British Columbia·Video

As Olympic spotlight shines on Japan, LGBT advocates call for change

Vancouver couple Tyler Iwata and Steven Hashimoto and Victoria LGBT advocate Madu Suzuki say pressure from outside of Japan is needed to bring change to a country where there's still no law to protect gay people from discrimination.

Japanese Canadians describe how intolerance made them leave their home country

Madu Suzuki, right, is shown with her wife, Kim Meredith, and their two newborn children. Suzuki has signed petitions for same-sex marriage and LGBT equality legislation in Japan, leading up to the opening of Olympic Games on Friday. (Mary Jane Howland)

Madu Suzuki recalls how she couldn't summon up the courage to come out to her father in Japan until she moved to Canada to marry her partner.

Now a staunch advocate for LGBT rights, Suzuki is hoping that the Tokyo Olympics can help push inclusion and diversity in Japan by putting the traditionally conservative country's human rights record in the international spotlight.

Japan is the only country among the Group of Seven major industrialized nations where same-sex marriage is not legally recognized. With no equality law in place, many LGBT people there still hide their identities, fearing discrimination at school, work and even in their families.

Suzuki, who now runs a dance studio in Victoria, where she lives with her wife and two children, is one of tens of thousands of people worldwide who have signed petitions in support of same-sex marriage and LGBT equality legislation in Japan leading up to the opening of Olympic Games on Friday.

Tokyo 2020 organizing committee president Seiko Hashimoto, right, bumps elbows with Gon Matsunaka, head of Pride House Tokyo Legacy, during a visit on April 27. Japan's government had pledged to push for an equality law before the Tokyo Olympics, but the ruling Liberal Democratic Party stalled the legislation in June. (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

Activists argue that as a host country, Japan should work to protect LGBT people because the Olympic Charter prohibits all forms of discrimination.

Suzuki, 31, says she ultimately decided to make Canada home, because under Japanese law, which recognizes only female-male unions, the government wouldn't grant her Canadian wife a spouse visa that would allow her to live in the country.

She says while her mother accepted her being gay before she left for British Columbia in 2014, her father and uncles were shocked to learn she was marrying a woman when she invited them to her wedding in Victoria two years later.

Suzuki and Meredith pose for a wedding shoot in Victoria in 2016. Suzuki says some of her family was shocked when they learned she was marrying a woman. (Kris Westendorp)

"[My uncles] said to me that 'you are not normal, and if you don't have kids, your life is meaningless,'" Suzuki said.

"I was hurt by that comment."

Even more hurtful, she said, was the tirade of hateful comments she received from people in Japan after a Huffington Post article about her family was published last month. 

WATCH | Madu Suzuki recalls the trauma of coming out to her family:

Victoria resident Madu Suzuki explains why she advocates for LGBT rights in Japan

2 months ago
3:42
If I don't speak up for the LGBT community in Japan, people there will assume there's no issue with intolerance, says Madu Suzuki, who recalls the trauma of coming out to her conservative family. 3:42

Homophobic remarks abound even in Japan's national parliament. For example, a lawmaker with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party said in May that being LGBT goes against the preservation of the human species.

A month later, his party decided to stall the passage of LGBT equality legislation, despite pledging to bring in such a law before the Olympics.

Tyler Iwata and Steven Hashimoto — two Vancouver nurses who tied the knot in Canada in 2012, with the blessing of Iwata's parents — say Japanese society's intolerance and politicians' archaic mentality about sexuality are the main reasons why they left the country for good.

Tyler Iwata, left, Steven Hashimoto and their dog, Oscar, are shown outside their home in Vancouver. The couple say Japanese society's intolerance and politicians' archaic mentality about sexuality are the main reasons why they left the country. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"There are lots of peer pressures and social expectations are very high," said Hashimoto, 55.

He said many would expect him to have two kids at this stage in life. "Otherwise, they say you are kind of … unique — in a negative way."

But in Canada, "nobody cares who you are — in a good way — so you can be yourself no matter what gender," said Iwata, 39.

WATCH | Steven Hashimoto describes the trickiness of his relationship with his Japanese in-laws:

Japan's homogeneous culture leaves no room for sexual diversity, Steven Hashimoto says

2 months ago
2:27
Steven Hashimoto says he accommodates his in-laws' conservative attitudes towards LGBT people for the sake of his husband. 2:27

Despite the absence of a national law to protect LGBT people, Japanese society has shown signs of growing acceptance in recent years.

Under mounting pressure from advocacy groups, since 2015, more than 100 municipal and prefectural governments have issued same-sex partnership certificates, which grant gay couples some rights previously only enjoyed by straight couples.

These include applying for public housing together, naming partners as beneficiaries for insurance, and being able to visit seriously ill partners in hospital. (However, these certificates aren't legally binding and depend largely on goodwill in order to be effective.) 

Meanwhile, a national survey conducted by Hiroshima Shudo University in 2019 found 65 per cent of participants supported same-sex marriage — a jump of 14 percentage points from 2015.

WATCH | Tyler Iwata calls for more inclusion in Japanese society:

Tyler Iwata explains why LGBT rights should be protected in Japan

2 months ago
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Tyler Iwata from Vancouver asks Japanese parents to imagine how they would feel if their children were LGBT and were being bullied. 1:57

And in March, a district court in northern Japan ruled that the government's ban on same-sex marriages was unconstitutional, recognizing the rights of same-sex couples for the first time in the country's history. 

The ruling can now be used by the country's Supreme Court as a precedent when it reviews the constitutionality of government actions.

Plaintiffs' lawyers and supporters are shown outside the courthouse in March after a district court in Sapporo, Japan, ruled that the government's ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. (Kyodo/Reuters)

Hashimoto says while the ruling is a beam of hope, he believes further change in Japan will only be possible under pressure from the United Nations, foreign governments and international advocacy groups.

Minky Worden, director of global initiatives for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, says her organization will keep fighting for same-sex marriage and laws to protect LGBT people in workplaces, schools and all aspects of life in Japan, beyond the Tokyo Olympics. 

"Canadians can absolutely help with this by asking your government and your sports bodies and others to communicate the expectations that, as a host country, Japan should uphold human rights, and especially LGBT rights," Worden said.

WATCH | Minky Worden urges Canadian allyship with Japan's LGBT community:

Japan comes last on human rights among G7 industrialized nations, advocate says

2 months ago
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Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch explains how Canadians can do their part to further LGBT rights in Japan. 1:48

For more, watch this story on CBC Vancouver's July 26 newscast:

Tokyo Olympics raise hopes for pursuit of LGBT equality in Japan

2 months ago
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Japanese Canadians in B.C. say they have been forced out of a culture intolerant to LGBT people. 2:54

With files from Associated Press, Reuters and Kyodo

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