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Japanese prime minister fires aide over anti-LGBTQ comments

Masayoshi Arai comments ‘inconsistent with the policy of the Cabinet’

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President Joe Biden walks with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the White House on Jan. 13, 2023. (Photo by Cameron Smith/White House)

Masayoshi Arai, who until Saturday served as executive secretary to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, was fired after he made anti-LGBTQ comments to reporters late Friday afternoon local time.

Arai told reporters in a gaggle at the prime minister’s office he would “not want to live next door” to an LGBTQ couple and that he does “not even want to look at them.”

He also said during an off-the-record conversation with reporters that if same-sex marriage is introduced in Japan, it would “change the way society is” and “quite a few people would abandon this country.”

At a press conference Saturday, a clearly agitated Kishida told reporters Arai’s remarks were “completely inconsistent with the policy of the Cabinet,” the prime minister adding, “We have been respecting diversity and realizing an inclusive society.”

Kishida acknowledged that he had fired Arai upon learning of the comments calling them “inexcusable.”

Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan Secretary General Tetsuro Fukuyama, a member of the Japanese House of Councilors, the upper house of the National Diet [Parliament] of Japan, took to Twitter writing:

“It’s an outrageous remark, even off the record. It would be a big problem if all the secretaries of the prime minister’s official residence had such a sense of human rights. ‘We respect human rights and values, but if same-sex marriage is recognized, some people will abandon the country.’ Do you understand the meaning of respect? It deserves immediate dismissal.”

An openly gay member of the House of Councilors, Taiga Ishikawa, said the situation was “beyond one’s patience” on Twitter and noted that Arai had also said that all of Kishida’s executive secretaries are against same-sex marriage.

The lawmaker, also a member of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, called for the entire team of secretaries to be dismissed and said he would pursue the matter in Parliament.

Japanese media outlet Kyodo News reported that Japan has not legally recognized same-sex marriage as many members of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, led by Kishida, have opposed the concept, emphasizing the country’s traditional values such as the role of women in giving birth and raising children.

The 150-day ordinary Diet session began on Jan. 23. The latest gaffes about LGBTQ people will likely prompt left-leaning opposition bloc lawmakers to grill Kishida over his views on family affairs in Japan, political experts said.

Late last year, LGBTQ issues in Japan drew fresh attention as Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Mio Sugita, the then parliamentary vice minister for internal affairs and communications, was pressured to retract past remarks against sexual minority couples.

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Members of Congress meet with transgender activist in Japan

California Congressman Mark Takano among trip participants

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Fumino Sugiyama (Photo courtesy of Congressman Maxwell Alejandro Frost's Twitter page)

A group of U.S. lawmakers last month met with a prominent transgender activist in Japan while they were in the country.

U.S. Reps. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Maxwell Alejandro Frost (D-Fla.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and French Hill (R-Ark.) met with Fumino Sugiyama, a former member of Japan’s female fencing team who is now fighting for legal recognition of trans people in Japan. The D.C.-based Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, which organized the congressional delegation that also included a trip to South Korea, arranged the meeting.

“Members of the delegation were very, very impressed with Fumino,” Takano told the Washington Blade last week during a telephone interview.

Frost, who is the first Gen Z’er elected to Congress, on Feb. 24 in a series of tweets praised Fumino and his advocacy efforts.

“One of my favorite meetings in Tokyo was meeting with trans organizer and activist, Fumino Sugiyama,” tweeted Frost. “Japan is still working through passing real anti-discrimination laws to protect LGBTQ+ folks and I felt incredibly inspired by Fumino and his fight.”

“He laid out the struggle and how the community is battling both legal and cultural roadblocks to even be recognized,” said Frost. “I spoke with him about the current fight in Florida and how Gov. DeSantis is targeting LGBTQ+ kids.”

Frost also said he is “working on setting up a virtual meeting between Fumino and a student activists in Florida.”

“I think his story can provide some inspiration for the struggle here,” he said.

The trip began on Feb. 20 and ended on Feb. 26.

Takano arrived in Japan before the trip began.

The openly gay man of Japanese descent visited Pride House Tokyo, the country’s first permanent LGBTQ and intersex community center that opened ahead of the 2021 Summer Olympics that took place in Tokyo. 

Takano participated in a “fireside chat” with LGBTQ and intersex Japanese people and expatriots, and met with a Goldman Sachs executive who he said is one of the few prominent people in the country who is out.

“Japan is still, pretty much I would say a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ society, but unlike the United States, Japan as a whole does not have violent homophobia where people are beat up or gay bashed or that kind of thing,” said Takano. “There is harassment and bullying in the schools. People face discomfort in the workplace and … until now it’s not like a coming out kind of society, but it’s not a place where (homosexuality is) criminalized and people suffer violence.”

