In May 2015, Hiroki Inaba, vice president of Goldman Sachs Japan Co.’s legal department, came out as gay, after almost 13 years with the company and 10 years since the company established its LGBT Network, which was formed by staff to promote understanding of sexual minorities.

Although Goldman Sachs Japan has systems in place to provide training to its employees on diversity and inclusion, Inaba said it was also really the support of his boss, Naosuke Fujita, that encouraged him to come out.

“I came out to thank Fujita for all the efforts he had made,” Inaba said.

In a sign of slowly change attitudes, companies in Japan are taking gradual steps to eliminate discrimination against employees, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

While there are still no national laws that accord equal rights to same-sex couples, Goldman Sachs Japan provides employees the same benefits to LGBT partnerships as with married couples. The firm also places a senior manager in each division who takes the lead in promoting diversity.

Fujita was one such leader for the legal department, encouraging staff attendance of LGBT-related events while also raising awareness against discriminatory language.

He agonized over many concerns, including how best to protect people from injurious or pejorative language, Fujita said.

Fujita consulted with an openly gay co-representative of the company’s LGBT Network sometime in 2011 to discuss his concerns.

“What that person advised me to do was to simply state that I was an ally, and that’s all I needed to do,” Fujita said.

Since then, Fujita placed a sign on his desk and a flag in his office clearly demonstrating his stand as an LGBT ally. He wrapped his phone in stickers labeled “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Network.” He had also created opportunities in the workplace to discuss types of discrimination against LGBT people.

“I didn’t think the steps I took were big enough to allow Inaba to come out. But it surprised me that it had such an impact,” Fujita said.

Since Inaba came out, Fujita decided to broaden his efforts to change not only the work environment, but also society in general.

Fujita and Inaba launched a private organization in February 2016 called Lawyers for LGBT & Allies Network, aimed at promoting understanding of sexual minorities, eliminating discrimination and helping create a more inclusive society.

“The main focus of our organization, which will soon become an NPO, is freedom of marriage. Our view is that heterosexuals have access to the system of marriage set by the civil code, but why should this be inaccessible to people with different sexual orientations or gender identities?” Fujita said.

In the past few years, municipalities have taken steps to recognize same-sex marriages.

Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward passed an ordinance in 2015 and agreed to issue legally nonbinding certificates that declared same-sex partnerships “equivalent to marriage.” The document allows gay couples to be treated on par with married couples for hospital visits and apartment rentals. Other cities, including Naha in Okinawa and Iga in Mie Prefecture have since established similar programs, and most recently on June 1, Sapporo started a similar certification program.

But to date, there is no legal backing for same-sex marriages, as Article 24 of the Constitution states that marriage “shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes.”

To help raise awareness, Lawyers for LGBT & Allies Network has published various influential documents, including “Foreign Law Report On Equal Marriage,” which explains about the legal background of how same-sex marriages were approved in other countries, such as the United States, Canada and New Zealand.

In April, both Fujita and Inaba were given the “Outstanding International Corporate Counsel Award” by the American Bar Association for “their positions to initiate and sustain changes for the advancement of the rule of law and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Japan merits recognition.”

Now co-heading the company’s LGBT Network, Inaba leads a team of about 190 members to make the workplace a better environment for LGBT employees.

He also runs the firm’s information sessions directed to LGBT students. Held annually since 2009, the session was attended by about 50 students this year, according to Inaba.

Similar efforts to eliminate discrimination have started to take place at firms in Japan.

IBM Japan Ltd. has been promoting LGBT understanding in the company since 2004. It now offers seminars to employees and provides family benefits to same-sex couples.

On top of changes in the workplace, the company also shares best practices with other firms.

In 2012, IBM Japan co-founded an organization called Work With Pride along with NGO Human Rights Watch, and nonprofit Good Aging Yells. The organization started its activities by providing seminars targeting human resources employees at other firms.

Megumi Umeda, a human resources manager at IBM Japan, said the decision was made after receiving public input that the company was well positioned to make progress for LGBT employees because it was a foreign firm.

“I thought it was necessary to make domestic companies take action in order to change society as a whole,” Umeda said, adding that electronics giants such as Sony Corp. and Panasonic Corp. were one of the first Japanese firm to sign on and cooperate with Work With Pride.

In 2016, Work With Pride published guidelines for companies and other organizations, such as schools, to follow in improving their environment for LGBT people. It awards organizations that made outstanding efforts, under gold, silver and bronze prizes.

Gon Matsunaka, the founder of Good Aging Yells, explained that the guidelines were made after being contacted by human resources managers of Japanese firms who “wanted detailed examples of practices” that the company should be conducting.

“They also wanted to make it an opportunity to move the top” of the organizations, said Matsunaka, adding that awarding a prize is an effective way to motivate firms.

The guidelines point to measures such as if a firm is providing staff with enough training sessions, if consultation is available and if an LGBT employee is awarded with necessary benefits. It also finds it important that a firm consider restrooms or changing rooms that could be used by all people regardless of gender.

In 2016, the award accepted entries from more than 82 organizations nationwide, and is expecting more this year. Entries are now accepted until Sept. 15.

“It’s a way of sharing the practice,” said Matsunaka.

“Diversity and inclusion are management resources and tactics that could be kept within the company, but bring more benefits if they are shared” by other organizations, he said.

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