A Year in Japanese LGBT News – 2016

On December 14, Google revealed its annual Year in Search, shining a light on the most popular search queries of 2016. The breakout searches were to be expected: Pokemon GO, the summer hit game that requires no introduction. Olympic, referring to both the Rio Summer Olympics and the excitement (and drama) surrounding Tokyo 2020. And SMAP, the “Johnny’s idol” group that will dissolve at the end of the year.

But a look at the top search queries starting with “what is…” revealed a surprising and optimistic result – coming in 10th place is the search query “What is LGBT?”.

Building upon the foundation laid out in 2015, the conversation surrounding LGBT in Japan expanded exponentially during 2016 due to the efforts of nonprofit organizations, municipal governments, corporations and individuals working to create a more inclusive Japan.

This year, we saw headline after headline about the efforts of NPOs to spread awareness and knowledge of LGBT to schools and companies. Some companies and local governments announced anti-discrimination policies and declared support of diversity. Increased media attention allowed prominent figures in Japanese LGBT activism a platform to spread their views on how Japanese society could approach the push for equality in Japan.

LGBT rights in Japan also became a topic of conversation in English speaking spheres due to Ellen Page’s high-profile documentary Gaycation and the Human Rights Watch report on the epidemic of LGBT bullying and exclusion in Japanese schools.

Let’s take a look at how far the collective push for LGBT awareness, acceptance, and rights in Japan has progressed in the past year and where it leaves us for 2017.

Partnership Systems and Declarations of Support

The governments of Iga City in Mie Prefecture and Takarazuka City in Hyogo Prefecture made public in 2015 their intention to implement same-sex partnerships systems in 2016, and carried through on their promises precisely on schedule. Iga City began to certify same-sex couples in April, and Takarazuka City followed in June, becoming the third and fourth municipalities in Japan to recognize same-sex partnerships.

This was followed by Naha City implementing their own partnership system in July. The timing happened to align with the Pink Dot Okinawa LGBT rally, held on July 19. At the event, the government of Naha city made a “Rainbow Naha Declaration,” making public their aim to position Naha City as a prefectural capital that supports LGBT diversity and awareness.

While the public declarations of support for LGBT by local governments and the implementation of sensitivity training programs and consultation centers for LGBT individuals are welcome changes, the certificates themselves still hold no legal power and are only valid in the area in which they are issued. There are however some uses for the certificates, but such benefits only exist due to companies kindly choosing to respect the document, rather than legal pressure.

In addition to the cities mentioned above, Seki City in Gifu Prefecture declared itself an “LGBT friendly city” in August. The following month, Urasoe City in Okinawa Prefecture announced its support for LGBT and its intention to make a formal declaration of support in the beginning of 2017.

NPO Nijiiro Diversity released an infographic revealing the number of couples that have registered under each municipality’s same-sex partnership system. In total, 68 couples across 5 municipalities had registered as of October 25. Shibuya and Setagaya Wards in Tokyo had the highest number of couples, totaling 15 and 38 couples respectively. Iga saw 4 couples register, while Takarazuka had still not registered any couples in the four months before the survey. Despite being the most recent city to register couples, Naha had 11 registered couples, 9 of which who did so within the first two months of availability.

Lastly, just when we thought that we had heard the last of the big news regarding LGBT for the year, Sapporo City in Hokkaido Prefecture announced on December 22 that it had finalized plans to recognize same-sex relationships as equal to marriage beginning as soon as fiscal 2017. This will make Sapporo one of the most highly populated regions in Japan to recognize same-sex relationships to some extent.

It was reported in April 2016 that an LGBT rights group called Domestic Partnership in Sapporo was working together with human rights lawyers to campaign for domestic partnership rights in Sapporo. Seeing the concrete results of their work in such a brief amount of time is an encouraging development that will surely embolden activists in other regions of Japan.

Corporations Embracing Diversity

2016 was the year where corporate support for LGBT exploded in Japan.

Reports of electronics giants Sony and Panasonic extending family benefits to same-sex partners, and in Panasonic’s case, outright acknowledgment of same-sex marriages and explicitly denouncing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity made headlines in February.

In September, Work With Pride (abbreviated wwP), an organization created through the efforts of IBM Japan and Human Rights Watch, announced their PRIDE index, a set of criteria created to gauge the LGBT-inclusiveness of Japanese companies. The PRIDE index evaluates companies based on various factors which are separated into 5 categories; Policy, Representation, Inspiration, Development, and Engagement/Empowerment (Get it? PRIDE!). Click here to read about the PRIDE index in its entirety.

In October, wwP hosted an event in Tokyo where representatives from 82 companies across Japan attended workshops to learn about and better understand the concerns of LGBT workers. In addition, wwP evaluated the participating companies according to its PRIDE index and held a commemoration ceremony where companies were issued a gold, silver, or bronze ranking. Of the 82 companies evaluated, 53 were designated as “gold”(including DENTSU, which was recently awarded the so-called “Black Company Award” for the ongoing investigation surrounding a case of death by overwork earlier this year). The full list of companies awarded the “gold” rank can be found here.

