Assemblywoman puts sex on the agenda

Lesbian politician Kanako Otsuji talks about gender issues in Japan

by Masako Tsubuku

In April 2003, 28-year-old Kanako Otsuji became the youngest person ever elected to the Osaka prefectural assembly when she won the seat for Sakai City. It was a distinction made more special by the fact that there were only six other women in the 110-member assembly at the time. However, another distinction was not known to most of thepeople who voted for her.

Otsuji is a lesbian. Though she did not keep her sexual orientation a secret, the supporters who knew talked her out of revealing this information during the campaign. She was even open about her homosexuality to individual local journalists, but none reported it.

Born in Nara and raised in Kobe, Otsuji was an Asian Junior karate champion while in high school. Later, she dropped out of college and took odd jobs, eventually going to Seoul University to study Korean and tae kwon do in the hope of going to the Sydney Olympics in 2000. She didn’t make the national team, though, and later enrolled in Doshisha University in Kyoto, where she became interested in politics. Otsuji interned with a lawmaker in the Kansai region before her successful run as an independent candidate for the Osaka prefectural assembly.

After taking office, Otsuji knew that she wanted to come out. She spent two months writing a memoir, titled “Coming Out,” which was accepted by Kodansha. She wanted the publication to coincide with the Tokyo Lesbian and Gay Parade 2005 on Aug. 13, where she planned to come out publicly. However, she felt some sort of obligation to her supporters in Sakai City, and on the day before the parade she held a press conference at which she revealed her sexual orientation.

On Aug. 30, Otsuji held her first meeting with supporters since coming out. She explained why she made the announcement, as well as the meaning of the term “sexual minorities” — comprising lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender individuals — and why she aimed to support them in her political career.

Following the meeting, Otsuji talked to The Japan Times about being an openly gay politician in Japan.

Why did you decide to come out?

Somebody had to. Before people can acknowledge the problems faced by sexual minorities, they have to see them. Otherwise the vicious circle continues.

You said that you became a politician in order to change society. How did you present yourself to voters?

When I ran there were very few women in the Osaka prefectural assembly, and the average age of all the members was about 60. I thought the assembly should represent a wide cross section of people, but it was just old men. So in my campaign I said we needed the voice of a young woman. I also said I didn’t belong to any party, so I could promote things I believed in without any strings attached.

As for policies, I had worked on peace and environmental issues, human rights, in particular, women’s problems.

I wanted to represent people who didn’t have an outlet for their views. I wanted to give them a voice in the assembly.

I had no record of accomplishment as a politician, so I asked voters to give me a chance as a young person who wanted to change things.

Why didn’t you reveal your sexual orientation when you ran?

I never hid the fact that I’m gay. I never went out of my way to tell someone I am, but if they asked me I’d tell them. At the beginning of the parade I announced that I was a lesbian, and it was supposed to be a happy occasion. I didn’t expect it to be so serious.

I had a hard time until I finally admitted to myself my true sexual orientation [at the age of 23]. Until then I thought I was weird, the only person in the world who felt this way. Then I met people who were in the same situation.

As I explained this at the parade, I just started crying. I was remembering all the pain I had gone through. I hope that in the future when people come out they’ll have an easier time of it.

What about your parents?

When I told my family that I was going to come out, they said I would have to prepare myself for hardship. My father told his relatives in Kagoshima and they got very upset. “Don’t publish the book! Grandmother will faint!”

My mother acknowledges my homosexuality but she doesn’t understand. One of her friends, a teacher, said, “It happens often in girls schools.” And another friend simply said, “Wow, your daughter published a book! That’s great!” I think she felt better after that.

How about your partner’s family?

Her relatives don’t understand either. It’s very hard because if our families don’t accept it, that means they’re rejecting us. Mothers tend to think they did something wrong when their daughters say they are lesbians. It’s like a mother who gives birth to a handicapped child. Mothers tend to think that society looks down on them, as if they were at fault. That’s why we have to educate everyone.

