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Polite prejudice: LGBT life in Japan

Gay Star News interview one of the first gay elected politicians in Japan, Taiga Ishikawa
Taiga Ishikawa, one of the first gay elected politicians in Japan
Photo by Osamu Takahashi

The way that societies treat LGBT people varies as cultures vary across nationalities. In Japan, a very polite and reserved culture, name-calling and playground punches are not such a problem for LGBT youth, but the silent treatment and behind-your-back bad-mouthing is.

Taiga Ishikawa didn’t meet another gay person until he was 26, an experience that inspired him to write a book, Where is My Boyfriend?, and to start a LGBT youth group, Peer Friends. ‘I wanted everyone to know about the situation, how lonely and isolated young LGBT people are in Japan,’ he said.

A job as secretary for the leader of Japan’s Social Democratic Party, Mizuho Fukushima, who campaigns for LGBT rights, gave Ishikawa a taste for politics. In April 2011  he and Wataru Ishizaka in nearby Nakano ward became the joint first two openly gay politicians to be elected in Japan. 

Gay Star News met Ishikawa in a wood-lined meeting room in his local council office in Toshima ward, north west central Tokyo. 

Why do you think you were you successful in the election last year?

First, I spoke about many issues, not just LGBT issues and secondly in Japan it’s very important that a candidate is a resident of the area. My family has lived in this area for three generations, since my grandparents.

I don’t think it’s good that only local people are elected. Residents should decide by the policy of the candidate, not how long they have lived in the area.

Have any of your constituents or fellow politicians been homophobic towards you?

It depends on the ages. People in their twenties, thirties and forties are ok and usually very flexible, including the people who work in the town office. I think that elderly people are more conservative, and men are more conservative than women.

I don’t think everyone who voted for me knows I am gay. I don’t say that I am gay straight away when I meet people, but in my campaign brochure I give out it says about LGBT issues so people guess. In Japan it’s good to first show your character, and then to show that you are gay. Then more people will accept you.

What do you plan to do to help LGBT people in Toshima ward?

Other areas in Japan have human rights laws that just affect that area, like a bylaw, but discrimination based sexuality is not included. I want to bring a human rights law to Toshima ward that protects rights for LGBT people, including partnership rights. And I want to spread all over Japan.

Personally I think civil union rather than marriage is suitable in Japan, but it will take some time. If the law is passed, and there is still public criticism against LGBTs, many people will not try to get married even though they can. First I think society has to change.

But I have experienced that once there is a law, society will be changed. About five years ago a new law came in regarding transgender people. The law allows transgender people to legally change sex. It used to be that the criticism of transgender people is very bad, but since the law has been published it’s getting better and better.

I think that once the law is changed, the people will change. Japanese people are very obedient of the law.

You’ve been in office for a year now. What are you most proud of achieving in that time?

In the new gender equality plan for Toshima Ward, I got a policy inserted that says we must help the wider public to understand sexual minorities.

This is just the start, I want to open a LGBT centre in Toshima, set-up an LGBT support telephone- line and open an LGBT counselling service. It’s a big dream. But this is the first level.

Have you ever thought of a career in national politics?

If I have the chance, I would like to go into the national government. But now I have the chance to change Toshima ward so I will do the best that I can now.

But I am a member of a very small party, the Social Democrat Party (SDP) so it might be hard to get into power.

After the nuclear power plant issues many young people support the SDP. But some are also trying to form a new party, the Green party, and they’re will be a policy for LGBT people in the new party.

What do you think needs to change in Japan for LGBT people to lead happier lives?

As I see it, there need to be four changes in Japanese society to improve life for LGBT people.

One, that LGBT people know that each other exist and contact each other to prevent isolation. The second is that straight people know the truth about LGBT people, not the rumours, the facts. In Japan many people have misunderstandings about LGBT people.

The third is to have true representation of gay people in the media. On TV there are a lot of gay men but most of them are really camp and made fun of. The last one is the politics.

What is different about the campaign for LGBT rights in Japan compared to the West?

In Western countries LGBTs ask for their rights and others will give them rights. In Japan if LGBT people ask for their rights directly people may refuse it. It’s too direct. It’s not in the culture.

The ordinary people do not say they are gay-friendly, but also they do not say they are homophobic, they don’t say anything.

Two or three years ago a high school student from the UK came to Japan and he said that at home a lot of gay people are bullied and even beaten-up. That doesn’t happen much in Japan but they say mean things behind people’s backs.

What kinds of difficulties to LGBT people face in Japan?

I live very openly gay and I don’t have any difficulties. But in Japan, everything is focused around the man-and-woman couple. When I first started at the town office, other members were always asking ‘when are you getting married?’ And in general gay people cannot be open in the office. There are some examples of people losing their job in that situation. In general foreign companies are more accepting. But in a Japanese bank for example, they have to get married to be promoted.

What about in the family? Are parents very traditional Asian?

In Japan the biggest problem is saying to your parents that you are gay, especially for those in their twenties and teenagers. Most gay people come to university in Tokyo after they graduate from high school to live by themselves.

A recent survey of 18 to 31-year-old gay people showed that 61% of them had come out to someone: 49% to friends, 23% to their mother and 15% to their father.

The same survey asked they’d had any life troubles because they are gay. 86% said yes. Of these, 67% said they’d felt isolation, 65% said their relationship with their friends had suffered and 35% said their relationship with their parents had suffered. When asked if they’d even considered suicide because they are gay, 36% said yes.

A large 88% said they had received negative information about being gay, 56% from the media, 55% from school (teachers and friends) and 22% from family.

Are you having a Tokyo Pride this year?

Yes, the first Tokyo Pride was about 20 years ago [in 1994] and there are two this year, one on 29 April and one on 11 August. I’ll join both of them. There’s also a Rainbow March up in Sapporo in the north in September that’s been going for 15 years.

You worked in HIV prevention. Is HIV a big problem in Japan?

Yes it’s a big problem, but in Japan no one wants to talk about it. The Japanese government have some budget to tackle the spread of HIV, but not enough.

Do you think the West could do more to help LGBT people in Japan?

Developing countries, like India, are helped by Western countries. But many countries forget about Japan. I want other developed countries to say that Japan should be a LGBT-friendly country.

Among the G8, same-sex partnerships are not permitted only in Russia and Japan. But it’s not as bad as in Russia here. No one gets arrested for attending a parade.

The Ambassador for Denmark and the Ambassador for Australia are gay. They live here with their partners openly. Japanese government gives the partners the same rights as heterosexual families, because the foreign governments ask them to.

If many foreigners come here as openly gay, Japanese society will be changed. Next year in May I am planning an LGBT week with music and art, so I encourage LGBT people to visit Japan that week. It will be around the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) on 17 May. The weather is very good in Tokyo in May, so everybody should come to visit Japan then! 

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