On October 24, the publishers of the Kojien Dictionary, regarded as the most authoritative dictionary of Japanese, announced that it would be issuing the volume’s first revision in 10 years. When the dictionary’s 7th edition hits shelves on January 12, the acronym ‘LGBT’ will be included among 10,000 new entries.
2017 saw the expansion of same-sex partnership systems and local government support for sexual minorities, and many corporations made efforts to reach out to LGBT employees and consumers.
Meanwhile, schools are continuing to take it upon themselves to introduce LGBT-related topics in schools and educate students about respecting diversity, while the Ministry of Education acknowledged LGBT students by ramping up its efforts to protect them from bullying based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Let’s take a look at some of the biggest stories coming out of Japan in 2017.
Partnership Systems, Expanding Support
Perhaps the most significant news surrounding same-sex partnership in Japan came out of Sapporo, which on June 1st became the largest city in Japan to introduce such a system.
Officials in Sapporo expressed hope that its ‘Partnership Oath System’ will help to alleviate discrimination against sexual minorities.
The city is doubling down on its efforts to create an inclusive city by introducing an ‘LGBT-Friendliness Index’, evaluating local businesses and institutions and ranking them based on their efforts to accommodate LGBT employees and customers.
Sapporo also saw the revival of its LGBT pride event, Sapporo Rainbow March, by an independent group.
In Tokyo, Setagaya Ward, which introduced same-sex partnership in November 2015, announced in May that it had registered 50 couples, becoming the first municipality to do so.
According to the NPO Nijiiiro Diversity, as of October 31, a total of 134 couples are currently utilizing same-sex partnership systems across six municipalities in Japan.
While Sapporo was the only new location to recognize same-sex couples in 2017, a number of other towns and cities expressed their support of sexual minorities, and some began to move towards creating concrete policy changes.
The mayor of Urasoe City in Okinawa Prefecture made a “Rainbow City Urasoe Declaration” on January 4th, designating the city as one that accepts sexual diversity. (Neighboring Naha made such a declaration in 2015 and has recognized same-sex partnership since 2016.) Tokoake City in Aichi Prefecture presented a similar “Living Alongside LGBT Declaration” in August.
The mayor of Fukuoka in September announced that the city is
“taking steps toward providing complete support for sexual minorities.” It should be noted that Fukuoka is the most populous city in Kyushu, as well as the city with the highest rate of growth of younger people (those aged 15-29) in Japan.
In November, the representatives of LGBT Alliance Fukuoka made a formal appeal for the city to declare its support for sexual minorities and create policies to support them and secure their rights, to which Mayor Takashima Soichiro replied that the implementation of a same-sex partnership system is “already under consideration.” Given the mayor’s track record of forward-thinking policies aimed at positioning Fukuoka as a global city, I think it’s safe to say that we could see a lot of positive change coming out of Fukuoka in the coming year.
Some municipalities in Japan have begun to reconsider how gender is reported on official documents and job applications, especially in consideration of those whose gender identity or expression varies from that of their family register.
Koshigaya City in Saitama Prefecture announced in September that it would revise 165 official forms where reporting one’s gender is unnecessary in an ongoing process lasting through the next fiscal year.
A number of cities in the Yamashiro Region of Kyoto Prefecture expressed a similar sentiment, with five out of twelve towns in the region committing to the removal of the gender column on “Personal Seal Registration” and “Certificate of Residence” forms.
Furthermore, the wards of Setagaya and Suginami in Toyko decided to eliminate the gender column from job applications.
LGBT Organizations Promote Change
Throughout the year, non-profits and other organizations continued to create awareness of the daily struggles of sexual minorities in Japan and advocate for their rights.
On May 2nd, Amnesty International, which has been working closely with domestic LGBT rights groups, released a proposal to the government regarding measures that the country should take to tackle discrimination. The statement proposed introducing anti-discrimination legislation and increasing awareness to eliminate discrimination in workplaces, schools, detention facilities, and evacuation centers during times of emergency.
