As Rahm Emanuel Pushes Japan on Gay Rights, Conservatives Bristle

Since taking up his post as U.S. ambassador to Japan last year, Rahm Emanuel has lavished his host country with enthusiastic tweets about riding the world-class bullet trains and subways, hiking Mount Fuji or sampling local delicacies and festivals.

He has also regularly hailed business leaders and politicians with a convivial spirit that belies the bull-in-a-china-shop reputation he built as chief of staff to President Barack Obama and as mayor of Chicago. In doing so, he has established himself as a champion of Japan’s accomplishments.

But a recent string of messages about gay and transgender rights, culminating in a video Mr. Emanuel released on Twitter earlier this month, has drawn considerable ire among conservatives in Japan. Critics say the ambassador has overstepped the bounds of diplomacy and crossed into unwanted interference in domestic policy.

As Japanese lawmakersdebated a contentious bill declaring that there “should be no unfair discrimination” against the gay and transgender community, Mr. Emanuel marshaled a group of 15 foreign ambassadors in Tokyo to record a four-minute video nudging Japan to embrace L.G.B.T.Q. rights and, by implication, same-sex marriage. Japan is the only Group of 7 country that has not legalized same-sex unions.

“With all the challenges that we all face — from the implications of climate change, wars, civil strife, hunger — the last thing that should occupy our energy is two people who love each other and want to build a life together,” Mr. Emanuel said in the video. “Together, let’s be true to Japan’s Constitution and to the Japanese people.”

The video was posted just a week before members of the Group of 7 were set to gather in Hiroshima. Japan’s governing Liberal Democratic Party brought the L.G.B.T.Q. bill before the full Parliament on Thursday, a day before the summit began.

Although polls indicate that more than 70 percent of the Japanese public supports same-sex marriage, conservatives have balked at extending such rights, frequently citing Japan’s traditional family structure.

The Tokyo Rainbow Pride Parade in April.Credit…Yuichi Yamazaki/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“If Ambassador Emanuel wants to use his position as U.S. ambassador to Japan in any way to influence Japan, we will take immediate action to make him go back to his country,” wrote Masamune Wada, a Liberal Democratic member of the upper house of the Diet, as Japan’s Parliament is known, in a Twitter post that has been liked more than 27,000 times. “How to promote understanding of LGBT people is a matter for us to decide domestically.”

In an editorial in an evening tabloid owned by the right-leaning Sankei newspaper, Kaori Arimoto, a journalist, wrote that it was “an arrogant and outrageous act on the part of an ambassador to Japan to meddle in the culture of another country, especially one with a 2,000-year history.”

The pushback attracted the notice of Fox News, where Masako Ganaha, another journalist known for her right-leaning views, appeared on “Fox & Friends” earlier this month and said that there was “no discrimination against L.G.B.T. people in Japan” and argued that Mr. Emanuel was pushing the “destruction of our culture.”

In an interview, Mr. Emanuel said that although L.G.B.T.Q. rights were something “that I personally passionately care about,” his advocacy was intended as support for majority opinion in Japan.

“The Japanese public has been clear about their position of inclusion and equity,” Mr. Emanuel said. “So I’m not a solo voice.” He added: “All I’ve done is advocate the U.S. policy.”

While not alone, Mr. Emanuel may carry weight in a country where activists often call on foreign supporters to help them amplify their messages. There is even a word — “gaiatsu” — that refers to foreign pressure that helps budge political leaders on issues for which they have a more entrenched view than the broader public.

“There are voices in support domestically,” said Soshi Matsuoka, founder of Fair, an L.G.B.T.Q. advocacy group in Tokyo. “But those voices are ignored. So when it comes to the government, having outside voices can help.”

Takeshi Iwaya, a Liberal Democratic member of the lower house of Parliament and sponsor of the L.G.B.T.Q. rights bill, said his own opinion had changed in part after he attended a symposium on marriage equality at the Mexican Embassy in Tokyo.

“I realized that being able to be with the person you love is an important value,” Mr. Iwaya said. “So if understanding increases even more, I don’t think it is impossible to legalize same-sex marriage in our country.”

Mr. Emanuel with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. “The Japanese public has been clear about their position of inclusion and equity,” Mr. Emanuel said.Credit…Pool photo by Andrew Harnik

In international settings, Japan has already signed on to support gay and transgender rights. The leaders’ communiqué released on Saturday at the G7 summit in Hiroshima committed to creating a society where “all people can enjoy vibrant lives free from violence and discrimination independent of gender identity or expression or sexual orientation.”

Those who know American politics point out that the United States itself is still grappling with questions of equality. Although the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, transgender rights in particular have recently become a lightning rod for American conservatives.

And with so many foreign policy priorities, some question whether Mr. Emanuel is following the best course.

“If the goal of Ambassador Emanuel is to ensure closer relations between the United States and Japan, this is possibly not the best topic for him to really continue to push on,” said Shihoko Goto, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center in Washington.

Mr. Emanuel is not the first American ambassador to cause a stir in Japan by publicly pushing the society to change. Caroline Kennedy, the envoy to Tokyo from 2013 to 2017, unsettled her hosts when she starkly criticized the “inhumaneness” of Japan’s bloody annual dolphin hunt.

Many Japanese consider the hunt a part of traditional culture and bristled at Ms. Kennedy’s Twitter denunciation of the practice.

Analysts note that Japan, too, sometimes speaks out about foreign actions. In the United States and European countries, for example, the Japanese government has protested when local groups put up statues or other memorials to so-called comfort women, sexual slaves from Korea and other Asian nations who were conscripted to serve Japanese soldiers during World War II.

Referring to such activity, Jennifer Robertson, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan specializing in gender and sexuality in Japan, said that “in terms of ambassadorial outspokenness, I think the most conservative members of the L.D.P. and Japanese media are being really hypocritical.”

Perhaps it all just comes with the territory. Ichiro Fujisaki, a former Japanese ambassador to Washington, said he “doubts if Japanese in general are so disturbed by ambassadors’ comments.”

He added: “They are used to them.”

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