It’s no surprise that Japanese companies have been quick to project an LGBT friendly image. In Japan, where the economy has been struggling for decades, tapping into the LGBT market could be a boon for businesses. A knee-jerk reaction might be to claim that companies are mostly looking out for their bottom line and don’t actually care about LGBT individuals. But with organizations like wwP and other NPOs working with (and keeping a judging eye on) the companies, the policies being put in place seem like they could have a tangible positive effect on the community.

In 2015, the three biggest telecommunications companies, Docomo, Softbank, and KDDI, offered to extend family discounts to same-sex couples. Huge companies such as Rakuten and Panasonic have created policies that recognize same-sex partners and offer employees the same benefits that married couples receive. Once Lifenet Life Insurance decided to allow same-sex partners as beneficiaries, other insurance companies followed suit with similar announcements.

The legitimacy of same-sex relationships in these cases can be verified by several methods, but for most couples, trying to take advantage of these services could be a hassle. Couples lucky enough to live in one of the five cities that offer a same-sex partnership system can provide their certificate. If not, they can provide proof that they live together. This can be another hurdle, as housing discrimination is common, thinly veiled behind policies that deny two people of the same sex from renting together. The third way to verify a relationship is by having a third party vouch for the couple, which depends on how open the couple is with friends and loved ones, and especially in the case of an LGBT third party, whether or not they feel comfortable submitting their name.

However, the bright side is that at the very least, companies deciding to honor the same-sex partnership certificates and provide equal services and benefits to all couples gives the certificates meaning. Of course, companies want LGBT people to be able to use their services, so the companies might put pressure on local governments to create more same-sex partnership systems. The more couples able to access their services, the more secure their bottom line becomes.

On a side note, the Labor Ministry took a small step towards protecting LGBT workers, changing their guidelines for employers and including discrimination on the basis of gender and sexual identity as a form of sexual harassment.

I think it’s safe to say that we will definitely see more and more companies hopping on the equal rights bandwagon in 2017.

Inclusive Education

Hiroshi Hase, who was appointed the new head of the Ministry of Education in 2015, vowed to address the hardships of LGBT students in classrooms across Japan. He delivered on those promises in April, when the Ministry of Education issued guidelines for educators and staff on how to treat LGBT students and create a more comfortable environment in schools.

NPO ReBit ramped up their efforts to visit schools and conduct seminars about LGBT for students. The seminars, during which LGBT young adults relay stories about their journey to self acceptance, aim to teach students to accept different sexualities and genders and is also a way to reach out to any students who may be struggling with such issues themselves.

The Ministry of Education is currently carrying out its once-a-decade review and revision of the national curriculum, and human rights groups are putting pressure on the government to make it LGBT-inclusive. Human Rights Watch in May issued a report about the treatment of LGBT students in schools. The report included heartbreaking first-hand experiences of the bullying and abuse that LGBT students receive not only from fellow students but from faculty who choose to turn a blind eye when issues regarding sexuality and gender arise.

The bid to create an inclusive curriculum might have a good chance of being accepted, as it comes on the heels of a high profile case of parents suing a university over the suicide of their gay son. A 25-year-old man studying law at Hitotsubashi University came out as gay to his friend, who in turn posted in a LINE chat group, writing “I’m sorry but I can’t keep your secret.” Now publicly outed, the man fell into despair and asked his university for help, but they shrugged him off, referring him to a doctor who specializes in gender identity disorder. He eventually committed suicide.

The case lead to panel discussions on television questioning if the school could have done more, the factors that lead to the man’s isolation, and so on. Most viewers probably heard the term outing (アウティング) for the first time in their lives. The discussion became so widespread that at one point, morning news programs were even outlining what to do if someone comes out to you, such as offering support and confirming with the LGBT person how open they are, in order to prevent accidentally outing them.

With the head of the Ministry of Education standing firm in his resolve to make life easier for Japanese students, pressure from outside groups, and changing perception and awareness of LGBT, there may be many good things to look forward to in the coming year.

In 2016, we saw the push for equality become broader than ever, with hot spots of progress springing up across the nation (literally) from Hokkaido to Okinawa. Activists will no doubt continue their push for equality the coming year, working closely with local governments and companies to create a more accepting society.

The national government also appears to understand its role in taking care of all the people, and perhaps some of these more coy attempts to address LGBT individuals could lead to concrete legislation that addresses things like housing discrimination and so on. But for the time being, it seems that local governments and companies will be responsible for taking on such issues on their own.

The momentum behind LGBT rights movement in Japan has become much stronger in 2016, and appears poised to reach new heights in 2017!

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