TOKYO — John Matthews writes: In January 1999, a Shinto priest unofficially married two men in a shrine in Kawasaki, an industrial city near Tokyo. Literally “the way of the gods,” Shinto is officially the state religion of Japan, but it does not influence modern Japanese life the way that Christianity dominates in the United States. Rather, it’s more a matter of a shared culture — of ritual practices and belief in spirits — against which some people define themselves.
The ceremony took place at Kanamara Shrine, best known for its annual Festival of the Steel Phallus, during which participants pray for easy childbirth or protection from sexually transmitted diseases. Hirohiko Nakamura, the priest who performed the rites, told local media then that this was probably the first time a wedding ceremony had been held for two men in Japan. “This may become a call to seriously think about the diversity of sex,” he said.
“In Shinto, it says make many children, expand humanity, and be prosperous. And yet, it’s not explicitly written anywhere that homosexuality is wrong or a sin.”
— Hisae Nakamura
Fast-forward 16 years. On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in all 50 states, overturning decades of often active and religiously motivated government discrimination against a minority of Americans. In Japan, gay marriage remains illegal — except for in one district, or ward, in Tokyo, which began recognizing same-sex marriages in March. A month earlier, conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has been arguing for revising Japan’s Constitution to allow a more assertive military, said that reforming the Japanese Constitution to allow for gay marriage would be difficult.
Across Japan, opinions about gay rights diverge. Technically, homosexuality is legal, Kazuyuki Minami, a lawyer in Osaka, reminded a journalist from the Associated Press, “but the atmosphere is such that most people feel homosexuals should not exist.” Reuters, citing a mid-2013 poll by the research firm Ipsos, reported that while 60 or 70 percent of people in most Western nations say they know someone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, only 5 percent of Japanese do. Kanae Doi, the Japan director for the advocacy organization Human Rights Watch, told Foreign Policy that while many Japanese are not opposed to homosexuality, “they don’t really see it.”
And while Shinto doesn’t have a clear stance on homosexuality, it “advocates that it’s not natural,” as one Shinto priest told me in Tokyo’s prominent Meiji Shrine in early June, a few weeks before the Supreme Court ruling. The Association of Shinto Shrines, the administrative body that oversees Japan’s estimated 80,000 shrines and 20,000 priests, tend to be conservative on social issues, the priest said. Read the rest of this entry »