National / Social Issues

Human rights watchdog urges LGBT-inclusive curricula for Japan's schools

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo

With a new proposal, a human rights group is urging the government to give ample consideration to sexual minority students when compiling educational guidelines and teacher training programs.

The proposal is part of ongoing efforts to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender children from harassment and bullying at school.

Given the lack of an LGBT-inclusive curriculum, students in Japan receive inaccurate and biased information about members of sexual minorities from teachers, Kanae Doi, Japan director of Human Rights Watch, said in a recent interview.

“It is necessary to enable teachers, through comprehensive training, to adequately respond to consultations by LGBT students and make it obligatory to cover LGBT issues in classrooms, rather than leaving it optional, to shed light on the minority children,” she said.

Doi has delivered these messages to lawmakers and education ministry officials during meetings, as a once-a-decade revision of official curriculum guidelines is now underway.

The proposal is based on recent research by Human Rights Watch, for which the international rights body interviewed more than 100 people nationwide, including teachers, government officials, lawyers and LGBT students, who revealed heartbreaking episodes.

According to the study’s report, the group found that Japanese schools focus on maintaining harmony rather than protecting vulnerable students.

The group was also aware of “pervasive homophobic environments across all types and levels of schools,” while pointing out that strict gender segregation, seen in school uniform policies and gender-segregated activities, makes it difficult for gender nonconforming children to lead happy school lives.

One man, who came out as gay when he was in high school, said in an interview he was told by his teachers that his statement had disrupted the school’s harmony, according to the report.

A physical education teacher also told him other students thought of what he did as a joke, and that “even by standing next to you, people will think I’m gay, too,” the report noted.

An 18-year-old lesbian in Nagoya, who has not come out, said she was shocked at the age of 16 when a home economics teacher told female students that their responsibility in life is to get married to a man and have children. “I got really upset during the lesson and I started to panic. I couldn’t breathe. I started crying,” she said.

Meanwhile, a transgender student was told by his teachers that his sense of discomfort as a biological female was temporary and that he would grow out of it — comments, he said, that deeply saddened him because he had “so much respect for the teachers but they knew nothing about me,” according to the report.

Meanwhile, according to a lawyer interviewed by HRW, several schools allow transgender students to wear uniforms and have access to lavatories and school activities in accordance with the gender with which they identify. But “such approaches by schools appear to be the exception rather than the norm,” the group noted.

It is not unusual for teenagers in general to struggle with their sense of self, and given the lack of understanding and acceptance they face, transgender students are particularly vulnerable in their teenage years. For this reason, they often feel humiliated when they are required to use toilets and lockers that do not correspond to their gender identity.

Since they are forced to comply, “their right to receive equal education, including access to toilets and dressing rooms in accordance with their gender identity, are denied,” Doi said.

LGBT teachers also face serious hurdles.

Interviewees said they remain reluctant to come out at school, not for fear of losing their jobs, but due to worry about losing the respect of their students and peers, the report said.

“As a result, LGBT students have no adult role models whom they know to be LGBT, increasing their sense of isolation,” it added.

According to a separate survey mentioned in the report of nearly 6,000 teachers in Japan from kindergarten through high school levels, around 70 percent said LGBT issues should be included in the curriculum. However, less than 14 percent have actually discussed it in classrooms.

According to the survey, just 8 percent of respondents said they learned about sexuality during their teacher training, and only 9 percent had been trained in transgender issues, while more than 60 percent said they want to receive sexual diversity training, if it exists.

Given these findings, Doi said, “All teachers need to be trained so they can properly deal with sexual minority students, based on the assumption that there are LGBT students in their classrooms.”

Doi, on the other hand, welcomes some steps initiated by the education ministry, which, for example, created booklets about sexual minority children for teachers and other school employees with the aim of improving the environment for them at school. The booklet noted, “It is possible that gender identity and sexual orientation can be touched upon as part of human rights education.”

In keeping with the promising move, “the government should use the current 2016 curriculum revision process as an opportunity to make concrete progress toward protecting all students,” Doi said.

An education ministry official who was contacted for this article said that while the government is aware of HRW’s proposal, it has no comment on the situation at this time.

The human rights issues of sexual minorities have gradually drawn public attention in Japan, with some local governments starting to issue certificates recognizing same-sex partnerships as being equivalent to marriage.

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