When she was in her teens, Yumiko Higuchi was suicidal.
The Niigata native says she was always loath to put on the traditional sailor-style school uniform for girls. Tormented by a growing sense of gender discomfort, the teenager had a morbid tendency to slit her wrists and overdose on drugs.
The former troubled schoolgirl is now Kazuki Osawa, a 26-year-old civil servant in Tokyo who still remains legally, and physically, female but looks and sounds male due to twice-monthly hormone injections.
Osawa has a lifetime partner, too, his childhood friend, Shoi Osawa, who is also legally female.
“As a teenager, it gradually dawned on me that I was not normal. And the idea that I would have to live the rest of my life pretending to be the person I’m not, in conformity with others, tore me apart,” said Kazuki Osawa, who looks like an ordinary salaryman in the capital.
“In Japan, once you’re branded abnormal, it’s almost impossible to start over again,” he said, noting the nation’s conformist culture often makes sexual minorities balk at coming out for fear of discrimination.
Osawa’s plight mirrors that of many sexual-orientation minorities in Japan, where same-sex marriage is still legally impossible.
In an encouraging shift, an increasing number of companies and municipalities are open to greater diversity and more tolerant toward members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population.
On Thursday, Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, unveiled its as yet unapproved proposal to issue certificates declaring relationships of its same-sex couples being “equivalent to marriage,” an unprecedented move that, if realized, is expected to make life significantly easier for LGBT ward residents.
But old prejudices die hard. Although sexual minorities in Japan may not face religious-related persecution, statistics suggest they get bullied in school, are suicidal and vulnerable to discriminatory remarks in the workplace. Such minorities are often mistreated by employers and cold-shouldered by prospective landlords based on their sexual orientations and same-sex unions.
In Japan, 1 in 20, or 5.2 percent of the population, is estimated to be either gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, according to an Internet survey conducted by advertising giant Dentsu Inc. in 2012.
An online poll carried out in 2013 by the Tokyo-based group Inochi Risupekuto Howaito Ribon Kyanpen (Life Respect White Ribbon Campaign) found that about 70 percent of sexual minorities in Japan have faced some form of bullying in school, and 30 percent of those who experienced violence have contemplated suicide.
In late 2013, 28.2 percent of 1,000 randomly sampled LGBT callers to Yorisoi Hotline, one of the nation’s biggest telephone consultation services subsidized by the Health, Welfare and Labor Ministry, confessed to having contemplated suicide, compared with 15.0 percent of nonsexual minorities, according to the group that operates the hotline.
Japan Inc. meanwhile seems to fall short in terms of accommodating the LGBT community.
Equality Forum, a Philadelphia-based nongovernmental organization seeking to enhance the civil rights of LGBT ranks, reported in 2012 that a record 484, or 96.8 percent, of the top 500 companies ranked by Fortune magazine included sexual orientation in their employment nondiscrimination policies. In contrast, a 2014 survey on corporate social responsibility conducted by Japanese business magazine Toyo Keizai showed that 114, or just 18.7 out of 607 major listed companies in Japan, make efforts to protect their LGBT employees.
Maki Muraki, founder of the NGO Nijiiro Diversity (Rainbow Diversity), said many closet LGBT workers are offended by what they take to be derogatory remarks by their colleagues against their sexuality.
In the group’s 2014 survey, about 70 percent of 1,200 LGBT company workers said a discriminatory attitude toward sexual minorities existed in their workplace, Muraki said. This mindset typically manifests itself in the form of banter, she said.
“Prying questions such as ‘Are you gay? Is that why you’re not married?’ are common examples,” said Muraki, herself a lesbian.
“Quite often those remarks are just meant to be friendly jest. There may be no real discriminatory intent involved … but they’re insensitive and equal to sexual harassment. Unless such remarks are eliminated, LGBT employees will never feel comfortable.”
Even employees who come out can experience bullying based on their LGBT status and suffer mental illness as a result, the survey showed.
In one case, a male-to-female transgender worker was fired after she grew her hair to shoulder length, an act her employer said suggested her inability to comply with the organization, Muraki said.
