prime minister's executive secretary and speechwriter. He told reporters off the record last week that not only would he not like to live next to an LGBTQ couple, he would even hate looking at them. Before he fired Arai, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida distanced himself from his comments.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER FUMIO KISHIDA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "My administration aims for a sustainable, inclusive society that recognizes diversity," he told reporters.

Japan is the only member of the G-7 group of industrialized nations that does not permit same-sex marriage. Gon Matsunaka, director of a civic group called Marriage For All Japan, says he felt angry, resentful and helpless about the secretary's comments. He and other LGBTQ activists went to the prime minister's residence, demanding the government legalize same-sex marriage.

GON MATSUNAKA: (Through interpreter) The Kishida government has been saying that it wants to be an administration that embraces diversity, but the exact opposite message was sent out from the prime minister's office.

KUHN: Polls show most Japanese support legalizing same-sex marriage, but Prime Minister Kishida suggested this month that it could negatively impact Japanese society. In the city of Fukuoka, a man named Kosuke and his partner are suing Japan's government, claiming the ban on same-sex marriages is unconstitutional. They gave only their first names because they're worried about discrimination. Kosuke says they got a certificate from their city recognizing their partnership.

KOSUKE: (Through interpreter) At first, I thought applying for this would be the same as getting married. However, I realized that the reality is that it has no legal effect.

KUHN: The ruling Liberal Democratic Party - or LDP - is considering passing a law to increase awareness of sexual minorities ahead of a G-7 summit that Japan is hosting in May. But Kosuke and his partner don't think it would help them.

KOSUKE: (Through interpreter) The registration is just a political performance. It's not for us. In my view, they are making a law to put Japan in a better position politically.

KUHN: Kanako Otsuji is an LGBTQ rights activist and Japan's first openly homosexual member of parliament. She says Prime Minister Kishida faces pressure from inside his own party to oppose same-sex marriage.

KANAKO OTSUJI: (Through interpreter) It's said that his faction is essentially liberal, but I think he has done his best not to touch issues that divide LDP conservatives, such as same-sex marriage. I've never felt he wanted to tackle these issues proactively.

KUHN: But, Otsuji says, Kishida can't afford to ignore public opinion, and she's encouraged that foreign governments have weighed in on the issue. U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, and U.S. Special Envoy to Advance the Human Rights of LGBTQI+ persons, Jessica Stern, encouraged Japan's government this week to pass the legislation raising awareness of sexual minorities. Ambassador Emanuel notes that Japan has partnered with the U.S. on the international stage.

RAHM EMANUEL: Advocating for anti-discrimination and for an inclusive value system where everybody counts. Here at home, in Japan, that's not true as it comes to the laws, and it's time that the laws of Japan reflect their advocacy overseas. There's a gap.

KUHN: And it's time, he says, to close that gap.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.