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The Universal Periodic Review and LGBTI Rights: Japan

Azusa Yamashita is the co-director and editor for Gay Japan News, Japan’s non-commercial LGBTI online news source and advocacy group since 2005. While she works as a full-time university researcher, she has worked to highlight the human rights situation of sexual minorities in Japan through the United Nations human rights mechanisms by submitting NGO input. Azusa was elected alternate co-secretary general of ILGA at the last ILGA world conference in December 2012. An interview by Stephen Barris.

Avatar of Alessia Valenza

27th March 2013 13:23

Alessia Valenza | ILGA Asia

Azusa has been very active in contacting embassies in Japan and country missions in Geneva to have recommendations based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Japan received five recommendations in this area, and it accepted all of them. 

Azusa was welcomed in Geneva by ILGA: she was able to read an oral statement at the 22nd Human Rights Council, following the formal adoption of the UPR report from Japan.

Read and watch the oral statement in English.


In May 2008, Japan underwent its first UPR review. Were LGBTI rights raised and, if so, to what extent did the UPR review and its recommendations have an impact in Japan?

In 2008, Gay Japan News submitted its NGO report to the Human Rights Council together with twenty one international, regional and national LGBTI organisations, including ILGA-Asia. As a positive impact of the Council recommendation, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs changed its policy to issue the legal document certifying one’s single status and made it inclusive of same-sex partners. This document is required when one attempts to marry abroad, but the Ministry previously restricted an issuance of the document to opposite-sex couples.

In your joint submission to the UPR with Rainbow Action for the second cycle of the UPR on Japan late last year, you mention the homophobic comments the Governor of Tokyo made in 2010. How is the Japanese population reacting to public homophobia expressed by a politician?

Then Governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, who currently serves in the parliament in Japan, has been known as racist and homophobe. When he called people with same-sex orientation “somewhat insufficient [as human beings]”… probably because of “genetic problem,” a couple of major newspapers reported his remarks. LGBTI organisations, human rights activists and Human Rights Watch issued statements against it, but the Japanese population was indifferent to the incident. Ishihara was re-elected as the Governor shortly after the remark. Aya Kamikawa, male-to-female transgender elected official in Setagaya, Tokyo’s biggest municipality, and Taiga Ishikawa and Wataru Ishizaka, who both are openly-gay elected officials for other municipalities in Tokyo since 2011, also condemned the politician’s repetitive homophobic remarks.

In Japan, public demonstration of homophobia is common in our daily lives, such as on TV programs, in schools and in daily conversations with your friends or colleagues. In my opinion, despite public tolerance towards demonstrations of homophobia and transphobia, Ms. Kamikawa, Mr. Ishikawa and Mr. Ishizaka were elected because of their sincerity, character and hard work regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Ishihara is popular especially among older voters for his vocalise and the charismatic character that some people believe he has. He has not only been homophobic, but also xenophobic and sexist. Human rights activists, including women’s rights activists and sexual minority rights activists, have protested against his remarks; but his voters still believed that he should be elected despite his discriminatory attitudes towards different social minority groups. Last October, he resigned from Tokyo Governor and was elected as parliament member in our last general election in December 2012.

Anti-discrimination law, marriage for same-sex couples, issues regarding trans people are some of the issues you mentioned in your UPR report. Do you discuss the issues you are raising at the UPR with the government at home?

Yes, we do. Different LGBTI groups that are usually engaged in a dialogue at a national level with the government made use of the UPR recommendation. We also used the recommendation to draw attention from other human rights organisations to LGBTI issues when we jointly lobbied for anti-discrimination law that Japan still has failed to legislate. The Liberal Democratic Party proposed an Anti-discrimination Bill to the parliament in 2002 for the first time. In 2005, the Democratic Party of Japan proposed their version of the bill. The bill included “sexual orientation” as a ground for prohibiting discrimination. On both occasions, the bill met fierce opposition from people who did not support human rights of social minorities, and the media that were afraid that the bill could restrict freedom of expression. Although LGBTI groups have been pushing for the enactment of an anti-discrimination bill, it has not yet happened.

In my personal and optimistic view, the issue that is most likely to be addressed in the near future is the enactment of an inclusive anti-sexual violence bill that women’s rights groups have been pushing together with LGBTI activists. Sexual minorities are not explicitly protected by the existing laws. When the bill is passed, it will protect LGBTI people who experience sexual violence in different spheres of their daily lives, at home, in schools, at the workplace, in relationships and so forth.

Whether the issue is anti-discrimination law, same-sex marriage or protection of transgender people, it will be difficult with the current government which came back in power last December, because they explicitly oppose the rights of LGBTI people.

In your NGO report for the UPR, you make reference to GID, Gender Identity Disorder, when dealing with the many social difficulties and legal obstacles Japanese trans people are experiencing. Is transitioning gender commonly regarded as a disorder in Japan?

“Gender Identity Disorder” is a medical term. The term is employed in the law that allows transgender people to apply to a family court to change their genders on the family registry, which is the root document for other legal documents, such as the residential certificate, public health insurance cards and pension book. Since the term, which includes the word “Disorder,” is widely recognised in Japanese society, transitioning gender is generally perceived as a disorder. Some transgender people do not accept the labelling though.

***************************** More on the The Universal Periodic Review (UPR)

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR), started by the UN in 2006, is a new tool about the current situation of human rights. Its first round for all countries ended in 2011; the second cycle started in June 2012, where it is planned to review forty-two countries every year, so that within four and a half years all UN Member States will be reviewed.

The reviews develop in five stages: reporting, interactive dialogue with Member States, acceptance of recommendations, formal acceptance of the report with all its recommendations, and, finally, implementation and monitoring. The corresponding procedures involve the States, national and international NGOs, national human rights institutions and other stakeholders.
In October 2012 the UPR 14th session reviewed Japan together with thirteen other countries. The NGOs’ reports had been sent, as it is compulsory, seven months before the review session.

Proofreading by Tom Hoemig

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