But the situation has slowly changed over the last couple of years, she said.
In 2012, leading brokerage Nomura Holdings Inc. included a pledge in its code of ethics to “strictly prohibit discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation.” Other global companies, including Sony Corp. and Shiseido, have made similar vows.
But few appear to have taken steps bolder than that of the Japan arm of U.K.-based cosmetics retailer Lush Retail Ltd. The Japan unit revamped its personnel system last month as part of a broader campaign to empower sexual minorities both inside and outside the firm.
LGBT employees in the company can now claim the same package of wedding benefits as their non-LGBT colleagues, including marriage allowances and honeymoon leaves, upon finding lifetime partners.
The company also added a vow in its recruiting policy not to discriminate against job seekers based on their gender identity and sexual orientation. Nor would it ask them anymore to specify their sex when filling out a job application.
“We stand by the belief that by no means should humans ever be discriminated against due to their physical features and sexuality,” said Ikuko Tomura, recruiting manager of human resources at Lush Japan. “By our standard, it’s almost unimaginable that you’d need to spend your time in the office, or about a third of your day, repressing your true self.”
Enhancing LGBT equality, Muraki pointed out, is good for the firm, too. It would make such employees less prone to stress and thereby boost their productivity. Turnover would also be lower, she said.
More municipalities are also working to create a more inclusive society.
Nakano Ward in Tokyo, for example, is helping to arrange privately rented housing for a variety of disadvantaged residents, including same-sex couples, in collaboration with a real estate agency.
Same-sex couples are disqualified by law from living in low-rent public housing. They also face “tremendous” difficulty finding private rental housing, with many landlords seemingly disinclined to accept same-sex couples almost instinctively, according to Minata Hara, who heads the Tokyo-based nonprofit organization All Japan Sexual Minorities Support Network.
Trying to be more accommodative, Yodogawa Ward in the city of Osaka started in July what it calls an LGBT support campaign. It has since periodically held workshops and distributed newsletters to ignite public support for LGBT equality, and offers a telephone hotline for sexual minorities.
Although welcoming these fledgling signs of change, Kazuki and Shoi Osawa, the Tokyo same-sex couple, voiced concern that LGBT children in schools could face further bullying unless the entertainment world changes the way it portrays “onee” (effeminate) male-to-female transgender TV celebrities.
Beloved for their effervescent characters and flamboyant fashion, celebrities including Ikko, Kaba-chan and Chris Matsumura are ubiquitous fixtures on entertainment TV shows. But at the same time, Shoi said, they tend to be portrayed as laughingstocks derided by other cast members.
“It’s as if they were somehow lower class than others and have every reason to be laughed at,” Shoi said.
For example, he noted, when the transgenders flirt with male TV celebrities, the men often respond by grimacing in mock disgust at the attention for the sake of cheap laughs. This kind of reaction, he continued, could breed the illusion among children who grow up watching these “discriminatory” TV shows that transgender people are by definition to be belittled and abhorred.
Shoi, a freelance Web designer, was born female. But he said his female physical features were extremely underdeveloped, adding he rarely menstruated.
Shoi said his sexuality is neutral, meaning he believes himself to be what he calls “intersex.” He noted, however, that he would prefer to consider himself male.
The Osawa couple said they are frustrated that same-sex marriage is not legal in Japan. This frustration made the pair — both legally female — take in 2012 the route many other same-sex couples in Japan took in the past to become a family: adoption.
In May 2012, Shoi, then 24, adopted Kazuki, who was 23. As a result, the two are now listed on the same “koseki” family registry unit. That way, they can at least rest assured they will now be treated as family members in a hospital should one of them require medical attention.
Still, the two cringe at the idea that despite their virtual matrimony, they are not recognized as being married in the eyes of the law.
“Some people dismiss same-sex marriage as meaningless because we wouldn’t be able to make babies,” Shoi said. “But a lot of opposite-sex couples in Japan opt not to have kids and are still allowed to marry. It’s unfair that we’re not.”