Japan Inc. slowly shedding LGBT taboos but bias laws still lag



Yusuke Kitamura hid his sexuality from colleagues for most of his career. It was only after joining one of Japan’s oldest brokerages last year that he could tell them he was gay.

“It was so stressful having to lie, and I was hoping to come out at some point,” Kitamura, 33, told a packed room of human resource professionals at an event on workplace diversity in Tokyo. “Now that I’m out, I’ve gone one step further to really communicate with people. I make it a point to talk about my private life.”

Kitamura said he was closeted at his two previous jobs. What motivated his openness at Nomura Securities Co., where he’s a training facilitator and an officer for diversity and inclusion, was its commitment not to discriminate against or harass others based on sexual orientation.

The policy, in place at the Tokyo-based firm since 2010, reflects a slow dismantling of the stigma in Japan that’s helped maintain a long tradition of silence on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, people.

While Apple Inc. Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook has raised the profile of LGBT business leaders in the United States, Japanese businesses are still laying the groundwork to accommodate a diverse workforce.

“It’s still incredibly difficult to come out in Japan,” said Mari Miura, a professor of gender and politics at Sophia University in Tokyo. “People feel so much pressure to conform.”

Attitudes are changing, though. Companies are starting to respect LGBT people as both employees and consumers, and that’s motivating policies aimed at encouraging diversity and inclusiveness.

Supportive companies gain from retaining and motivating LGBT workers, according to a study published by the Center for Talent Innovation in January. These businesses can also tap a large market, since LGBT consumers and their allies also say they would be more likely to buy products from companies that support equality, the report said.

“This has been a fairly taboo topic, so it’s exciting that a shift seems to be happening,” said Rochelle Kopp, managing principal of Japan Intercultural Consulting, who helps Japanese and U.S. companies integrate their workers after a merger. When members of a diverse team “leverage their different perspectives, ultimately the group is going to be more creative, and is going to be able to come up with ideas that are more innovative than just a homogeneous group.”

For Nomura, the impetus for change came in 2008, when the firm bought Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.’s units in Asia and Europe. Nomura inherited a community within Lehman that was working to raise awareness on LGBT issues, and decided to continue that push, according to Yuki Higashi, an executive director of human resource development with the company in Tokyo.

In 2010, it added sexual preference to a clause in its code of conduct related to human rights. This fiscal year, training for managers will include education about LGBT issues.

Other Japanese companies are changing, too. This year, Sony Corp. started offering employees in same-sex partnerships the same family benefits it offers to employees in heterosexual marriages, even without government documentation; marriage is still limited to heterosexual couples in Japan. Panasonic Corp. is considering similar changes.

In December, Dai-ichi Life Insurance Co. brought its 1,300 Tokyo-based managers together for LGBT sensitivity training, and is aiming to roll out a video-based program to the rest of its 50,000 employees by the end of March. It’s a business imperative for employees to have a proper understanding of LGBT issues because it benefits not only staff, but customers as well, said Takashi Hamada, a manager in the company’s human resources department.

“Many of us just haven’t known of anyone who’s LGBT,” Hamada said, adding that greater awareness will nurture an environment in which being gay or transgender isn’t considered abnormal or unusual.

As it is now, Hamada isn’t aware of a single co-worker who’s come out, he said. An anonymous LGBT-issue hotline that his company set up in November has yet to receive a call.

A recent stroll through Shinjuku 2-chome, Tokyo’s gay district, suggested few had come out even to their families or straight friends, let alone their colleagues.

“I know the real name of only one woman who I’ve met here, since almost everyone goes by their nickname,” said Kato, 38, who asked only to be identified by her common last name. “I’ve come out to three people at work because they’re younger. It’d be hard to come out to anyone my age or older.”

Few have so far taken advantage of provisions from two Tokyo wards that started recognizing same-sex couples last fall. As of Feb. 23, Shibuya Ward had issued only seven partnership certificates, despite international media coverage of its first beneficiary: former Takarazuka performer Koyuki Higashi and her partner, Hiroko Matsuhara. Setagaya Ward had received partnership testimonies from 18 couples. About 1 million people live in the two wards.

Still, time may be the most powerful ally for the Japanese LGBT community. Among 18-to-29-year-olds, Japanese are already among the world’s most accepting of sexual diversity — more so than Americans, Britons and the French, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center poll. That portends faster change in Japan in the decades ahead as today’s youth replace older, typically more conservative generations in the workplace.

Some of Japan’s lawmakers are attempting to accelerate the change, drafting a bill that would ban discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation in the workplace and in schools. Goshi Hosono, policy chief for the main opposition force, the Democratic Party of Japan, said he wants the bill passed before Tokyo hosts the Olympics in 2020.

“The private sector is miles ahead of us,” Hosono, 44, said in an interview. “If we ban discrimination by law, I think society will go even further.”

  • less-a-moron

    I think it is great that the law protects all people. But why would somebody make it a point to talk about their personal life at work?

    • Jameika

      The law does not protect all people. The law certainly does not protect against discrimination against the LGBT community. That’s why it’s important to talk about one’s personal life at work (should it come up) because straight people do this ALL THE TIME. They get holidays for getting married. Everyone is expected to give someone who gets married gifts and congratulations. They openly talk about their spouses, who they might be dating, what opposite-sex members of an office might be interested in them.

      You don’t have to be gay to notice all the heterosex talk, but it helps to have a bit of perspective on how much gay people are expected to keep to private.

      And that’s why people think it’s okay to ignore the discrimination: “I don’t know anyone who is gay.”

      Sure you do.

    • blondein_tokyo

      That’s rather a strange question. Do you mean that you have never made friends at work? You don’t ever go out with co-workers for after-work drinks? You don’t recognize the necessity of socializing for work in Japan? Even in casual small talk with business acquaintances, topics like “What are you doing this weekend?” “How was your weekend?” “What are you doing in summer vacation?” come up all the time.

      For a person with a same-sex partner, this is fraught with anxiety. If they are closeted, they have to consciously remember to switch pronouns and not use their partner’s name. They have to say “I’ instead of “we”. They have to be vague, which often translates to being unfriendly.

      And how are they to explain things like needing personal time off to the boss without ever mentioning the partner they are planning to spend that time with? Are they to constantly lie?
      And what if you are one of the people who is actually married to your same sex partner? If you wear a wedding ring? If someone flat-out asks you about the partner they know you have, are you to lie?

      If you take note of the number of times people casually mention “my wife/husband” or “my girlfriend/boyfriend” at the office and when out with co-workers, you will realize exactly how often personal subjects that involve a partner actually come up at work.
      It can be seriously anxiety inducing if you are forced to constantly be on your guard. And this is just ONE aspect of what being in the closet at work is like.

      • less-a-moron

        The times are a changing. But when I worked in Japan I never knew anything about my Japanese coworkers personal lives. And I never talked about mine.

  • skillet

    Some “progress” is not necessarily progress.

  • Jameika

    Why, Japan Times, is the article about gay people in the work place and how “normal” gay people are represented by that photo? In what way is someone dressed as a cartoon character from Frozen in any way representing the community or, more importantly, the discrimination people face at work?

  • Buck

    Banning discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation in the workplace and in schools is a good idea. People should be free to feel however they want. Curious how exactly people are currently being discriminated against now based on sexual orientation, I assume there might be a behavior component. Indeed, there should still be bans against various types’ sexual behavior.