From left: U.S. Reps. Maxwell Alejandro Frost (D-Fla.) and Mark Takano (D-Calif.); Japanese Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Yasutoshi Nishimura; U.S. Reps. French Hill (R-Ark.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) (Photo courtesy of Mark Takano’s office)

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel also invited Takano to attend a reception with members of the Japanese Diet (legislature)’s LGBT Caucus. (Takano noted to the Blade that none of them are openly LGBTQ or intersex.)

“I got a great sense of where things were, the state of play of this question of nondiscrimination language,” said Takano.

The trip began less than a month after Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s top aide, Masayoshi Arai, told reporters that he would “not want to live next door” to a same-sex couple and he does “not even want to look at them.” Arai also said marriage equality in Japan would “change the way society is” and “quite a few people would abandon this country.”

Kishida fired Arai.

The prime minister on Feb. 17 apologized for Arai’s comments during a meeting with Pride House Tokyo President Gon Matsunaka and other LGBTQ and intersex activists. Kishida on Feb. 28 nevertheless said he does not feel the lack of marriage rights for same-sex couples in Japan is discriminatory.

Members of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party this week introduced a marriage equality bill in the Diet lower house. 

Takano noted 20 members of the “hardline” Abe faction of Kishida’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party that former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe led before his 2022 assassination remain the main stumbling block to marriage equality and efforts to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Takano stressed, however, the activists with whom he spoke in Japan welcome the increased attention around these issues.

“The fact that he’s having to comment on marriage equality is indicative of the Japanese media focusing attention on LGBT issues,” he said, referring to Kishida. “The sense among Japanese queer activists is that keeping the LGBT issue, or LGBT issues on the front page is very much something that works to their advantage.”

U.S. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) speaks with Japanese reporters at Pride House Tokyo (Photo courtesy of Takano’s office)

Takano further acknowledged Arai’s comments and reaction to them has sparked a renewed debate about LGBTQ and intersex rights in the country.

“He (Arai) really hasn’t suffered a huge consequence for those remarks,” said Takano, noting Arai remains in his post with the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. “The question in Japan right now is will they just enact a law that is symbolic and checks the box, or will they advance substantive LGBT nondiscrimination protections.”

Takano referenced a Kyodo News poll that indicates 65 percent of people in Japan support legal protections for LGBTQ and intersex people. This figure increases to 80 percent among young people.

“It’s no wonder the activists are saying keep this in the news,” he said.

Takano was with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) when she led a congressional delegation to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore last summer. Takano led a congressional delegation to Japan in November 2021.

“Japan plays such a key role in the Indo-Pacific as America’s most vital ally,” he said. “Japan moving forward in this area of LGBT rights and equality, I believe, will be highly consequential to progress in Asia as a whole.” 

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India’s Odisha state launches program to empower transgender people

Upwards of 300 trans people have received jobs through Sweekruti

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View over Ananta Basudeva Temple by Bindu Sagara Lake in Bhubaneswar, India, on Feb. 4, 2020. (Photo by Arvid Norberg/Bigstock)

Despite being celebrated as iconic characters in ancient texts; dancing at a wedding for someone else; clapping and dancing while blessing a newborn baby at any home; transgender Indians are still ostracized and not able to get a job, get married or live a decent life. 

Such was the consequence of 200 years of British colonial suppression in India, but things are changing for trans people in India. Several states began to introduce measures to help the trans community after the Indian Supreme Court‘s 2014 ruling that recognized a trans person as a “third gender,” and the passage of the Transgender Person (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 in the Indian Parliament. Odisha, a state in eastern India, is working to make trans people part of mainstream society through its Sweekruti “acceptance” program.

The program provides critical health care, scholarships, counseling, legal aid, a certificate and skill training. According to a recent report, about 300 trans people have received jobs through Sweekruti.

“It will help create an ecosystem of equal opportunities, social justice, protection of transgender rights and full participation in society. It is opening various avenues of employment and self-employment for the community,” said Anushree Dash, a social reformer and human rights activist who founded the website ADiBha She Vision. “(The) focus is mostly on skill development and low paying jobs instead of higher education and high paying (so-called respectable) jobs. There is no trans inclusion in social sector and government sector jobs. The government’s research and scheme need to be applauded, but it needs more and more public participation. I believe there is a scope for strengthening the existing implementation machinery.”

The 2011 Census notes there are 20,322 trans people in Odisha, but 14.5 percent of respondents who participated in an online survey the state’s Social Security and Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities Department conducted in 2017 reported no income and were living in poverty.

The Odisha government in 2020 tried to improve the social and economic conditions of the trans community by introducing a monthly pension program for elderly and differently-abled trans people, but the Sweekruti program has been hailed as a successful initiative because it directly provides low-paying jobs to trans people and helps trans youth gain acceptance.

