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How did a same-sex couple in central Japan become targets of hatred from a local lawmaker?

A screen capture of the blog post by Mie Prefecture Assembly member Takatora Kobayashi that exposed the address of same-sex couple Masahiro Shimada and Katsunori Kano after they sent him an open letter is seen in this altered image. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- In central Japan's Mie Prefecture, a prefectural assembly member affiliated with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) caused a scandal by publishing the address of a male same-sex couple who had written to him about his stance on same-sex marriage.

    The incident showed a public figure, meant to protect the rights of residents, instead putting pressure on a sexual minority couple with a weaker standing in Japanese society. The Mainichi Shimbun went looking for a glimpse of the deep-seated discriminatory attitudes fueling the scandal.

    "A male couple currently resident in the city of Iga had their address published on a blog, and it hasn't been taken down even though they've asked for it to be. This exposure of individuals' highly important private information by a public-office holder is clearly a human rights violation." So wrote Mie assembly member Toshinao Inamori of the Kusa no ne undo Iga (Grassroots movement Iga) on Twitter on March 31.

    The problematic blog post in question was published by assembly member Takatora Kobayashi, affiliated with the LDP prefectural assembly group, on March 30. In it, he describes an open letter sent to him by Iga residents Masahiro Shimada, 45, and Katsunori Kano, 41.

    In his blogged response to receiving their letter, Kobayashi wrote: "I get an extreme sense of aggression and hostility from being presented with a one-sided letter of questions 'demanding' answers," and, "The one-sided tolerance that rejects views differing from one's own has something in common with 1960s new leftists." An image uploaded with the writing appears to have been taken deliberately to show the underside of the envelope with their address written on it.

    On the following day in a March 31 post, Kobayashi described the exchange he had with Shimada and Kano when they were accompanied by Inamori to an LDP prefectural assembly group's meeting room, where they asked for the image to be removed. He wrote: "I transcribed all of the part that I recorded," and did not engage with the pair's request, saying, "Suddenly sending me an open letter meant I didn't feel they had any intention to have a discussion."

    Masahiro Shimada, left, and Katsunori Kano are seen stroking their pet rabbit in this file photo taken in Iga, Mie Prefecture, on Dec. 3, 2018. (Mainichi/Akiko Hirose)

    Behind Shimada and Kano's decision to send the open letter was a tweet by Kobayashi dated March 7, in which he wrote regarding same-sex marriage: "I don't get why they're pursuing the same 'system' as marriage. If we're talking about love as if it needs to be this or that, isn't it enough for them just to love each other? If they're going to say things like give us the same rights as marriage, they only deserve those rights if they fulfill the same responsibilities."

    Speaking to the Mainichi Shimbun on the phone, Kano said the reason they sent the open letter was "because we had worked to realize a society where anyone can live comfortably, and it felt like he was trampling on that. But parts of (what he wrote) weren't clear to us, so we decided first to hear what he had to say."

    Regarding their address being exposed, Kano revealed: "It's scary that it might be spread among those who criticize LGBTQ people." Since Kobayashi published their address, their mobile phone numbers shared on their own website have been subject to tens of number-withheld calls. They've become afraid to answer the phone.

    Kobayashi did speak to the Mainichi Shimbun twice on April 2. When asked why he published the couple's address, he responded without hesitation: "The names and address in the image were written at the will of the senders, and they didn't indicate a wish to restrict publication, so I see no issue."

    He added, "If we're talking about an open letter, then surely they don't mind if the envelope that came with it too is open. It's been lobbed at me as if to say 'let's argue this in the public sphere,' so obviously they should be prepared for what happens."

    Masahiro Shimada, left, and Katsunori Kano are seen after receiving their city of Iga partnership declaration cards, at the Iga city government office in Iga, Mie Prefecture, on April 17, 2020. (Mainichi/Yasuhiro Onishi)

    He also maintained: "They too are 'public people' who have revealed their identities and engage in activities in such a capacity. We both should be equipped with logic, stand in the same arena, and freely debate the issue."

    It appeared that what he was driving at was that the couple has traveled the country giving speeches calling for the expansion of rights to sexual minorities, and they have a certain level of fame from being occasionally referred to in media reports.

    But at the time the Mainichi Shimbun was investigating the case, the couple revealed on Twitter that they were considering withdrawing the open letter. They tweeted so because Kobayashi had said he would delete the image if the pair withdrew the letter, but he did not cooperate because he "wasn't contacted directly."

