The LGBT community of Japan may go somewhat unnoticed by the general public, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been making waves in the media. When Liberal Democratic Party member Mio Sugita called homosexual couples “unproductive” and questioned whether it was appropriate to spend taxpayer money on them because they cannot produce children, thousands rallied in protest, reminding the public that not only do they exist, they are becoming less and less afraid of voicing their opinion. According to a 2018 Dentsu survey, close to 9% of the 60,000 individuals aged 20-59 polled across Japan identified as LGBT (compared to 5.2% in 2012 and 7.6% in 2015.)
LGBT Community of Japan raises its voice
While Japan may trail most developed countries in adopting equal rights for LGBT people, the backlash to Sugita’s comment isn’t the only demonstration in the news lately of their rising empowerment. As can be witnessed by the increasingly popular Tokyo Rainbow Pride event, scheduled April 27 – May 6th for 2019 in Shibuya and Yogogi, awareness and support of the LGBT community is steadily increasing. Last year’s Tokyo Rainbow Pride drew a record-breaking 150,000 people, with 7,000 marching in the parade, up from 4,500 in 2012 with 1,500 marching.
Akie Abe commits to “amplifying the voice of the voiceless”
In 2014, Akie Abe, wife of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, even participated in the parade, riding a float and waving to the crowd in support. But this wasn’t Abe’s first show of support. Two months prior, Abe had traveled to London to join a commission established by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the Lancet medical journal. In her speech to UNAIDS, she said: “ I have made up my mind that throughout the rest of my life, I should work as a self-appointed, public amplifier, amplifying the voice of the voiceless.”
Certificates of gay partnership open up new business opportunities
In 2015, Shibuya began issuing certificates of partnership to recognize the partnership of gay couples. The certificates (pātonāshippu shōmei) are a recognition of the right of same-sex couples to enjoy basic needs in public and private transactions such as allowing them to live as couples in municipal housing facilities, obtain family discounts for mobile phone contracts, access the medical records of the other partner, or become beneficiaries of each other’s life insurance.
Shibuya’s pro-LGBT move created a domino effect
This pioneering move by Shibuya encouraged other local governments and businesses alike to take LGBT persons into consideration and proactively grant them their rights. Right after Shibuya, Setagaya also decided to issue the certificates followed by Bunkyo ward in 2017, and Nakano ward in 2018. Other cities that have since issued them are Takarazuka, Naha, Iga, Sapporo, Fukuoka, and Osaka. Although not the same as the legal recognition of marriage, savvy companies saw a fantastic opportunity in a brand new market.
Companies jump on marketing to the LGBT community of Japan
Companies jumped on the marketing opportunities of this development almost immediately by offering services, traditionally offered to married couples, to same-sex couples who obtained these certificates:
- November 2015: NTT Docomo, SoftBank, and KDDI extended cell phone family discount plans to same-sex partners.
- July 2016: ANA extended family sharing of frequent-flier miles to same-sex partners.
- November 2015: Nippon Life Insurance Company and The Dai-Ichi Life Insurance Company allowed same-sex partners to be designated as life insurance policy beneficiaries
- January 2017: Tokio Marine Nichidō offered products extending spousal auto insurance coverage to same-sex domestic partners
- July 2017: Mizuho Bank, Rakuten Bank, and Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank offered joint mortgages to same-sex domestic partners.
Nearly 80 percent of Japanese are in favor of legalizing same-sex marriages
According to Dentsu, nearly 80% of Japanese in their 20s to 50s are in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. Media personalities such as Koyuki Higashi, who is known for holding a same-sex wedding at Tokyo Disney Resort in 2013, are giving other LGBT couples the courage to come out of hiding. Koyuki Higashi, who currently works as an LGBT activist, and her partner were the first couple to receive the official recognition certificate in Shibuya ward. Her media profile is giving new courage to Japan’s hidden sexual minorities, and many more people are now coming out as Japanese firms start to show more understanding of LGBT issues.
Corporate policy changes empower gay, lesbian & transgender employees
On the heels of the move by Shibuya, in 2016 a group of 30 companies including IBM Japan, Panasonic, Sony, Dentsu, and Dai-ichi Life Insurance, announced standards for making workplaces more welcoming to LGBT employees. Largely pushed by overseas companies with no tolerance for discrimination in the workplace, these companies agreed to a recognition of same-sex weddings in the form of congratulatory bonuses and partner benefits along with gender-neutral restrooms and changing rooms. Moves by other companies included:
- June 2017: Yahoo Japan Corporation changed its definition of “spouse,” granting social welfare benefits to same-sex and common-law partners
- July 2017: Kirin Holdings updated its regulations to incorporate an anti-discrimination policy against LGBT employees, and even allowed employees to use expired vacation days for sex reassignment surgery
- March 2018: NTT altered its social welfare benefits to include same-sex domestic partners in family dependent allowances, and allowed same-sex partners to use company-provided employee housing
The darkness behind the sunshine and rainbows
But not is all sunshine and rainbows. Japan is the only country of the G7 that does not allow same-sex marriages. As activist of Same-Sex Partnership Net Japan Hiroshi Ikeda points out, Japanese same-sex couples face a variety of real difficulties because they cannot marry legally, such as finding a place to live, having limited access to mortgage products, losing a home when the registered owner partner dies, a lack of support from inheritance laws, and becoming each other’s legal guardians when one is ill. It gets even tougher if they have children.