“First of all, I want to appreciate our chief minister, Naveen Patnaik, because he designed this project to empower the transgender community. This scheme mainstreams the transgender community by providing skills and jobs. So, this is a very good initiative,” said Meera Parida, a trans woman who is a State Advisor for Urban and Housing Development under the MUKTA (Mukhyamantri Karma Tatpara Abhiyan Yojana) program. “On many areas under the scheme, the work is already underway. Although it is not sufficient that it can provide everything, it is a good project for any transgender woman or man thinking about startups or wanting to get skills so they can improve their life.”

While talking with the Washington Blade, Parida said the trans community started to feel respect after the 2014 Supreme Court ruling and the passage of the 2019 law. She said it is more about dignity.

“People and government have started to talk about us and started to respect and include us in different government schemes,” said Parida. “It recognizes our presence.”

The Odisha High Court in May 2022 ordered the state government to release the family pension of a dead government employee to a trans person who was dependent on a pensioner. The Odisha government amended the pension rules nine months later. According to the new rule, a single trans child of a government employee or pensioner who died on or after Jan. 10, 2020, will be treated as an unmarried daughter for the family pension.

“Sweekruti is a good initiative, and works well in Odisha, but sometimes it is not as efficient as it should be. So, the government should fix the issue,” said Ashisha Behera, a trans activist who works with the Center for Advocacy and Research. “The initiative requires identification which is important, and it’s happening also, but sometimes the beneficiary belongs to a rural background, and many of them do not have idea about Sweekruti scheme, so government should spread awareness about it.”

While talking with the Blade, Biswa Bhusan Pattanayak, assistant director of the Bhubaneswar office of SAATHII, an LGBTQ and intersex rights group, said that one of the key components of the Sweekruti program is to facilitate access to social protection, livelihood and mainstream measures. This has been instrumental in addressing the livelihood needs of some trans people. Pattanayak, however, said mainstreaming initiatives need much larger efforts, in terms of expanding the scale and reach of livelihood initiatives.

Pattanayak added the government also simultaneously needs to address the root causes, such as discrimination and exclusion, that lead to trans and gender non-conforming children dropping out of educational institutions and being deprived of mainstream employment.

“The formulation of schemes is not enough. We need to see the issues around transgender persons from a development perspective,” said Pattanayak. “The development approach to the transgender community needs to converge initiatives and stakeholders from all sectors. We need to stop seeing transgender persons as just beneficiaries of governmental largesse; rather; recognize them as equal stakeholders in development actions.”

Ankush Kumar is a freelance reporter who has covered many stories for Washington and Los Angeles Blades from Iran, India and Singapore. He recently reported for the Daily Beast. He can be reached at [email protected] He is on Twitter at @mohitkopinion

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South Korean court rules same-sex couples are eligible for health insurance

So Seong-wook filed lawsuit in 2022

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(Bigstock photo)

A South Korean high court ruled this past week that partners in a same-sex relationship are eligible for national health insurance coverage overturning a ruling last year by a lower court that denied the benefits. 

The Korea Herald reported the Seoul High Court’s ruling is the first that recognizes the status of a same-sex partner as a dependent eligible for national health insurance, but noted that this did not mean that it recognizes the “legal status” of a same-sex marriage.

The lower court had ruled that “the union of a man and woman is still considered the fundamental element of marriage, according to civil law, precedents of the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court and the general perception of society.”

The lower court had also added: “Under the current legal system, it is difficult to evaluate the relationship between two people of the same sex as a common-law relationship.”

The case was brought about by a lawsuit, filed last year by So Seong-wook, which challenged South Korea’s National Health Insurance Service after it took away his ability to receive spousal benefits from the employer of his partner Kim Yong-min.

According to the Korea Herald, the NHIS allowed Kim to register So as his dependent in early 2020 — later reversing the decision citing their same-sex marriage. It was believed to be the first such case in the country. 

In the lawsuit, So claimed he and his partner were discriminated against because the NHIS grants spousal coverage to common-law partners, often used by opposite-sex couples who are not married. 

In this week’s ruling by the high court it stated “The plaintiff and his partner are both male, but they agreed to recognize each other as loving partners who take care of each other. One financially relies on the other. They declared their partnership before their families and friends. This makes their relationship no different in essence from that of a married couple.”

Attorney Park Han-hee, a legal representative of the couple, told the Korea Herald that this landmark court decision could set a precedent to prevent discrimination against sexual minorities.

“This court ruling is not just about individuals fighting over insurance payments. Instead, I hope the ruling can set a precedent that discourages the state from hindering same-sex couples’ rights,” said Park, who identifies as transgender.

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