In January 1999, a Shinto priest unofficially married two men in a shrine in Kawasaki, an industrial city near Tokyo. Literally “the way of the gods,” Shinto is one of Japan’s major religions, but it does not influence modern Japanese life the way that Christianity dominates in the United States. Rather, it’s more a matter of a shared culture — of ritual practices and belief in spirits — against which some people define themselves.
The ceremony took place at Kanamara Shrine, best known for its annual Festival of the Steel Phallus, during which participants pray for easy childbirth or protection from sexually transmitted diseases. Hirohiko Nakamura, the priest who performed the rites, told local media then that this was probably the first time a wedding ceremony had been held for two men in Japan. “This may become a call to seriously think about the diversity of sex,” he said.
Fast-forward 16 years. On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in all 50 states, overturning decades of often active and religiously motivated government discrimination against a minority of Americans. In Japan, gay marriage remains illegal — except for in one district, or ward, in Tokyo, which began recognizing same-sex marriages in March. A month earlier, conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has been arguing for revising Japan’s Constitution to allow a more assertive military, said that reforming the Japanese Constitution to allow for gay marriage would be difficult.
Across Japan, opinions about gay rights diverge. Technically, homosexuality is legal, Kazuyuki Minami, a lawyer in Osaka, reminded a journalist from the Associated Press, “but the atmosphere is such that most people feel homosexuals should not exist.” Reuters, citing a mid-2013 poll by the research firm Ipsos, reported that while 60 or 70 percent of people in most Western nations say they know someone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, only 5 percent of Japanese do. Kanae Doi, the Japan director for the advocacy organization Human Rights Watch, told Foreign Policy that while many Japanese are not opposed to homosexuality, “they don’t really see it.”
And while Shinto doesn’t have a clear stance on homosexuality, it “advocates that it’s not natural,” as one Shinto priest told me in Tokyo’s prominent Meiji Shrine in early June, a few weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. The Association of Shinto Shrines, the administrative body that oversees Japan’s estimated 80,000 shrines and 20,000 priests, tend to be conservative on social issues, the priest said. But it’s trying to be more active on social issues — he cited an internal debate on euthanasia as proof.
But a younger priest at the same shrine told me that homosexuality has recently become a topic of debate. He said that ancient tales of Shinto do not include men laying with men, or women with women. (Scholar Louis Crompton in the 2003 book Homosexuality and Civilization, writes of Shinto that “[e]arly law codes penalized incest and bestiality but not homosexual relations.” The Shinto gods “were themselves highly sexual.”) And because men can’t procreate with each other, the priest said, homosexuality is bad for the future. (The Association of Shinto Shrines didn’t make anyone available for comment, and the priests spoke on condition of anonymity.)
Shinto advocates cleanliness, as opposed to spiritual pollution. Homosexuality “is not unclean, but it’s unnatural,” the priest concluded.
Nakamura, the priest who performed the Shinto gay wedding in 1999, has since passed away, but his daughter Hisae Nakamura, 38, now watches over Kanamara Shrine in his place. “In Shinto, it says make many children, expand humanity, and be prosperous,” she said. “And yet, it’s not explicitly written anywhere that homosexuality is wrong or a sin.”
Since 1999, Japanese have grown more accepting of the idea of gay-marriage ceremonies. Famously, in early 2013, two women staged a same-sex wedding at the popular Tokyo Disney Resort to much social media acclaim.
In 1999, when Nakamura’s father performed the ceremony, some Shinto communities said they were troubled by the event because it stood out. “But we did it from a religious perspective, and we thought it was a sincere gesture,” she said. “Not a sideshow.”
—With reporting by John Matthews
Photo credit: TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images
Correction, June 29, 2015: Shinto is one of Japan’s major religions. An earlier version of this article mistakenly said it is officially the state religion of Japan.