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Japan local lawmaker removes address of same-sex couple from blog following Mainichi report

A photo capture of the envelope in which the open letter to Takatora Kobayashi was enclosed. The image has been altered where the return address of Katsunori Kano and Masahiro Shimada were written.

TOKYO -- Following Mainichi Shimbun reporting on April 5, a Mie Prefectural assemblyman removed the home address of a local same-sex couple he had posted to his blog after initially refusing to take it down. The address had been publicly visible for six days.

    The issue raised concerns that, for sexual minorities who are easily subject to discrimination, it is difficult to live a safe and peaceful life without the guarantee that their privacy will be protected.

    Ironically, the prefecture was the first in Japan where an ordinance banning "outing" without the consent of the person being outed as a sexual minority went into effect on April 1, drawing widespread attention. The actions of the assembly member in question amidst such moves by the prefectural government has experts saying that it could cause even more discrimination and prejudice.

    "The information could spread to people with bad intentions, so I am just scared. And I am frustrated," said 41-year-old Katsunori Kano of the Mie Prefecture city of Iga. After moving from Osaka along with his partner Masahiro Shimada, 45, they have been showcasing bits of their life as farmers on their website, and with the goal of promoting understanding and working for the greater rights of sexual minorities, have been giving lectures at schools and other facilities all over Japan.

    Then in March 2021, the tweets -- about same sex marriage and related topics -- of the Mie Prefectural Assembly's Takatora Kobayashi, who belongs to the assembly's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) faction, caught their eye.

    On March 6, the assembly member tweeted: "Partnership systems in regional areas are a strategy to push the national government into a corner. Those concerned are likely being used by a portion of the population who have such political motives."

    A tweet he posted on March 7 read: "I don't understand why they (LGBTQ people) seek a 'system' on par with marriage. If they're saying that love is this or that, then isn't it enough that they're in love with each other? If they want the same rights as people receive in marriage, they must fulfill the same responsibilities."

    A photo capture of Mie Prefectural Assembly member Takatora Kobayashi's blog post, in which the return address of the open letter he received from a gay couple and their supporters is shown in close-up. The image has been altered to blur the address.

    Both Kano and his partner, Shimada, interpreted these posts as messages that "trample on the activities we partake in to realize a society in which everyone can live comfortably." They chose five points that they absolutely could not abide, and on March 15 mailed an open letter to Kobayashi at his office seeking an explanation on the purport and details of his tweets.

    The open letter was signed by Kano, Shimada and a support group, but the return address on the envelope was the home address of the couple. On March 30, Kobayashi updated his blog, writing, "I feel extreme aggressiveness and hostility from the presentation of a one-sided letter of questions and a 'demand' for answers," and, "The one-sided tolerance that rejects views that differ from one's own has something in common with the new leftists of the 1960s." He also posted photos of the front and back of the envelope in which the open letter had arrived.

    Shimada and Kano found out about the contents of Kobayashi's blog post, and visited the prefectural assembly's LDP faction office on March 31, the day after the post went up. They asked Kobayashi to take down their home address from his blog, but the assembly member declined and said that if they wanted their address to be taken down from his blog, then they should retract their open letter to him. That day, Kobayashi updated his blog, describing his interactions with the couple and another assembly member, who is one of their supporters. Kobayashi then wrote that the return address was "something that the sender had sent affixed to the envelope of their will," and that it did not amount to "a secret gained through the job" that is subject to confidentiality under the Local Public Service Act, stressing his rightfulness in disclosing the couple's address.

    Mie's ordinance aimed at "realizing a society where everyone recognizes sexual diversity and can live feeling secure" went into effect April 1. It bans outing the fact that someone is a sexual minority to a third party without the person's consent or forcing someone to come out about their sexual orientation. Attorney Satoshi Horie of the Aichi Bar Association who is well versed in issues regarding the rights of sexual minorities said, "I don't know whether (Kobayashi's actions) violate Mie Prefecture's ordinance in the strict sense of the ordinance. But revealing someone's sexual orientation linked with their personal information without their consent is extremely inappropriate." He continued to criticize Kobayashi, saying, "Even if (Kobayashi) is not in violation of the ordinance, assembly members' behavior should take into consideration society's reality, such as the discrimination and prejudice against which backdrop the ordinance was enacted."

    Hajime Ashiba, an attorney who has participated in civic activism in Mie Prefecture said, "Making public the return address that was on the open letter has a chilling effect on the sender. In particular, a person holding public office, such as a prefectural assembly member, intimidating voters to take back their questions is unforgivable."

    Both Shimada and Kano partake in activities under their real names, and they have an online shop, the mailing address for which they post their home address. In addition, they are "famous," in that they have appeared in the media numerous times.

    Still Shimada says that's not the issue. "There's a very big difference between us making our own address public and someone who is hostile toward us making it public without our consent. I felt we were intimidated by having our personal information released," he said. In response to Kobayashi's demand that they take down their open letter, Shimada and Kano took down the letter from Twitter and Facebook on April 1.

    The Mie Prefecture Assembly building in Komeico, Tsu, is seen here on Oct. 29, 2020. (Mainichi/Ayaka Morita)

    The couple told the Mainichi Shimbun, "We know that by responding to this interview, there is danger of our address spreading even wider. But we want many people to know the reality of what is happening to us."

    Kobayashi had responded to telephone interviews with the Mainichi twice as of April 4, during which he expressed that he had no intention to comply with the couple's request to take their address down from his blog. Below are the highlights of the interviews, edited for length and clarity.

    Mainichi: Why did you take the step of publicly releasing the couple's address?

    Kobayashi: The image of the senders' names and address were written on the envelope of the senders' volition. It does not amount to a secret gained through the job that is subject to confidentiality under the Local Public Service Act. Plus, there was no indication that the sender wanted there to be limitations on the public release of their names and address.

    Mainichi: Don't your actions intimidate members of the public who want to ask assembly members questions?

    Kobayashi: There is a difference of opinion on whether my actions pose a chilling effect. Public figures (such as prefectural assembly members) bear risks that private figures do not when they are exposed to open letters. The two (men) submitted an open letter, and posted it to Twitter and other media, making it public, without my consent. If they wanted to have a discussion to achieve mutual understanding, then they must have had a better way than an open letter. To opt to go first with an open letter, which is provocative, when we've had chances to talk, is not sincere.

    Mainichi: So is the public release of their address a warning toward their one-sided way of doing things?

    Kobayashi: That's not the case. If they had what it takes to bring the debate into the public arena, then it makes sense that they should be ready for it. I wouldn't say they are clearly public figures, but they are "public figures" in the sense that they engage in activities with their identities known to the public. We should mutually arm ourselves with the knowledge we need, stand in the same arena, and debate freely.

    Mainichi: On April 1, a Mie Prefecture ordinance banning outing went into force. Doesn't the public release of the couple's address violate the essence of the ordinance?

    Kobayashi: This has absolutely nothing to do with the ordinance. I have not exposed the men's sexual orientation, nor have I leaked any information that the two had been keeping secret.

    On April 5, Kobayashi removed the photo of the envelope showing the couple's address from his blog. He said he has done so "because it's been causing trouble for related parties, as the assembly office as well as the speaker and vice speaker are receiving phone calls (to object to Kobayashi's actions)."

    (Japanese original by Chie Yamashita, Integrated Digital News Center)

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