Soccer player Shiho Shimoyamada has been encouraged by the response she has received since she became Japan’s first openly gay professional athlete in February last year.
Now, with this summer’s Tokyo Olympics focusing the world’s sporting attention on Japan, she is hoping that attitudes towards LGBT people in her home country can continue to evolve.
“There will be several openly gay athletes competing at the Tokyo Olympics,” said the 25-year-old Shimoyamada. “When people in Japan see LGBT athletes with their own eyes, and see them competing alongside athletes who aren’t LGBT, that will have a big impact, for sure. People will see that LGBT athletes are just like any other athletes.”
Shimoyamada came out publicly last year while playing professionally in Germany for SV Meppen. She had already told various friends and teammates in Japan that she was gay over the years but was growing frustrated at having to lie to people whenever she came home.
After telling her family — who said they would support her — she posted an interview she had given to a former Keio University colleague discussing her sexuality on social media. She followed that up with a video message produced by Pride House Tokyo, a project aimed at promoting understanding of LGBT issues ahead of the Tokyo Games.
Other Japanese athletes have come out as gay after retiring in the past, but Shimoyamada’s announcement made her the first professional to do so while still active. Her Meppen teammates greeted the news with barely a shrug of their shoulders, but the reaction was more animated in her home country.
“It caused a big stir,” said the Ibaraki Prefecture native, who has never played for Japan’s senior national team but was once a candidate to make the squad for the World University Games. “Friends or people who I used to know sent me messages, and people in sports who I didn’t know but who said my story related to them contacted me to say they had read the interview and it had given them strength. To be honest, there was no negative reaction at all.
“The reason for me coming out was first and foremost to benefit myself,” she continued. “I wanted to make my life easier. But when I did it, lots of people told me that what I did had given them courage or had made them want to come out themselves. When people sent me messages saying that, it made me realize how meaningful it is for an athlete to come out.”
Shimoyamada was on a professional contract during her two years in Germany, but last summer she decided to return to Japan to play in the amateur Nadeshiko League with second-division side Sfida Setagaya FC.
She regularly holds public meetings and gives interviews to raise awareness in her home country, and explains that Tokyo’s hosting of the Olympics was too good an opportunity to waste.
“If it hadn’t been for the Olympics, I think I would still be in Germany playing professionally,” she said. “The attention the Olympics get is really something else. Indirectly, that attention turns toward diversity and LGBT issues. If I were to let this chance slip by, it wouldn’t come around again. People (in Japan) would just keep thinking that LGBT people were a completely different type of people, and that foreigners and Japanese were completely different.”
Shimoyamada is not the only person concerned with LGBT issues in Japan who is hoping to capitalize on the Olympic spotlight.
Pride House Tokyo is a project involving nongovernmental organizations, companies, embassies and individuals, and will open a pop-up information center and organize various events during the July 24-Aug. 9 Summer Games. The Pride House project has had a presence at the Olympics — national laws permitting — since the Vancouver Games in 2010, and also set up in Tokyo last year for the Sept. 20-Nov. 2 Rugby World Cup, which Japan hosted.
“It’s often said that the sports world is the final frontier for coming out,” said Gon Matsunaka, founder and president of Pride House Tokyo. “There is a lot of discrimination and prejudice, and when there are big international sports events, you sometimes get groups of macho people who behave like hooligans. It was suggested that LGBT athletes and their families and friends needed a place where they could feel comfortable, and Vancouver was the first to provide that.
“The Olympics happen every four years but they only come to your country maybe twice in a lifetime,” he said. “This time, the theme is inclusion and diversity and I think that’s a big chance.”
The International Olympic Committee changed its guidelines in January 2016 to allow transgender athletes to compete at the Olympics without undergoing sex reassignment surgery, although no transgender athletes ended up competing at that year’s Rio Games.
The guidelines regarding transgender athletes have proved controversial, and plans to tighten them ahead of the Tokyo Games stalled last year because the IOC’s panel of scientists failed to reach agreement.
Matsunaka believes allowing transgender athletes to compete in Tokyo will send a powerful message to Japan and the wider world.
“People from all over the world will be watching Tokyo,” he said. “It’s not just Japan but other Asian countries too, like South Korea and China. East Asian countries have a strong traditional sense of family, centered around men, and compared to Western countries, that is still very strong. There will be pressure on Japan from the outside, but also as a movement from the inside, too.”
Matsunaka says he was not surprised at the positive reaction to Shimoyamada’s coming out, and thinks others would receive the same treatment were they to do the same.
After blazing the trail, Shimoyamada believes her experience should reassure others thinking of taking that step.
“I’ve been back in Japan for more than half a year now, and I don’t think there has been any negative impact from my coming out — for me or for Japanese women’s soccer as a whole,” she said. “I think everyone now realizes that it hasn’t been as bad as they thought it might be. Players who would like to come out have seen that there was no problem at all for me. I think that has sunk in.
“I’d like other athletes to come out too,” she continued. “I’d like to do this together. I’ve only ever been involved in women’s soccer, and it’s only recently that I’ve spoken to people of all different sexualities. My opinion isn’t the opinion of every LGBT person. It would definitely be helpful if lots of different LGBT athletes could make their voices heard. I don’t think there are enough voices being heard.”