Days after US President Barack Obama gave his public backing to gay marriages in the US, Mickey Mouse has emerged as the unlikely champion of same-sex unions in Japan.
Tokyo Disneyland said this week it would allow gay couples to hold ceremonies on its grounds, although same-sex weddings have no legal status in Japan.
Disneyland’s decision came to light after Koyuki Higashi, a 27-year-old woman, inquired about marrying her female partner, identified only as Hiroko, at the resort.
Higashi was initially told she would be able to marry her partner provided they were dressed “like a man and a woman,” she wrote on her blog. Staff at Disneyland, which attracts about 14 million visitors a year, were apparently concerned about how other visitors would react to the sight of couples both dressed in wedding dresses or tuxedos.
A spokeswoman for Milial Resort Hotels, a subsidiary of Tokyo Disney Resort, later said there had been a misunderstanding, telling Higashi and her partner they could dress how they pleased, although they would not be able to exchange vows in the chapel because of “Christian teachings.”
The park said it would accept all applications for same-sex wedding ceremonies. The only obstacle now appears to be financial: a full wedding ceremony in Cinderella’s castle, with Disney characters included on the guest list, costs about US$95,000.
Disneyland’s stance was a rare sign of progress in a country still uncertain about its attitude towards homosexuality. There are no laws against homosexuality, and Tokyo is home to a large lesbian gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) population, many of whom took part in the capital’s first rainbow pride event last month.
Gay and transgender celebrities are regulars on TV variety shows, while Taiga Ishikawa became Japan’s first openly gay politician when he won a seat in Tokyo’s Toshima ward assembly in April last year.
Ishikawa welcomed Disneyland’s decision, which apparently came after officials in Tokyo contacted the company’s US headquarters. “I wrote 10 years ago that I looked forward to the day when gay and lesbian couples could hold hands and go to Tokyo Disneyland, so I’m very happy,” he said.
But he added that Japanese gay men and women were still uncomfortable about making their sexuality public.
“We’re still not at the point where a man or woman can say they have a same-sex partner, especially to colleagues. But now that gay marriages are in the news overseas, there is better awareness here, at least.”
Obama’s endorsement of gay marriages was the cue for an outburst from Takeshi Kitano, the internationally acclaimed filmmaker, who caused dismay in the LGBT community when he ridiculed the US president’s stance during an appearance on a TV news program.
Kitano suggested permitting gay marriages would lead to unions between humans and animals, and questioned the ability of gay couples to raise children. “The child will be bullied,” he said. “People will say, ‘But your mum is actually your dad.’”
His homophobic comments were not the first by a high-profile public figure in Japan. In late 2010, Shintaro Ishihara, the outspoken governor of Tokyo, suggested gay people were “deficient” after watching same-sex couples take part in a parade in San Francisco.
“We have even got homosexuals casually appearing even on television,” he said. “Japan has become far too untamed.”
Higashi and her partner have visited Disneyland to break their good news to Mickey Mouse, but have yet to set a date for the wedding. “Mickey first looked surprised to hear that we are a couple of girls,” she said on her blog. “But we said we were there to thank him ... and he celebrated with us.”
But, she added, taboos surrounding sexuality had forced many gay and lesbian couples to keep their relationships secret. “There is still a lot of prejudice at work and in people’s homes to prevent a lot of us from coming out,” she told Reuters. “Also, when the only public gays you see are the comedians on television who are the butt of public ridicule, it’s hard to find a good reason to come out.”