By Maki Muraki, Certified Social Insurance Labor Consultant, Nijiiro Diversity

When people tease an unmarried man by asking if he’s secretly gay or point out that it’s hard to tell if someone is a man or a woman, it makes LGBT individuals uncomfortable. Yet comments like these are commonplace in Japanese workplaces. According to a study, members of the LGBT community who experience frequent discrimination in the workplace have low employee morale compared with those in places where such discrimination is less common. This obviously has an adverse effect on companies’ productivity. In the United States, providing accommodations for LGBT employees is an integral part of the diversity management policies adopted by major corporations.

We established the nonprofit organization Nijiiro Diversity to promote understanding of the LGBT community in Japan. The word nijiiro means “rainbow-colored” in Japanese and indicates support for LGBT individuals. Our mission is to help develop workplace environments where sexual minorities can work comfortably and make their lives easier by conducting research and surveys, organizing lectures, and consulting with businesses.

In July 2015, I was selected to participate in the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. The three-week tour took me to five cities in the U.S. – Washington, D.C., Miami, Birmingham, Phoenix, and Los Angeles – where the group visited local LGBT support organizations. The month before my visit, the Supreme Court had issued its landmark decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide. I had heard about this major development and expected to see big celebrations taking place across the country. However, the people at every organization I visited stressed that they still have a lot of work to do. While the Supreme Court decision recognizes the freedom to marry, it doesn’t impose a nationwide ban on discrimination against sexual minorities in the workplace or other situations.

In Japan, same-sex marriage is not legally recognized. As of September 2016, only five municipalities, including Shibuya and Setagaya in Tokyo, have systems under which same-sex partnerships can be registered. There is no law banning discrimination against sexual minorities in schools and workplaces. LGBT individuals are considered to be at a high risk of developing mental health problems and even committing suicide.

Sign for an all gender restroom that anyone is free to use

Sign for an all gender restroom that anyone is free to use

While in Phoenix, I was surprised to learn of a campaign against same-sex marriage that used the message: “Would you allow a transgender woman to use the same bathroom as your little girl?” I knew transgender bathrooms had been an issue in many states, but I had mistakenly assumed that same-sex marriage and bathroom usage were two separate issues. In some rural areas, however, the two issues were linked. This made me realize how much more I could learn by actually going to the United States and seeing the situation firsthand.

After I returned, Nijiiro Diversity conducted a survey in December 2015 on bathroom access for LGBT people with cooperation from toilet manufacturer LIXIL Corporation. We obtained results indicating that 65% of transgender people feel anxious when using bathrooms in schools, offices, and public places. The findings were covered extensively by the media and our survey prompted All Nippon Airways to change the restrooms signs in their airport lounges. Many corporations that manage public facilities have since incorporated input from the LGBT community in finding the best way to deal with the bathroom issue.

As progress is made in efforts to protect the rights of LGBT individuals, the issue of bathroom access needs to be addressed. By observing the situation in the U.S., we were able to gather data that helped us to obtain the support of major Japanese corporations early on. In Japan, when LGBT individuals come out publicly and ask for their rights to be respected in the workplace, they often face criticism from people who think they are selfishly seeking special accommodations. But when it comes to acknowledging data and modifying public facilities to accommodate LGBT individuals, Japanese society tends to be relatively receptive.

While I was in the United States, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit two American organizations through the IVLP: the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C., which actively involves large corporations in its efforts to solve problems that LGBT individuals encounter in the workplace, and the Williams Institute at UCLA, which publishes data on the LGBT population that has a major impact on society. In planning Nijiiro Diversity’s activities, information from the two organizations’ websites has been extremely useful. One of the highlights of my visit was being able to thank them personally for guiding many of our activities in Japan.

With the members of the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C.

With the members of the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C.

Needless to say, methods that are effective in the U.S. don’t always work in Japan. For example, a list of the LGBT individuals in senior positions who have come out publicly is made available to all employees at some U.S. companies. But such a list would be difficult to compile in Japan. What steps can be taken in societies where awareness of LGBT issues is still low? How can we promote better understanding of the LGBT community without knowing who its members are and without laws in place to prevent discrimination?

Nijiiro Diversity is currently working on a program to secure declarations of support for LGBT from corporate executives and a campaign to increase the number of LGBT “allies.” These are relatively easy measures for Japanese corporations to adopt and have been very successful so far. Major companies such as NTT, KDDI, Sony, and Panasonic are participating in the program.

In European nations, efforts to address LGBT issues were initiated by enacting laws to prevent discrimination and recognize same-sex marriage. In the U.S., however, there is no federal law that prevents discrimination against LGBT individuals, so national corporations have taken the initiative. Japan is similar to the U.S. in that private businesses and municipalities are tackling the issue without waiting for a legal framework to be established.

The IVLP participants also met with members of the William Institute at UCLA.

The IVLP participants also met with members of the Williams Institute at UCLA.

Japan is the only country in the G7 that has no laws governing same-sex marriage, meaning that we are lagging behind other countries in terms of protecting LGBT rights. I think the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 2020 will be a major turning point for the LGBT movement in Japan. While I was in the U.S., I asked the local activists: “What do you think is the most effective way to change society?” I was surprised to receive the same answer wherever I went: “Tell your story to the people around you. That will be the driving force for social change. When I was young, I never imagined that same-sex couples would be allowed to get married in the U.S. Someday it will happen in Japan too!”

Based on this advice, Nijiiro Diversity has started organizing workshops to help young LGBT activists improve their public speaking skills by learning from experienced speakers and also to support their efforts to build local networks. The smiles on the faces of the participants remind me of the activists I met in the United States. We are all connected by the words of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to a public office in the U.S., who urged the LGBT community to support young activists by saying, “You have to give them hope!”