As the nation slowly turns its eye to the concerns and needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, more companies are starting to respect sexual minorities as employees as well as consumers.

Given such changes, advertising giant Hakuhodo DY Holdings Inc. launched in June a think tank, Japan LGBT Research Institute, Inc., to cater to the newfound need among Japanese firms to learn more about sexual minorities, including support to expand into this new market.

The LGBT market is still largely uncharted territory in Japan, and there is room for companies to explore it through new services or products, institute CEO Takahiko Morinaga said.

“In the world of marketing, it’s still only about (straight) men or women, and the presence of LGBT consumers has been forgotten. … Being a gay person myself, I’ve always felt that was such a waste of opportunities,” said Morinaga, 33, who won an in-company competition to start the venture. “By turning our eyes to (LGBT people), I believe we can create products or services that we’ve never seen before.”

According to a survey the think tank released in June, around 8 percent of the Japanese population, or 1 in every 13 people, were estimated to belong to sexual minorities.

Among them, roughly 6 percent are thought to be either lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, the survey said. The rest include “asexual” people, which refers to those with little or no interest in sexuality.

The data also showed that, on the whole, LGBT people spend much more money on travel, art and pet-related goods, among others. “I believe there are big business opportunities,” Morinaga said.

LGBT people meanwhile tend to spend less on financial products, for example life insurance, he said. But these tendencies might change if more financial services or products that cater to their needs are introduced, he added.

“Some people accuse us of financially exploiting LGBT people. But there are many products developed for women or targeting men. Do they get angry? I don’t think so,” Morinaga said. “I truly believe if there are more services or products developed to suit their needs, it will enrich their lives.”

Japan has recently made progress concerning LGBT issues. Some municipalities, including Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, have begun issuing certificates recognizing LGBT couples. Issues concerning sexual minorities were also included in the campaign pledges of major political parties, including the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, in the Upper House election last month.

LGBT people were almost invisible in Japanese society for a long time, Morinaga said, and largely ignored. But as more people raise their voices on the issue, the tide is beginning to shift, he said.

Still, according to Morinaga, Japanese society remains in its infancy when it comes to recognition of sexual minorities. As a first step, he hopes companies will educate themselves and create a diverse and inclusive working environment.

“There are not many people who can explain what a sexuality is,” Morinaga said. “I guess it’s because they had no chance to properly learn about it before.

“I think many have avoided the subject because they don’t have that knowledge,” he said. “Many were indifferent about the issue, and that made them ignorant.”

So far companies have responded well, he said, with many consulting the think tank about ways to make their working environments more inclusive, as they had little knowledge about sexual minorities.

Some asked Morinaga about ways to make job hunting easier for LGBT people, so they can feel comfortable applying without hiding their sexual orientation. Others consulted the firm about improving their employee welfare programs.

To help companies learn more about sexual minorities, the venture provides training.

If more employers can create a working environment where nobody feels the need to hide their gender identity and sexual orientation, and where everyone can freely express their uniqueness, that will benefit their business as well, Morinaga said.

Sadly, many in Japan still automatically assume that everyone is straight, Morinaga said, citing the example of LGBT people who are often questioned by co-workers about why they are not married. Some are even told they won’t be promoted if they stay single.

Such ignorance and discrimination often makes sexual minorities feel the need to hide who they are, he said.

“There are many LGBT people with great creative talent,” Morinaga said. “If such people can be free and open about their sexuality at their workplace, I believe that will benefit their employers as well.”

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