With its bamboo thicketed mountains, cherry blossom groves, and coral powder beaches, it’s easy to forget that Japan islands are volcanic and largely filled with uninhabitable wilderness, pushing its natives into densely populated coastal cities. And though the country has had its share of internal strife via warring shoguns and samurai, it has since enjoyed relative internal piece for hundreds of years, thanks in part to wa, 和, the Japanese concept of social harmony — an ideal evident in its peaceful cities, egalitarian onsen and its perfect Buddhist gardens.
But even though wa has helped make Japan one of the most culturally vibrant and egalitarian countries in Asia — its constitution goes further than many in the West, guaranteeing absolute equality for women in terms of consent, employment, inheritance and social rights — the country’s LGBTQ community hasn’t been included in this equity. Thankfully, there are signals that times are changing.
Japan has historically been not just accepting, but even encouraging, of homosexuality. During the Tokugawa Era between 1603 to 1868, homosexuality a common facet of life for the samurai. Buddhist monasteries supported it as a means of teaching for young men, and male brothels flourished. However, as soon as Japan began to Westernize, Christian prejudices about sexual identity began crept in, and from the 19th century onwards, Japan’s queer community was forced from openness back into the shadows.
These days, many LGBTQ Japanese citizens stay closeted or marry someone of the opposite sex to maintain social harmony within their families and workplaces. Japanese children are expected to marry and have kids of their own that will care for them in their old age. Those who don’t marry or have kids are sometimes viewed suspiciously or passed over for promotion at work, because they don’t have families requiring greater earning power.
Japan’s gay culture, while thriving among gay bars, artists and bathhouses, has yet to connect with the country’s LGBTQ activists. Many worry that associating with alcohol- and sex-based establishments might convey a negative public image. And because its LGBTQ populace remains largely invisible, many citizens don’t realize the inequality LGBTQ Japanese people face.
But Japan is now facing an important crossroad that’s forcing it to confront its attitude towards LGBTQ rights. As birth rates decline and emigration rises, big businesses are urgently facing a critical labor shortage. Many companies are realizing that they have to modernize their attitudes towards diversity and inclusion if they are to secure talent and survive.
In response to this, in May of 2017 the Japanese Business Federation (Keidanren) created the very first guidelines on how to establish more inclusive employment regulations for LGBTQ people. Amongst other things, their proposal consisted of a series of measures that would – for the first time – recognize same-sex relationships for spousal benefits.
According to a survey conducted by Keidanren following the proposed guidelines, 42.1 percent of the respondents said they have already introduced some measures concerning LGBTQ rights, while 34.3 percent replied they are considering doing so in the very near future.
This shift in attitudes is being spearheaded by a number of influential companies, signalling a game changing era for LGBTQ people in Japan.
Goldman Sachs Japan were among the first to act, announcing in 2015 that it would officially award the same benefits to LGBTQ couples as heterosexual married couples. Each division is now also assigned a senior manager who is responsible for promoting diversity. Slowly, these efforts seem to be having an effect. So much so that the one of Goldman Sach’s most senior managers, Hiroki Inaba, came out as gay in 2015 after almost 13 years working there, emboldened by the measures taken to establish the company as an LGBTQ friendly employer.
Other large corporates, such as tech giant Panasonic and online e-commerce giant Rakuten have since followed suit, announcing that they too would recognise same-sex relationships as eligible for employee benefits.
And it’s not just employee rights that are in the spotlight. Japanese businesses are also working to become more inclusive towards LGBT consumers.
It’s estimated that the LGBTQ population in Japan ranges from about 6-8%, which represents a overlooked potential market of over $50 billion USD. To support businesses to reach this market, a major Japanese advertising firm has just established a think tank, the LGBT Research Institute, whose role is to support businesses to understand and cater to LGBTQ spending habits, also known as “the pink economy.”
Some companies have already begun taking measures to accomodate the LGBTQ market. For example, Japan Airlines, Japan TransOcean Air Co, and All Nippon Airways announced in 2016 that they would officially allow same-sex couples to share frequent-flyer miles. In fact, tapping into tourism to further sexual equality seems to be an important lever in Japan, and in September of last year, the ITB Berlin even hosted an academy on LGBT tourism there which was aimed at making the country and hospitality industry more LGBTQ-friendly.
