National / Social Issues

Rights advocates urge Japan to step up LGBT-inclusive efforts and legalize same-sex marriage

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

Until a few years ago, Rin Okabe, then the general affairs department manager at a subsidiary of ad agency Dentsu Inc., would say goodbye to his wife and son, and commute to work wearing a conventional suit and tie.

But quietly, Okabe wanted to be viewed as a woman.

In 2012, Okabe sent an email to 200 colleagues to reveal that she is transgender.

Her peers were initially startled to see Okabe putting on makeup and wearing female business attire, but the workplace culture has since become more inclusive and Okabe feels she was able to become her true authentic self.

“At some point I realized I didn’t want to get old and die as a man. … My company allowed me (to come out) amid growing acceptance of LGBT people worldwide; managers said they would watch over me with a warm heart,” she said during a speech at a recent symposium in Tokyo organized by an activist group, work with Pride, that encourages companies to improve when it comes to sexual minority issues. “Now I can go to the ladies’ restroom to powder my nose and refresh my makeup,” said Okabe, who is in her 50s.

Okabe’s story shows that some progress has been made in Japan toward accommodating the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. But she believes that existing actions aren’t sufficient, saying that she was just “really lucky” to be surrounded by people who understood her struggles.

As Japan steps up efforts to create a society that respects diversity and the rights of all people in the run-up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, the LGBT community and their supporters are pushing for nationwide inclusiveness.

Earlier this month, the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly passed an ordinance that bans discriminatory treatment based on an individual’s sexual orientation and regulates hate speech. The ordinance, which is scheduled to take effect in April, is aimed at realizing a part of the Olympic Charter that prohibits discrimination of any kind.

“The fact that you now have this protection written into the ordinance for the first time in Tokyo — that’s undoubtedly progress,” said Deena Fidas, director of the Workplace Equality Program at the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT rights group in the United States and a supporter of the symposium that took place on Oct. 11.

But she said what is important is how the ordinance will be implemented.

“In other words, in six months what does this ordinance mean for everyday LGBT people?” she asked.

“The world’s eyes will be on Japan in 2020,” she added, noting that the event is “an opportunity for Japan to show that it is joining the broader global community that embraces equality and fairness from the public sector, the private sector and civil society.”

Among efforts that should be prioritized, Fidas said marriage equality should be recognized nationwide, meaning that LGBT couples would be legally treated the same as heterosexual couples.

Work with Pride this year recognized 153 firms and institutions in Japan that champion LGBT equality in the belief they could serve as an example for other companies. The group used a set of criteria in its assessment including: whether the company has a highly publicized document stipulating its policy on sexual minorities, has internal educational and support programs, and whether it offers networking opportunities for LGBT people.

“We prohibit discrimination and we’ve revised all our regulations” to ensure equal rights for all workers, Kiyoshi Marukawa, president of Okinawa-based airline Japan Transocean Air Co., told The Japan Times after receiving the top award for the third year in a row.

Marukawa believes that educating team leaders and company representatives could change the public attitude toward the LGBT community. To help achieve that, Marukawa organizes lectures on LGBT issues within his firm and invites other companies and organizations to participate in supportive efforts in Okinawa.

Advancement toward inclusion “isn’t something you can achieve alone,” he said. He lamented, however, that “it’s still a long shot,” and that many employers in Japan are too conservative.

“It’s essential to create an environment where all workers feel comfortable expressing themselves,” he said.

According to Marukawa, his company has ensured that partners of LGBT employees can get the same family benefits available to married couples of the opposite sex through changes in internal rules in 2016. The benefits cover things like company housing, vacations and congratulatory and condolence payments.

East Japan Railway Co., one of the country’s biggest transportation companies, introduced similar measures in April after a transgender person applied for a job.

Rakuten Inc. is also LGBT-friendly, says Brendan Paull, who works at the country’s leading online retailer. The Canadian, who has lived in Japan for around 15 years, has initiated a movement to embrace LGBT people at the firm, which now enables employees to change their names on name tags and on all employee systems in accordance to their gender identity.

Rakuten also offers support for same-sex partners. But Paull, who is gay, said marriage equality is “key” toward fully inclusive policies.

“Japan is being a bit left in the dust and is losing out in a lot of aspects,” he said, touching on a study released in 2017 by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center which showed around 25 countries have enacted national laws allowing same-sex couples to marry. The center also said a growing number of governments around the world are weighing whether to grant legal recognition to same-sex marriages.

Without ensuring marriage equality nationwide, workers transferring to Japan from countries with legal same-sex marriage may be deprived of benefits they have back home, Paull warned.

Calls for Japan to change are not just heard from rights groups. In September, the American, British, Canadian, Irish, Australian and New Zealand chambers of commerce in Japan urged the government to legalize same-sex marriage from the viewpoint that it is “economically good for business” and to strengthen the country’s “status on the international stage.”

Noting that Japan is competing for talent on a worldwide scale in the face of a serious labor shortage, amid a declining birthrate and graying population, the chambers of commerce said in the proposal that the country is falling behind and losing its competitive edge through the failure to legalize marriage equality.

“In fact, all G-7 countries provide marriage equality or same-sex partnerships, except Japan. Additionally, Japan has no national LGBT anti-discrimination policy, and LGBT couples have no legal marital protection. This disparity makes Japan a less attractive option for LGBT couples compared to many other countries vying for the same talent,” the proposal said.

For example, in Japan, LGBT individuals in committed relationships, even those legally recognized as married in other countries, do not qualify for spousal visas. Companies also face obstacles in offering these couples benefits such as housing and spousal health insurance, it said.

To attract LGBT talent in such a situation would require companies to create their own special benefits packages, which would be administratively and financially burdensome for companies, and so correcting the “inequality before the law” is important, the chambers of commerce said.

During the symposium, Okabe said she is working to speed up inclusive reforms at Dentsu e3 Inc., where she directs the firm’s finance division. At her request, the firm revised the contents of job posting and application forms for future employees to inform them that all are respected regardless of gender or sexual identity, and to note that they are allowed to keep such information private.

“Through such small steps, more LGBT people will come out, diversity will be really embraced and we’ll see how the society gradually changes,” Okabe said.