    For the pair, getting in touch with Kobayashi was not possible because "if he recorded and released our conversation without permission, it runs the danger of creating fuel to attack us with." For Kobayashi, it appears that publicizing information on his blog was a way to resist individuals he saw as his enemy. The Mainichi Shimbun, too, was told several times during its conversations with him: "I'm recording this. I'll publish this." It left a sense of being intimidated.

    But once the Mainichi Shimbun reported on the row on April 4, Kobayashi removed from his blog the image containing the address on the afternoon of April 5. He explained, "Telephone calls (against his actions) were being made to the assembly office and to the chair and vice-chair of the assembly; I have done this (deleted the image) due to the inconvenience caused to those around me."

    The prefectural assembly also responded. On April 21, representatives of each of the political groups at the assembly met, and heard an account of the circumstances from Kobayashi for 50 minutes. Although he told them that it had "effectively been inappropriate," and that he "wants to apologize to both of them," he also said: "I'm not one to judge whether it's a human rights violation." On April 26, the Mie prefectural assembly issued a serious warning to Kobayashi in the name of Chair Masanobu Hioki.

    Although it was an open letter, publicizing the senders' address without their agreement is consistent with a human rights violation. Was it a coincidence that the affected people are a male couple?

    Lawyers and others are seen holding a banner reading "A huge step toward marriage equality," after the Sapporo District Court ruled not allowing sexual minorities to marry was unconstitutional, in Chuo Ward, Sapporo, on March 17, 2021. (Mainichi/Taichi Kaizuka)

    Ryosuke Kunimi, a teacher at a public school in the city of Obihiro in Japan's northernmost prefecture Hokkaido, met with the Mainichi Shimbun. He said on the issue: "It's possible that he saw them as LGBTQ campaigners, and treated them only as that and tried to separate them off from 'ordinary people.'"

    Kunimi and his partner Takashi were among a group who launched a suit in opposition to the national government on the basis that the fact the law doesn't recognize same-sex marriage was in opposition to Article 14 of the Constitution of Japan, which states that "All of the people are equal under the law," and other legal provisions enshrining similar rights. On March 17, the group of plaintiffs won their case in the Sapporo District Court, after it ruled the lack of recognition unconstitutional.

    In his response to the open letter, Kobayashi made reference to people "in the closet" who do not wish to make their sexuality known by maintaining: "There are also people who don't want marriage rights." Kunimi said: " Referring to activists seeking the same rights for homosexual people as different to people in the closet is a commonly used tactic among those trying to deny the expansion of rights for LGBTQ people."

    Takashi, who was sat next to Kunimi, nodded and said: "The things people want from society and the way they engage with it are obviously different depending on the individual. Isn't it fine that people who are heterosexual choose not to marry? We want a society that allows us to choose."

    Hiromi Minagawa, a lawyer who is a member of the Sapporo Bar Association and an expert on LGBTQ issues, said about Kobayashi: "In public discourse it appears that clear discriminatory expressions are not used, with opposition to same-sex marriage and partnerships instead employed to encourage people who hold discriminatory views toward sexual minorities to attack or criticize them."

    Couples among the plaintiffs who lodged the appeal at the Sapporo District Court are seen clasping hands after a press conference in Chuo Ward, Sapporo, on March 17, 2021. (Mainichi/Taichi Kaizuka)

    Minagawa went on to say: "There are many individuals in those minorities who can't raise their voices. But, it isn't their job to speak up against malice. Anyone has the potential to become part of a minority group. The majority side is the one that needs to say, 'A society that points malice at minorities is intolerable."

    Although Kobayashi said he wanted to apologize, it emerged that he subsequently hit the like button on nine inappropriate tweets slandering Kano and Shimada. Kano said, "I'm torn about whether to accept an apology. Based on his response on Twitter, his views haven't changed. But if I don't accept it, I think I might get attacked as having done something bad." Shimada added: "It's still scary for us to meet him in person. He might record what we say and leave us exposed again."

    In April Mie Prefecture became the first prefecture in Japan to introduce an ordinance banning the practice of revealing people's sexuality without their consent, also known as outing. The preface to the ordinance includes a passage reading, "Mie Prefecture: Where we support one another through mutual understanding and exchange without segregation."

    The prefecture cannot contradict those ideals with a vague approach to drawing a line on the behavior recently witnessed within its borders.

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

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