All of these steps to open Japanese businesses up to the LGBTQ community are important for so many reasons. Despite Japan generally being tolerant towards homosexuality, it’s still tough to be openly queer. Japan has yet to legalize same-sex marriage or codify anti-discrimination laws, and the impact of that are prolonged and pervasive prejudices throughout society. So much so that, according to a recent study, more than half of all LGBTQ people in Japan said they were bullied in school. Nearly 70% said their teachers did nothing to help them.
But there are signals that times are changing not just in Japan, but across Asia.
In 2017 Taiwan became the first Asian country to legalize same sex marriage, and in 2022, Hong Kong will become the first Asian city to host the Gay Games, an international LGBTQ sporting event known as “the Gay Olympics.” LGBTQ advocates in the region are hopeful that hosting the games will spur change, thanks to the influence of increased scrutiny from the rest of the world.
It’s not just Hong Kong that will be in the spotlight. As the 2020 Tokyo Olympics edges ever closer, both national and international criticism of Japan’s lacklustre efforts to establish and protect queer rights is bound to ignite unless more concrete action emerges.
The event itself will bring approximately 10,500 athletes and 500,000 foreign travelers to Tokyo and, going by the Williams Institute’s 2012 estimation that 3.4% of all people identify as LGBTQ, 17,357 of the 2022 Olympic attendees will identify as such, representing millions in revenue for local business and ticket sales during the Games, especially for brands known to be LGBTQ-friendly.
The anticipation of international visitors will also place the world’s eyes upon the host nation. Mainstream and gay media outlets, human rights and LGBTQ organizations, LGBTQ visitors and travel bureaus will all take an interest in the country’s LGBTQ rights record and in the key figures helping expand queer rights in the host city and beyond.
There’s also a growing presence of LGBTQ rights activists among Olympic competitors themselves, visible in the Principle 6 movement, a movement of athletes and public figures whose red shirts cite a non-discrimination clause in the Olympic Charter as a means of peacefully opposing anti-LGBTQ discrimination without violating the Olympic ban on political speech.
In the most recent Olympics, American competitors Adam Rippon and Gus Kenworthy emerged as openly-gay high-profile athletes willing to raise awarness of LGBTQ issues through social media, interviews, embracing their same-sex partners at the Games themselves and using limelight surrounding them after the Games to continue advocating for public awareness.
Most modern Olympics since 2010 have also hosted a Pride House, a temporary venue dedicated to hosting LGBTQ attendees and providing information about local LGBTQ venues, organizations and regional LGBTQ rights. The Pride House typically draws celebrity visitors and appoints LGBTQ cultural ambassadors to help with their mission.
Policy makers recognise this heightened urgency, and have responded by establishing a committee to look into LGBTQ rights across both in Japan and overseas. Whilst no plans for constitutional changes have been made, the group will consider how best to protect the LGBTQ community from discrimination in their daily life. Alongside this, several cities have taken matters into their own hands by issuing certificates that recognize same-sex marriage, despite the country refusing to.
This is no sweeping victory for Japan’s queer community, but it is a step in the right direction.
And so,this isn’t the only economic shake up. Recently, Japan approved self-regulation of the cryptocurrency industry. The Japanese Yen (JPY) cryptocurrency market is now the second largest in the world, after the US dollar. This boom has much to do with the government’s approach and friendly welcome to cryptocurrencies. Amongst trade wars and glacial progress to a freer more equal world, there is an undeniable relationship between LGBT inclusion and economic development. This has been shown empirically in terms impact on the economy and LGBT people–negative environments hurt LGBT earning power and stunt the economy. However, it seems with changes in cryptocurrency, other societal changes, and LGBT policies are melting away old Sakoku ideals.
Japan seems to be leading in the crypto space and shifting on LGBT issues and addressing the global realities of the day, as we celebrate the 150th birthday of Japan, whilst there’s no doubt that conservative attitudes continue to prevail, the moves being taken to support LGBTQ employees and consumers are a positive sign that times are changing. It remains to be seen whether the rest of Japanese society will catch up with this shift in attitudes, or if the measures will remain largely symbolic.