The 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake exposed shortcomings in considering the needs of transgender individuals at evacuation centers, with many of these individuals facing difficulty in accessing bathrooms and showers and securing necessary relief supplies.
In response to these issues, Sexuality and Human Rights Network ESTO created the Disaster Prevention Guidebook for People of Diverse Sexualities, which serves a dual purpose as a reference book for local governments to consider while moving forward with policy reform and as a resource for individuals to understand their rights.
As for nation-wide anti-discrimination policies, the National Personnel Authority, which oversees some 280,000 public servants, made clear its stance against discriminatory remarks and behavior towards sexual minorities and stated that those who violate these regulations are subject to punishment.
In 2016, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare revised its guidelines for employers to include LGBT discrimination under existing sexual harassment regulations, with the revision taking effect in 2017. However, some groups have stated that more must be done to ensure that workplaces abide by these guidelines.
Corporations Champion Diversity
Many corporations across Japan continued to work closely with LGBT organizations while furthering their efforts to embrace diversity and inclusivity in the workplace.
Work With Pride, an organization co-founded by IBM Japan, Human Rights Watch, and Good Aging Yells, continued to provide diversity training and guidance for corporations, as well as evaluating them according to its PRIDE index.
On October 21st ReBit, a non-profit organization that provides resources for LGBT job seekers, hosted its Rainbow Crossing Tokyo event where LGBT-friendly corporations connected with students and informed them of the measures being taken to support diversity in the workplace. Twenty-four corporations, including NEC, NOMURA, NTT Group, and Shiseido participated.
Sumai Company, which controls the popular apartment search site Suumo, added the ability to search for LGBT-friendly residences.
Retailer Don Quixote in May introduced ‘all gender’ restrooms in its flagship store in Shibuya and said that it was considering bringing the change to stores nationwide.
Furthermore, the Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau announced that it will join the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association to raise the appeal of Okinawa as an LGBT-friendly travel destination.
Criticism of Lackluster Efforts
Over the past several years, many corporations have come to acknowledge that sexual minorities exist and have begun to provide more inclusive services, but half-hearted and confused attempts to reach out to workers and consumers have been a cause of frustration among many.
For example, some workers have reported that despite extending benefits to same-sex couples and holding sensitivity seminars, these so-called progressive companies have failed to properly promote such initiatives among employees.
In other cases, LGBT customers have been denied services due to miscommunication of the new policies to employees.
Moreover, strict rules, such as a requirement to brandish a partnership certificate or to provide proof of cohabitation (despite same-sex partnership only existing in six municipalities nationwide and widespread housing discrimination) have amounted these policies to lip service by corporations looking to jump on the latest trend.
Representatives of some corporations, such as the aforementioned Bank of the Ryukyus, have stated that their services, while aimed at couples with partnership certification, will also accept requests on a “case to case basis”, acknowledging that not all same-sex couples have the privilege of living in areas where same-sex partnership has been established.
Corporations genuinely dedicated to making their services available to a broader number of individuals and improving the lives of sexual minorities could benefit from relaxing such stringent requirements.
Positive news regarding education reform in 2017 centered around efforts to prevent bullying and better train teachers to understand the struggles of LGBT students.
The results of an online survey of 15,000 LGBT individuals conducted by Lifenet Insurance Co. found that 58 percent of respondents reported experiencing bullying during their elementary, junior high and high school years.
The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) implemented its revised Basic Policy for the Prevention of Bullying to include sexual orientation and gender identity from April. The move was applauded by many, including the international non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch. However, the same group criticized Japan for missing a once-in-a-decade opportunity to introduce information about sexual and gender minorities in its national curriculum despite evidence that students and educators to wish to be able to discuss such topics.
The need to train educators in how to treat LGBT students was highlighted amid reports of teachers outing LGBT students to parents and classmates while believing that they are showing consideration by doing so.