Same-sex couples sue Japan on Valentine’s Day
On February 14th, Valentines’ Day, 13 same-sex couples sued Japan, claiming that their inability to marry was in violation of Article 24 of the Constitution that states ‘Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes.’ The lawsuits were filed in Osaka, Tokyo, and Nagoya simultaneously. Each couple had their petitions to marry rejected and are now suing for 1 million yen in damages. Half of the couples suing, however, are forced to remain anonymous in fear of backlash from either employers or family members. That same day, Japan In-House Lawyers Association (JILA), Women in Law Japan (WILJ) and top law firms Mori Hamada & Matsumoto and Baker & McKenzie announced their endorsement of same-sex marriage.
The Olympics is a game changer for the LGBT community in Japan
Further forcing Japan’s hand to recognize the rights of the LGBT community is the upcoming Olympics. In response to the controversy caused by Russia’s anti-gay laws before the Sochi 2014 Winter Games, the International Olympic Committee introduced a specific anti-discrimination clause to its host city contract. The clause reads: “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement.”
Tokyo passes anti-LGBT discrimination bill
In light of this, on the Tokyo Metropolitan Government passed a bill on October 5, 2018, that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The bill also commits the city government to conduct public education about (LGBT) rights. The new Tokyo law states “the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, citizens, and enterprises may not unduly discriminate on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation” and pledges that the government will “conduct measures needed to make sure human rights values are rooted in all corners of the city and diversity is respected in the city.” And according to Dentsu, 82.7% of the people approve of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s new anti-LGBT discrimination regulations.
US reports same-sex marriage stimulated economic growth
A recent report by researchers in the US shows that the legalization of same-sex marriage in the US was in direct correlation to favorable labor market outcomes among same-sex couples. The legalization of same-sex marriage led to higher integration of same-sex couples in the labor market, which stimulated economic growth. Reduced discrimination towards sexual minorities boosted both earnings and employment. Thus, lower discrimination based on sexual orientation and higher employment among the LGBT community of Japan is likely to have positive macroeconomic effects in Japan as well.
Japan’s tourism industry attracting lesbian & gay visitors
As global visibility of the LGBT community increases, the discussion of the market’s economic impact is beginning to gain traction. Japan’s tourism industry is looking for ways to attract LGBT visitors from overseas and take advantage of their tendency to spend more than average tourists. Data showing that LGBT tourists spend about twice as much as average travelers have prompted hotels and other accommodation facilities in Japan to appeal to them. For example, Shinjuku’s Keio Plaza, aiming to be LGBT tourism-friendly, held a seminar on LGBT tourism for its 150 managerial staff and other workers. The granting of same-sex marriages in many countries has produced an entirely new market segment in the travel industry.
Legalizing same-sex marriage would be good for the economy
In September 2018, the American Chamber of Commerce published a Viewpoint which recommended to the Japanese Government that extending the freedom of marriage would be good for business and strengthen Japan’s position on the international stage. It specifically pointed out that legalizing same-sex marriage would remove the handicaps of companies doing business in Japan in terms of being able to recruit and retain LGBT talent, encourage LGBT employees to contribute their full creative energy in the workplace, and create a more diverse and supportive environment which would be conducive to maximum productivity. It mentioned that not only would it increase Japan’s economic competitiveness, but it would also impact Japan’s global reputation.
The wheels have been set in motion
There is a lot of push for Japan to give way and acknowledge same-sex marriage. The waves of change have been ramping up over the last 5 years. While some such as ex-LDP policy chief Tomomi Inada believe that things are going too fast and there is not sufficient understanding in Japanese society for same-sex marriage, the wheels have been set in motion and it is just a matter of time before Japan is forced to address the rights of the LGBT community of Japan and catch up with the rest of the developed world by granting basic rights to all of its citizens regardless of gender identity.
Companies should challenge assumptions in anticipation of a growing LGBT market
Challenging assumptions and learning about the diversity of the LGBT Community of Japan is vital if businesses want to build strong customer relations with the 1 out of 11 Japanese consumers who make up this market. Smart companies will want to get a head start on anticipating the growth and empowerment of the LGBT consumer market, both in Japan and from abroad. With an additional shove from the 2020 Olympics, the attitudes towards acknowledging the rights of the LGBT community can only continue to evolve. It will be interesting to see how the LGBT consumer market develops as equality for the LGBT community of Japan continues to spread in the years to come.