In a year that featured the Tokyo Olympics, the retirement of legendary yokozuna Hakuho and a long-awaited Japan Series title for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, one of the biggest stories in Japanese sports was that of former Nadeshiko Japan forward Kumi Yokoyama.

News of the 28-year-old’s decision to come out as transgender — through a YouTube video co-hosted by long-time friend and Japan teammate Yuki Nagasato — went viral and was touted by the LGBTQ community as an encouraging sign of growing transgender acceptance across the world and especially in Japan.

“It was beyond my expectations,” Yokoyama, who uses “they/them” and “he/him” pronouns, told The Japan Times in November. “I should say, it’s not that I expected a reaction; it’s that I didn’t think it would become as big as it did.”

Yokoyama and defensive end Carl Nassib of the Las Vegas Raiders — who just two days after Yokoyama’s coming out became the NFL’s first openly gay player — were even praised by U.S. President Joe Biden, who tweeted: “I’m so proud of your courage. Because of you, countless kids around the world are seeing themselves in a new light today.”

It did not escape Yokoyama’s notice that no similar comment was forthcoming from then-Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, while then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato issued only a boilerplate statement confirming that the government “recognize(s) that diversity is important and that everyone’s dignity and human rights should be respected.”

“I think it’s normal for Suga to not say anything. In a sense, for Biden to write what he did was a miracle,” Yokoyama said.

“I think that a lot of Japanese people became more aware of LGBTQ issues because of what Biden tweeted. It did make me feel like Japan is lagging behind the rest of the world … but I’m happy to see Japanese society make progress, however that happens.”

Yokoyama admits that such progress will be incremental. Japan’s ruling party failed to pass a promised bill promoting LGBTQ understanding ahead of the Tokyo Olympics — a major defeat for activists already disappointed by the lack of stronger language banning discrimination.

“I think it takes a lot of time to get started in any country,” they said. “For there to even be debate is a sign of progress.”

Spirit forward Kumi Yokoyama warms up before a game against the Red Stars at Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville, Kentucky, on Nov. 20. | USA TODAY / VIA REUTERS
Spirit forward Kumi Yokoyama warms up before a game against the Red Stars at Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville, Kentucky, on Nov. 20. | USA TODAY / VIA REUTERS

For Yokoyama’s Washington Spirit, the 2021 season was one filled with turmoil off the pitch. The team won the Nov. 20 NWSL championship 2-1 over the Chicago Red Stars under interim head coach Kris Ward, who replaced previous head coach Richie Burke after the Englishman was fired for verbally abusive conduct toward his players.

A Washington Post investigation into Burke’s conduct revealed a toxic culture within the Spirit organization, leading to demands by both players and fans for owner Steve Baldwin to sell his share of the club to minority owner Michele Kang.

Burke’s firing lit an explosive series of similar revelations across the NWSL, resulting in the dismissal of North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley for sexually coercing players at his previous clubs, a round of games canceled in response to player protests and the resignation of league commissioner Lisa Baird for her handling of the crisis.

“Between the pandemic and then everything we’ve dealt with this year, there haven’t been a lot of good things that have happened since I came to the United States,” Yokoyama said. “But I think that everything that has happened off the pitch has brought us closer together as a team.

“It’s incredible that everyone’s working so hard to change the league. When someone says something, everyone contributes their opinion and they work to reach a consensus. I feel like that’s something we don’t have in Japan.”

Yokoyama believes a “difference in mindset toward professionalism” is what sets the NWSL apart from Japan’s new WE League, which launched in September but has struggled to consistently draw big crowds.

“In the NWSL, everyone really celebrates no matter who scores a goal. In Japan it’s more restrained and there are a lot of players who don’t really let that emotion come out,” Yokoyama said.

“I think it makes the people who are watching feel good, it makes me feel good as a player, and it creates a great atmosphere.”

Even more crucial to Yokoyama’s improvement has been the chance to play alongside U.S. internationals — including veteran defender Kelley O’Hara, who took part in the Tokyo Olympics. Creating such an environment in the WE League, they say, will be an important step toward raising the competition’s level.

“I do feel like I want to be more like the U.S. players,” Yokoyama said. “Seeing Carli Lloyd’s farewell games practically sell out really showed how popular they are, and to be able to play with those players has helped me improve.

“In order for the WE League to improve it has to become a league that attracts more foreign players. I hope it will become a league that foreign players see and think, ‘I want to play there.’”

Yet another benefit to playing in the NWSL is the league’s parity — something Yokoyama has not always experienced during their time with German and Japanese clubs.

“In (Germany and Japan) you have a pretty good idea of which team is stronger and which team is weaker. But in the NWSL, we were in the final this year, but last year the champion was a different team.

“The top two teams in the standings don’t always reach the final (because of the playoff format), so you feel like there’s an opportunity for your effort to be rewarded.”

Kumi Yokoyama (left) poses with their wife, Nami, after registering their marriage in Virginia in November. | KYODO
Kumi Yokoyama (left) poses with their wife, Nami, after registering their marriage in Virginia in November. | KYODO

Yokoyama has found time to focus on their personal life, giving a pitchside proposal to their girlfriend Nami at Audi Field, where the Spirit and their MLS counterpart DC United play. The two married in Virginia shortly after the NWSL season concluded.

“If I hadn’t come out, we wouldn’t have been able to get engaged,” Yokoyama said. “It really felt like I had torn off my shell, and because of that I was able to propose.”

With the season over, Yokoyama hopes to return to Japan this winter, where they will meet many of their family members in person for the first time since publicly coming out.

“Judging from the reaction around me, what my friends and family have said … I need to meet them in person but for me I feel like coming out was a big step,” Yokoyama said.

“I’m glad I did it.”

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