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.”