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Washington Spirit forward Kumi Yokoyama came out as a transgender man on Saturday, becoming the highest-profile Japanese athlete to do so in a country where acceptance of LGBTQ issues faces numerous hurdles despite recent trends toward understanding.

In a video interview posted on the YouTube channel of former Nadeshiko Japan teammate Yuki Nagasato, the 27-year-old said that playing in the United States and Germany had shown Yokoyama that it could be possible to live openly.

“I’ve dated several women over the years but I had to stay closeted in Japan,” Yokoyama said in the 18-minute interview. “In Japan I’d always be asked if I had a boyfriend, but here (in the United States) I’m asked if I have a boyfriend or girlfriend.

“When my girlfriend said there was no reason for me to stay closeted, it really hit me. Coming out wasn’t something I was enthusiastic about, but if I think about my life going forward, it would be harder to live closeted so I found the courage to come out.”

The former Nadeshiko striker, who participated in the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France, said they had undergone top surgery, or the removal of breast tissue, after turning 20 years old and would undergo further gender-affirming procedures after retiring as a player. They cited Canada international and OL Reign midfielder Quinn — who also went public with their transition in 2020 — as an inspiration.

Yokoyama (right) scored 17 goals in 43 appearances for Nadeshiko Japan, featuring for the side at the 2019 Women's World Cup in France. | REUTERS
Yokoyama (right) scored 17 goals in 43 appearances for Nadeshiko Japan, featuring for the side at the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France. | REUTERS

A tweet from the Spirit said that Yokoyama — like Quinn, who goes by one name — would use the gender-neutral pronouns “they” and “them” going forward.

“(Quinn) wore a (sweatshirt) that said ‘Protect Trans Kids’ before a game, and I realized that’s what taking action looks like,” Yokoyama said. “To be able to accept people you have no relationship with, that’s the kind of person I’d like to become and I hope we can create that society.”

The Tokyo native first became aware of their gender identity as a child, cutting their hair short beginning in elementary school and refusing to wear feminine clothing for the traditional Shichi-go-san ceremony celebrated by 3- and 7-year-old girls and 5-year-old boys in Japan.

“I never saw myself as a girl, so I hated puberty,” Yokoyama said. “When I reached adulthood, I thought I’d maybe play soccer for another one or two years, so after that season ended I had my breasts removed.”

“Normally you can’t have it unless you’re receiving hormones, but my doctor understood my situation. I would have been caught by doping tests if I was on hormones, so I just had the top surgery.”

While same-sex marriage and LGBTQ acceptance have gained increasing support among Japan’s younger population, athletes are often pressured to remain closeted even after their playing careers end.

Before joining the Spirit at the end of 2019, Yokoyama played for the Nadeshiko League's Okayama Yunogo Belle and AC Nagano Parceiro as well as Germany's Frankfurt. | USA TODAY / VIA REUTERS
Before joining the Spirit at the end of 2019, Yokoyama played for the Nadeshiko League’s Okayama Yunogo Belle and AC Nagano Parceiro as well as Germany’s Frankfurt. | USA TODAY / VIA REUTERS

Transgender rights activist Fumino Sugiyama has been frank about his struggles during his time representing Japan in women’s fencing, while retired basketball player Rian Hill came out as a transgender man last October.

Gon Matsunaka, head of Pride House Tokyo, expressed hope that a recent wave of Japanese athletes who have come out as LGBTQ would lead to more support for those still in the closet.

But Matsunaka lamented a recent failure by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to pass a bill promoting LGBTQ understanding ahead of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

“I was deeply involved with the bill and I only felt a sense of crisis after it failed to pass,” Matsunaka told The Japan Times. “But for a former Japan international like Yokoyama to come out in this way sends a big message.

“Nagasato has supported Pride House’s efforts in the past and she’s very conscious of gender issues and raising them with the Japanese public, so for her to host Yokoyama’s announcement on her YouTube channel is a great way to go about it.”

Matsunaka emphasized that while Yokoyama’s coming out would draw attention, a more important outcome would be a positive reaction from the Japanese soccer world and the country as a whole.

“There tends to be a lot of focus on the moment of coming out, but there is always a history that has led to that person being able to come out. … It’s a line, not a single point,” he said.

“It’s important not to place all the responsibility on the person coming out and make it about them, but instead to think about how to make changes in the community and society.”

Spirit manager Richie Burke expressed his heartfelt support for Yokoyama, who was an unused substitute in the team’s away game against the Chicago Red Stars on Saturday night.

“We have no time for hate, we only have time for love in our football club,” the English coach said following the 1-1 draw, adding that the club had been aware of Yokoyama’s transition upon their signing at the end of 2019 and offered its full backing. “I love Kumi, always will, and I’ll always have a special place for somebody with that mentality.

“They are very brave, they are very committed to this process, and if that’s what they want to do I’m going to do whatever I can do to support them. As long as they’re happy, I’m happy.”

Yokoyama’s announcement also drew praise from other LGBTQ Japanese athletes such as rugby player and onetime Japan international Airi Murakami, who came out as a lesbian in April, and Shiho Shimoyamada, who became Japan’s first openly gay professional athlete in February 2019 and plays for the Nadeshiko League’s Sfida Setagaya.

“To smile this much when you’re coming out isn’t very common and it was incredibly moving,” Shimoyamada tweeted. “I hope Kumi’s thoughts reach as many people as possible.”

Yokoyama acknowledged the position their announcement would place them in, suggesting that despite not wanting to play “a leading role” they would be involved in LGBTQ activism going forward.

“Lately the word ‘LGBTQ’ has become more commonly known in Japan and been covered by the media, but people in my position aren’t able to raise our voices and talk about it,” Yokoyama said. “Japan may be a small country, but if all of us speak up together then we can help raise awareness.”

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