Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
In this Pride issue, I want to take our attention outward to Japan, which continues to face similar struggles as we do in Hawai‘i and the United States – the right to have our relationships recognized by the government and the human dignity that comes with it.
This year, Japan’s Pride celebrations were held on April 22 and 23. Like other pride events, news coverage included images of rainbows, people marching in parades and smiling faces. Unlike many other places, Japan is the only country in the G-7 to not allow marriage equality.
In 2019, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said, “Whether or not to recognize same-sex marriage is an issue that is fundamental to the nature of the family in Japan, and requires extremely careful consideration.” In Japan, the number of LGBTQ+ teenagers who have attempted suicide is more than four times the number of heterosexual teens. For advocates in Japan, this underscores the need to eliminate discrimination and secure marriage equality.
One critical route to garner marriage equality has been through the courts. In 2019, five suits were filed by same-sex couples. The first decision was issued in 2021 by the Sapporo District Court. The favorable ruling found that the denial of marriage to same-sex couples was unconstitutional in violation of Article 14 of Japan’s constitution, which provides in part, “All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin.”
The Japanese government’s arguments against marriage equality will sound similar to those who were involved in Hawai‘i’s efforts: 1) purpose of marriage is to provide legal protections for a husband and wife and their children; 2) gay people still have the ability to marry of the opposite sex so there is no discrimination; and 3) people in same-sex couples can still have a relationship without marrying so their individual dignity is not violated.
Recently, Makiko Terahara, attorney-at-law and founder and CEO of Marriage for All Japan participated in the East-West Center’s 2023 Changing Faces Women’s Leadership Seminar. She also took the time to meet with LGBTQ+ and international law attorneys in Hawai‘i to share about her work and provide updates on Japan’s struggle for marriage equality.
Terahara is a petite, unassuming woman, wife and mother. Even with all of the international attention her nonprofit work has garnered, she is extremely humble and grateful for others’ interest in this issue. She became interested in law because she felt helpless as a child. Terahara grew up seeing her father act violently to her mother. Though she started out as a business lawyer at one of Japan’s largest law firms, she took on pro bono cases, cases where she provided her legal services free of charge, involving sexual harassment, employment discrimination and family law. This commitment to helping others with her legal training moved towards supporting LGBTQ+ people.
In 2011, Terahara met a lawyer through her friends. This attorney was a gay man. After this meeting, Terahara felt guilty. “I felt I should help LGBTQ people because I’m a lawyer,” she shared. Reflecting on her views, “I thought that before I didn’t have prejudice about LGBTQ+ people. I thought I was indifferent.” She realized that her indifference was being complicit in discrimination. “A revelation hit me.” Terahara started conversations within professional organizations such as the Tōkyō Bar Association. She would give lectures for attorneys and held the first symposium for attorneys focused on LGBTQ+ rights in 2012.
Ultimately, Terahara’s work led to the creation of Marriage for All Japan, a nonprofit umbrella organization working for marriage equality. Its mission focuses on engaging in public relations around the marriage equality lawsuits, lobbying lawmakers to amend discriminatory laws, and to leverage public opinion. The organization shares information with its membership and also uses technology to help the public communicate with government officials.
As the legal battle over marriage equality continues and despite political challenges, there is growing public support for marriage equality in Japan. Marriage for In a 2023 Japan survey, 72% of respondents supported same-sex marriage.
When asked how people in Hawai‘i or the U.S. might support the efforts in Japan, Terahara suggested that people talk about these issues everywhere. She noted, “In Japan, we don’t talk about such things in casual situations, but we need to be accustomed to talk about this. . . . Talk can explore the seriousness of situations.”
Terahara’s work continues to break through cultural barriers highlighting the need for others, so that those who may be silenced or hidden in Japanese society can.
Trisha Nakamura is the Interim Dean of Student Services at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa William S. Richardson School of Law, where she has served as the director of career services. She is a volunteer board member of the Japanese American Citizens League-Honolulu Chapter, an organization advocating for civil and human rights. Prior to her work at the law school, she worked as a deputy public defender, defending the rights of those accused. As a Yonsei local Okinawan woman who was born and raised in Hawai‘i, she is committed to equity and social justice. Her respect for this place and people, and her appreciation of diversity, inform her desire to contribute to the community.