National / Social Issues

LGBT support grows among Japan schools

by Sawako Obara

Kyodo

Standing before about 140 high school students, Subaru Yamashita describes how he is physically and emotionally male and that he is attracted to men.

“There is more than just male or female when it comes to a person’s physical and mental genders, and what sex one falls in love with varies, too,” Yamashita, 25, said at the special outreach session at Daishi High School in Kawasaki last month.

“Gender is not just an issue about love and romance. It is an important part of oneself.”

Yamashita, a member of ReBit, a Tokyo-based support group for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender) people, used the occasion to provide students with a better understanding about sexual minorities.

The session was followed by group discussions with other ReBit members.

“I was turned down when I confessed my feelings to a male classmate at our graduation ceremony,” a male member told the students. “But I was happy because he said, ‘Thank you. I will still be your friend and will always be on your side.’ ”

The students’ faces all became visibly more serious as they listened.

“What are the most important things in life?” one asked, while another student wondered, “What is your view on raising children?”

According to a 2015 internet survey by marketing company Dentsu Inc. of some 70,000 Japanese men and women aged 20 to 59, 7.6 percent — or 1 in 13 people — identified as being LGBT.

At a school level, experts believe there are LGBT children in every class. But many teachers lack proper understanding and those students often face harassment. Unable to bring up the issue with their parents or teachers, they feel isolated and even ponder suicide.

A Human Rights Watch survey on some 450 Japanese LGBT people aged under 25 showed that 86 percent of them had been the victim of homophobic slurs and negative remarks.

The verbal harassment they experienced included being told to “disappear because you are disgusting” and “do not come near me.”

Anti-LGBT rhetoric also came from teachers. “Homosexuality is unnatural and morally undesirable” was a typical remark.

Another survey commissioned by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare found as many as 65 percent of 371 LGBT boys aged 10 to 19 had contemplated suicide, and 16 percent had actually tried to kill themselves.

More and more teachers are, however, becoming aware of the problem and organizing workshops and discussions for their peers.

At one such workshop, some 20 elementary and high school teachers held discussions in May in Tokyo.

“During a school trip, a gay student complained that he did not want to get naked in front of other boys,” one teacher said, referring to an overnight excursion during which students were to bathe together in onsen hot springs at their accommodation.

Some teachers also questioned the appropriateness of Japan’s education curriculum that teaches marriage and child-raising as matters of course.

Another participating teacher also reported that the coming-out of an LGBT teacher helped boost awareness of the subject among other teachers and staff at the school.

Efforts to improve public awareness of LGBT people and human rights issues are gradually taking root in Japan.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology compiled a pamphlet in April on how to support pupils and students who are sexual minorities.

A parliamentarian’s league aimed at establishing laws to eliminate anti-LGBT discrimination has also been formed.

Last year, Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward began issuing certificates recognizing same-sex partnerships as equivalent to marriage. Some companies have also started to acknowledge and support LGBT employees.

“One’s gender is part of his or her identity. If it is denied, the person will experience lower self-esteem,” said Mika Yakushi, ReBit’s representative director.

“Providing information and support appropriate for the respective age groups is necessary, so that children will not take it all on themselves alone.”