More Japanese businesses are taking steps to help sexual minorities feel comfortable in the workplace amid a growing movement in society to recognize and accept the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
Although the Constitution is interpreted as recognizing only heterosexual marriages, many are hopeful that the recent initiative by Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward to issue same-sex partnership certificates will be a crack in the levee of the nation’s overall conservative mindset, eventually leading to widespread equality and diversity.
A survey conducted by ad giant Dentsu Inc. in April found that 7.6 percent, or 1 in every 13, of some 70,000 people polled identified themselves as a member of Japan’s LGBT community.
That ratio, which surprised many, has created a sense of urgency and concern among companies that a lack of policies promoting diversity at work might draw criticism; it also underlined the strength of the LGBT community as a potential market.
“Initiatives targeting LGBT would actually improve productivity, lead to the hiring of qualified staff, and discourage people from leaving their jobs,” said Maki Muraki of Work with Pride, a group aiming to help create work environments where LGBT people can be themselves.
The group said some LGBT people have suffered psychological illness, faced difficulties getting jobs, or have had trouble communicating because of a fear of the consequences of “coming out.”
Work with Pride has conducted numerous lectures for companies on how to treat LGBT people, and teaches steps for making workplaces comfortable for everyone.
For example, the group instructs managers to use the word “partner” and to avoid using certain words that might be viewed as exclusionary, such as “husband” or “wife.”
By coming out at work, LGBT people can become eligible for benefits their heterosexual counterparts take for granted, such as those associated with marriage.
“It is important that companies know about the difficulties LGBT people face and create an environment where they can continue working,” Muraki said.
Hiroki Inaba, a vice president in the legal department of Goldman Sachs Japan Co., said he is glad he came out as gay.
He informed his company in May after remaining quiet about his sexual orientation for 10 years.
“Actually, I didn’t think anything would change,” said Inaba, who decided to come out because of the company’s progressive atmosphere. His boss began sharing his experiences of attending LGBT seminars that the company had organized.
“Coming out had a surprisingly positive effect. I feel a stronger bond with my colleagues now,” Inaba said. “I can naturally talk about myself, including my private life. It became easier to work.”
Since then, Inaba said, colleagues began being more open about their sexual orientation and that of their friends and relatives, and they started lending support. “I was moved. Now I want to work more with them and for them,” Inaba said.
Muraki stressed that LGBT people do not wish to be a burden or a risk to companies, but would feel more committed if they received the same type of treatment as their heterosexual counterparts, for example honeymoon holidays and marriage benefits.
There are a few heartening examples to be found. Mobile carriers NTT Docomo Inc. and KDDI Corp. have said they will expand family discounts to same-sex couples.
Lifenet Insurance Co., a Japanese life insurer, said it plans to allow policyholders to designate their same-sex partners as beneficiaries in cases of death, and has already begun accepting applications.
Housing-related business Recruit Sumai Company Ltd. has started to address issues surrounding LGBT discrimination at its in-house seminars, but has yet to lay out any specific plans to make housing more accessible.
“I am aware that LGBT people face certain restrictions, such as when trying to take out a loan to buy a house. As a way to make a better society, I want to start by making employees aware of the problems LGBT people face,” said Recruit Sumai Co. President Takahiro Noguchi.
Ken Hasebe, mayor of Shibuya Ward, is hoping companies make more efforts, and admits the ordinance on issuing same-sex partnership certificates is only a small step forward and not the final destination. Business can start the ball rolling, he said.
“A mere change in a law or an ordinance is not enough to change society. We must make the changes visible, and private-sector businesses can create a momentum and play a big role in that,” Hasebe said.
Although the ordinance is legally nonbinding, the Shibuya Ward Office requests that hospitals and businesses including real estate firms treat holders of the certificates in the same way as married couples.
Following suit, Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward also started to accept applications for same-sex couple certificates.
But getting the central government, which does not recognize marriage between same-sex couples, to change its stance is a different story.
When an opposition party lawmaker broached the subject in April, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was cautious.
“The matter needs to be discussed extremely carefully as it concerns the fundamental basis of how families ought to be,” Abe said in a Diet committee meeting. “The Constitution says that marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes.”
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