Human rights problems are caused by prejudice, and all prejudice is created out of ignorance. I want to remove this prejudice. I want a society where you can talk about your sexual orientation as casually as you would left-handedness or right-handedness.

It’ll probably take at least another 10 years.

In your book, you write that you were bullied in junior high school.

Bullying in school happens to people who are perceived as being different. If someone is even a little away from the mainstream, they’re bullied. I was a bit boyish.

You said you were hurt when other students called you a “les,” but were also happy when someone mistook you for a boy. Were you having gender identity problems?

People in Japan tend to think of lesbians as being very feminine. The ones I’ve known are not necessarily transgendered, but they do have doubts about their femaleness. They have lived their whole lives as females, so it’s too late to think seriously about changing sex. I wrote that in the book so that people would understand that sexuality is not a black-and-white thing.

You sometimes hear of heterosexuals acknowledging their gayness, or saying that they love someone who “happens” to be the same sex. They understand homosexuality from that point of view. But I have no sexual desire toward men, only women. I would never say that the person I “happen” to be in love with is a woman. I love that woman because she is a woman. It’s a very complicated subject.

You say that lesbians are forced to live under special conditions.

Among developed countries, Japan has a very small number of women in positions of power. This fact is reflected in the situation of lesbians.

When a woman acknowledges that she is a lesbian, she loses the option of getting married to a man who will support her. It is difficult for a woman to live by herself in Japan. There are few jobs where she can earn a decent salary. The average woman’s salary is about 60 percent that of a man’s, so being a woman in this country automatically means being poorer, which means lesbians are poorer, too. That’s why some get married anyway.

Do the lesbians you know want to have children?

Some of them are divorced and already have children. I don’t know of any lesbian couple in Japan who have had a child together [by means of artificial insemination]. The priority is financial survival.

How do you feel about the way the media treats sexual minorities?

It makes me angry. This morning I saw [comedian] Razor Ramon for the first time. I never watch TV. I’d only heard about him. He’s not homosexual. He just uses gayness for his act, to make people laugh. I’m afraid that people will get the idea that gay people are all like that, yelling and pumping their hips.

Are there any groups who complain to the media about discrimination?

Right now there is no organization that monitors the media about such things. In a speech during the Chiba governor’s election this year, Kensaku Morita [a former TV actor and LDP DIet member, who ran unsuccessfully as an Independent] said that if Japan maintains its policy of gender-free education, there will be no masculinity or femininity, only “okama” [a derogatory term, similar to "homos"].

We became angry and started a blog to protest his statement. I suppose you could call that a movement.

Sexual minority organizations concentrate on counseling: How can we survive in this society? We haven’t reached the stage where we can operate as a political group. We can appeal to heterosexuals with something like this parade, which was held for the first time in three years. We also sent questionnaires to candidates in the Lower House election, asking them about their policies regarding sexual minorities.

We tend to think that the pursuit of happiness includes living with the person you love. In Japan, the smallest unit recognized by the authorities is the family, but the definition of family is very narrow.

The definition of the Japanese family is fixed. In Osaka, you can only live in public housing with your family, which is designated through the family registration system. So you have to prove that you are married with a family register, and — according to the family register — marriage is only between a man and a woman.

Whether or not it’s good for gay couples to be accepted as a family within this convention is a problem, because then single people will be discriminated against, including single mothers. Actually, gays and lesbians identify more with single people, meaning we want to live in a society that recognizes the basic rights of individuals.

I don’t want a society in which families and singles are antagonists. That’s why we aren’t aggressive about guaranteeing same-sex domestic partners’ rights. We were influenced by feminism. Lesbians tend to not like words like “couples” and “marriage.”

Personally, I decided a long time ago to never get married.

Do you oppose the institution of marriage?

Yes. Now, the law doesn’t even allow married people to have different names.

But as you wrote [in a newspaper article], you want to make laws that broaden the rights of domestic partnerships.

