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Ex-PM Abe casts shadow over Japan ruling party's sluggish response on LGBT bill

Then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe answers a question during a House of Councillors budget committee session, in this Nov. 30, 2017, file photo. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been sluggish in responding to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's instructions to coordinate a bill to promote better understanding of LGBTQ people, issued in the wake of his former secretary's discriminatory remarks against sexual minorities.

    The bill, which has been debated by a multiparty group of lawmakers, suddenly surfaced as a key item in the current Diet session's agenda following the discriminatory remarks by Kishida's secretary Masayoshi Arai, who has since been dismissed. Kishida has apparently prodded the LDP to work toward early enactment of the bill with an eye on the Group of Seven summit meeting slated for May in Hiroshima, Kishida's home turf.

    At an LDP General Council meeting on Feb. 7, however, several veteran party lawmakers voiced caution against the way the LGBT bill has been discussed.

    "Opposition parties are trying to link the bill to the issues of separate surnames for married couples and same-sex marriages, but they should be separated for careful discussion," said one LDP lawmaker.

    Another LDP legislator commented, "If a person entered a female bathroom on the grounds of being a female at heart even though they were physically male and then a person called them out only to be told that was 'discrimination,' society would be thrown into confusion."

    The legislators' remarks were uttered just a day after Kishida instructed LDP Secretary-General Toshimitsu Motegi to work toward the bill's passage in the Diet. Despite Kishida's directive, the atmosphere prevailing over the General Council, the LDP's decision-making organ, remained almost unchanged from around a year and a half ago.

    The General Council earlier deliberated the bill on May 28, 2021. The bill incorporated a stipulation that discrimination against sexual minorities was "intolerable" in its objective and principle, and imposed a duty on the national and local governments, companies and other entities to make efforts to abide by the rule. A suprapartisan group of lawmakers, including LDP members, agreed on the proposed measure, and it was expected that the bill would pass the Diet after in-house procedures within each party.

    Nevertheless, a storm of criticism against the bill erupted within the LDP, with at least one lawmaker saying the scope of "discrimination" stipulated in the bill was unclear. The party's General Council ended up forgoing the bill's approval.

    The late former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was among those who objected to the bill. At the time, he was the most influential figure in the LDP's conservative wing.

    "I have no intention of tolerating discrimination or prejudice, but it's unnecessary to go as far as to develop a law. A small leak will sink a great ship," Abe reportedly told those around, pressuring them not to allow the bill to be approved, according to sources familiar with the situation.

    Conservative lawmakers have attached weight to traditional family values. They are wary of the possibility that if the bill were passed into law, it would lead to the acceptance of separate surnames for married couples and same-sex marriages. Such concerns are still shared today by the LDP's conservative wing.

    In addition, Prime Minister Kishida drew a strong backlash from opposition parties after displaying strong caution toward same-sex marriages during a House of Representatives budget committee session on Feb. 1, saying it was "an issue that would change society." The remarks by his secretary at the time were linked to this statement, and criticism against the LDP gained steam.

    Deep down, the LDP's conservative legislators are wary of the possibility that once the party approves the LGBT bill amid the backlash, discussions may expand to encompass same-sex marriages. It can be said that Abe's concern over "a small leak" is a common view still shared among the LDP conservatives.

    While LDP lawmakers supporting the bill argue that Japan is the only Group of Seven country without the same-sex marriage system, a conservative veteran LDP legislator snubbed this argument, saying, "Japan has Article 24 of the Constitution, which stipulates that 'Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes.' As Japan is the only country with such constitutional restraints, it would raise no issue if we explained that."

    LDP conservative lawmakers have already delivered documents comparing same-sex marriage systems in different countries to the prime minister's office, intensifying their pressure on Prime Minister Kishida.

    In light of such a climate within the LDP, Kishida intends to initially take a wait and see stance over the course of discussion on the bill within the party, instead of aggressively intervening like he did over the bill to provide relief to victims of the Unification Church, formally known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification. Kishida was quoted as telling an aide, "I have no intention of doing something beyond the LGBT bill. Unless everything is addressed in stages, our party will not be able to keep going."

    (Japanese original by Akira Murao, Political News Department)

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