In June, MEXT revealed the curriculum guidelines for the 2020 curriculum, which suggested a mention of sexual minorities in elementary and junior high school physical education and health classes.
Current national policies continue to fail to completely address the issues of LGBT students, which has driven LGBT organizations and local governments to take efforts into their own hands.
In June, former elementary school teachers and lawyers held the first ever Fukuoka City School Uniform Consideration Assembly where issues surrounding the rigidity of school uniform regulations were discussed. The issue was further discussed at a symposium organized by the Fukuoka Bar Association in October.
The Board of Education of Itoshima City, also in Fukuoka Prefecture, announced in Septemeber that it plans to train teachers on how to teach LGBT-related topics to students on a grade-by-grade basis and will allocate teaching hours to LGBT-related topics in all 23 city schools beginning in the 2019 school year. The Board of Education also plans to meet with teachers monthly to discuss topics to be included.
Non-profit organizations and other LGBT support groups have long been supporting schools as they grapple with providing students with proper information about sexual minorities.
In June, The Niigata City-based LGBT support group Niigata LGBT Love 1 peace released a booklet called Diverse People, Diverse Minds featuring the experiences and struggles of its members during their school days in comics. The group hopes that the booklets will be made available in schools and used when teaching children about LGBT.
Japanese LGBT-related Art, and Film in America
The Japan Society, a New York City Organization “committed to deepening mutual understanding between the United States and Japan”, hosted its exhibition, A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints, from March through June.
The exhibition offered a rare look into gender constructs and sexuality in early modern Japan and was the first exhibition in North America devoted to the portrayal of wakashu, male adolescents whom, according to scholars, existed in a space where they were “considered neither men nor women, but were desirable to both.”
Gengoroh Tagame’s My Brother’s Husband a family story about a single father being visited by his late twin brother’s husband, received an official English translation with a two-in-one omnibus edition being released on May 2nd by Pantheon Books.
Japanese broadcaster NHK announced that it will air a three-part TV drama adaptation of the work from March 4th through 18th 2018. It is unknown if the drama will receive an official release overseas.
Another piece of Japanese LGBT-related media that made it to the West was the 1969 film Funeral Parade of Roses, which received a 4K restoration and viewings in New York and Los Angeles in June.
While a lot of positive news came out of Japan over the year, the last several months brought a handful of stories that highlighted the lack of consideration for sexual minorities.
An anniversary broadcast of the variety show Tunnels in late September revived a thirty-year-old character, Homooda Homo, whom many felt embodied negative gay stereotypes. The appearance of the character was promptly condemned by viewers and activist groups and sparked a nationwide conversation on political correctness. The gaffe lead the president of Fuji TV to apologize for the network’s oversight.
In November, an LDP Chairman Takeshita Wataru expressed opposition to the idea of same-sex partners of state guests attending imperial banquets hosted by the Emperor and Empress, saying “It does not agree with the tradition of Japan.”
The comment spurred scorn from inside and outside his party, leading Takeshita to apologize for, but not retract, his statement.
It was reported this year that the Toyko-based NPO Good Aging Yells was working on establishing a “Pride House” at the 2020 Toyko Olympics and Paralympics in hopes of creating awareness at the events.
It also appears that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government is planning on providing transgender-friendly toilets at many of the Tokyo Olympic venues.
In a report issued in early December by Bloomberg, Kanako Otsuji, Japan’s only openly gay lawmaker, said that legalizing same-sex marriage in Japan could take a decade, expressing her desire to pass anti-discrimination laws as an important first step towards this goal.
As we draw closer to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, international criticism of the Japanese government’s lukewarm stance towards protecting sexual minorities is bound to erupt unless more sincere action is taken.
Nevertheless, the work of local governments, schools, corporations, NGOs and other activists will continue to elevate the conversation surrounding the rights of sexual minorities in Japan through 2018 and beyond.