I think domestic partners should have the same rights as married couples. If they did, it would mean the government accepts gays and lesbians as full citizens. The Seisakuken [a policy group that works on women's and sexual minority issues] surveyed gays and lesbians about what they want. The main priority was the right to remain with a seriously ill partner in hospital. If something happens to my partner, I want to be able to talk to the doctor, be there by her side. I want to be part of the decision-making process with regard to her care. Presently, only family members are allowed to do that. The second priority is inheritance.

If you want to change society you have to do it on a national level.

Right. We want to put up at least one sexual minority person for the Upper House as a proportional candidate. That way we will see how many votes we can get and what kind of support we have.

Has any party talked to you so far?

I think they’re taking a wait-and-see attitude. There are many gays and lesbians living in places like Shinjuku, and if any of them decided to run for local government I think they could get elected. If an openly gay person ran, then members of sexual minorities who are interested in politics will vote for that person. Wherever I go I try to badger gay people into running for office.

You formed a sexual minority political group — you, Aya Kamikawa [a transgender member of the assembly of Setagaya Ward, Tokyo] and another person.

Actually, there are more. The only members who have disclosed their names are myself and Kamikawa-san.

Are they politicians from local governments?

Yes. And there are national politicans, too.

Why don’t they come out?

They didn’t become politicians to work on sexual minority issues. Once you become a politician your job is to get reelected, and that becomes difficult when you come out, especially if you’re from a rural district.

In your book, you also worry about children. Lately, sex education has come under fire. Do you think it’s acceptable to teach children about sexual orientation?

Right now, home economics textbooks for high school students discuss same-sex couples. Every four years textbooks are revised, so we must try to keep it as it is. The Seisakuken is making a special gender-free program. We’ll go to schools and explain about sexual minorities. Teachers will then be compelled to deal with any related questions from their students. It’s not something many teachers want to do, so they may ask for help. Once the subject comes out people will want to know more.

We really have to tell people that there’s nothing wrong with being gay or lesbian. It’s a healthy sexual orientation. We use civil rights as a kind of breakwater. We have to insist that when people make discriminatory statements in school or in the political arena it violates our rights.

Since this concerns individuals’ sexual orientation, it’s difficult for society to recognize it as a civil rights problem. That’s why people don’t come out.

Right, but somebody has to.

And that somebody is you . . .

In 1993, Yuko Kakefuda, a writer, came out after she wrote “Being a Lesbian.” It was the first time such a book was published in Japan. Then, singer Michiru Sasano, who read Kakefuda’s book, wrote her own, and I read it when I was about 20. In 1999, a schoolteacher named Kumiko Ikeda wrote a book titled “I Won’t Leave You.” She was a lesbian activist using a pseudonym, and in 1997 she came out in her school. I’m an extension of that line.

Sasano suffered from depression after she published her book.

Everyone I know who comes out more or less suffers from depression.

What about you?

I try to fly low, but I can feel the pressure.

Do you feel it directly?

It’s more like I’m untouchable. You saw the women at the meeting, the ones in their 60s? They don’t have the vocabulary to discuss sexuality. Their image of sex is one of dirty jokes and pornography. They can’t talk about sex seriously during the daytime. That’s why they don’t know how to talk to me since I came out.

Friends and people in my group come up to me, discuss my book, ask me if I’m OK, but everybody else just avoids the topic. They know I came out, but they refuse to acknowledge it. Even the bureaucrats I work with have no idea how to talk to me.

If somebody comes to me and says he read my book or an article about me, then I can believe he or she accepts me for what I am. Everyone knows I came out, but no one talks about it to my face.

I had a such great time at the parade. It was like a dream. Then, the next day, back in Osaka, I returned to earth and realized how difficult real life is. There will be somebody else, somebody who reads my book and comes out, so I’ll hand the baton to her. That gives me a sense of purpose. But until that person comes out, I’ll accept my role as the front runner.