"We Must Shape the Next Future": The Role of Buddhist Temples in Japan's LGBTQ Activism



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In June 2021, a proposed bill on LGBTQ anti-discrimination failed to pass in the Japanese Diet. Members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party adamantly rejected the bill by publicly stating homophobic and transphobic comments, demonstrating how Japan has a long way to go before protecting LGBTQ rights through the rule of law. Yet, despite the struggle to gain recognition in the political realm, the LGBTQ community in Japan has recently found an unexpected new group of allies: Buddhist temples. In the last couple of years, more and more Buddhist temples in Japan have begun to support the LGBTQ community through officiating gay weddings, organizing graves for gay couples, and giving posthumous names for transgender people. Why are Buddhist temples getting involved in these activities? In what ways do they benefit from them? And how do these activities contribute to broader LGBTQ activism in Japan? My project uses a combination of ethnographic research at select Japanese temples as well as historical research on the history of Japanese homosexuality. There is a long history of homosexual relationships among Buddhist priests. Historical records from the Heian period (794 - 1185) show that senior priests in Buddhist temples practiced male love with chigo — young disciples who were targets of homoerotic fantasy — as a religious practice. The chigo model was later passed down to secular realms of society and became popular among samurais, students, and soldiers. I will argue that the model of the adult male-chigo relationships associated homosexuality with particular social hierarchies that do not translate easily into modern ideas of love and marriage. Hence, there is resistance to the idea of same-sex love and marriage. Historically, the primary functions of Japanese Buddhist temples have been to provide funerary services. Contemporary LGBTQ-supportive Buddhist temples are now offering funerary services specifically tailored to the LGBTQ population. Additionally, LGBTQ-supportive Buddhist temples are getting into the business of weddings. In recent Japanese history, weddings have been the responsibility of Shinto shrines or Christian churches. Something new is happening here. My ethnographic research, which involves interviews with select LGBTQ-supportive Buddhist priests and nuns, explores the motivations for promoting LGBTQ funerary services and same-sex Buddhist weddings. Among these are a commitment to envisioning an inclusive and egalitarian Japanese society, as well as the pressing need for Buddhist temples to stay relevant to people’s lives and deaths.