A Japanese city has amended a rare local law protecting homosexuals from discrimination, despite protests from activists who said the law was being watered down to exclude the gay community.

The step coincides with efforts by conservative lawmakers, including the next prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to revive respect for traditional family values they fear are being eroded in modern society.

The local legislature in Miyakonojo, a city of 171,000 on Japan’s southernmost main island of Kyushu, voted in favour of a revision to a 2003 law that explicitly banned discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation, a city official said.

The national “Basic Law for a Gender-Equal Society,” passed by Japan’s Diet in 1999, required local governments to develop laws and policies promoting equality between men and women. While the national law did not mention sexual orientation, Miyakonojo ‘s ordinance stated: “In the gender-equal society, for all people irrespective of gender and sexual orientation, human rights should be fully respected.”

The new version deletes the reference to gender or sexual orientation.

A city official said the revision would not change the way the law is implemented. Officials said previously the amendment was intended to make the law easier to understand.

“The spirit of the law, its intention, remains although the phrase has been changed,” Meiko Kawasaki, in charge of gender equality affairs at city hall, told Reuters

“There is no change in our policy,” she said.

The international organisation Human Rights Watch had written to Miyakonojo Mayor Makoto Nagamine, who introduced the amendment, protesting the change and urging the city to reconsider.

On Friday, Japan’s first openly lesbian politician, Kanako Otsuji, expressed disappointment and anger.

“I really want to ask those who made this decision why they made it,” said Ms Otsuji, a local legislator in the western Japanese city of Osaka who had campaigned against the change.