Sweeping changes in Japan: LGBTQIA+ Rights

Published April 26, 2016

What has struck me the most since I (Erika) moved to Japan 9 months ago is the sharp increase in news coverage of LGBTQIA+ topics. Unlike the usual dry treatment that most other social issues receive (and the consecutive dry solutions to these problems), the LGBTQIA+ topics are widely covered, in more colors than the iconic rainbow flag.

Trans, gay and androgynous personnel have been popular and common on Japanese television for quite some time, but only as cliché prototypes of the Japanese illusory idea of what “LGBT” actually is. Because of this, I was rather apathetic regarding Japan’s ability to bring about change for a topic that seemed to have such deep-rooted stereotypes. And so, this swift flood of increase in awareness and understanding of diversity in gender and sexual orientation has struck me by absolute surprise.

Here are 6 examples of the recent developments and changes in public policy that Japan has made since I arrived in August, 2015:

 1. Legal action

A trans woman announced that she will be making a lawsuit against The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry for discrimination. For example, she is accusing them of prohibiting her from using the bathroom of her gender identity because “she has not undergone surgery to change her sex on her birth certificate,” and telling her to “change back to a man” if she is not going to go under the knife. This is the first time that an LGBTQIA+ person is making a lawsuit to call for better inclusivity in the workplace. (Source: Asahi)

 2. Partnership certificate

Shibuya, Setagaya (both in Tokyo) and Iga (Mie) have started providing certificates for same-sex partnerships. Though this is not a marriage license, it will grant the same rights as married couples. These cities hope that these certificates will further encourage landlords, employers, doctors, etc. to treat same-sex couples equally and grant them family benefits. (Source: Sankei)

3. Employment

Major companies such as JAL, ANA, and Panasonic have announced that they will be treating same-sex couples equally as married couples. Whether the employees have a partnership certificate or not, employees in a same-sex union will be able to access the same benefits that married couples and families receive, such as special family prices and vacation leave for honeymoons. (Source: Mainichi)

 4. Education

From 2017, high school textbooks across Japan will include the word “LGBT” for the first time. Topics of diversity in gender and sexual orientation will be covered to highlight that there is no one right way to live your life. Other changes include the addition of other social issues such as child poverty. (Source: Mainichi

The Ministry of Education has created a comprehensive outline to educate teachers on how to respond to students who are trans. With bullying and suicides being a serious concern for students who identify as LGBTQIA+, this has sparked many prefectures across Japan to conduct training sessions for teachers to better understand and respond to LGBTQIA+ students’ needs. (Source: Mainichi & Ministry of Education)


 5. Art

“Out in Japan” is now in the limelight thanks to extensive media coverage in the past few months. This photography project captures the diversity of the Japanese LGBT community in beautiful portraits, along with a short blurb by the models about their experiences. This project aims to break the stereotypes that people have about the LGBT community, and humanize LGBT individuals. Also, the project hopes to give courage to people who want to, but are afraid to come out. See the Out in Japan website here.

6. Awareness

Many schools across Mie Prefecture have invited speakers like Shoichi Yamaguchi to speak about gender diversity to students. Since it is estimated that at least one student in every class identifies as LGBT, schools have begun to actively work towards increasing awareness and understanding about this subject. (Source: Asahi)

Why is this happening so fast?

As subjective as this is, here are some possible reasons I could think of that may have made this change a lot smoother than in other countries.

  • (Relatively) positive response to top-down decisions
  • Japan’s culture of conformity, especially to international standards (e.g. U.S. legalizing same-sex marriage and decisions made by major global companies)
  • The belief in reincarnation and past-lives influencing your current existence


What are some of the unresolved issues in Japan?

Changes have been happening at a dizzying speed, but that does not mean that all the problems are solved.

  • To change your biological sex on your birth certificate, you must have undergone a sex-change operation and terminate your ability to reproduce.
  • Dialogue has been non-existent about issues that same-sex couples face when planning for parenthood, or when raising children.
  • The concepts of gender identity and sexual orientation are not being deconstructed and learned, thus tolerance is promoted over true understanding of diversity.
  • Media depictions of LGBTQIA + people are still stereotyping, and depicted in limited prototypes within pop culture (e.g. only feminine gay and M to F transgender people being shown on TV). This has caused a huge gap in the tone and understanding of LGBTQIA+ issues between media outlets, especially variety shows vs. the news.
  • In Japan, the terminology is “LGBT” and the “QIA+” is not mentioned or explicitly included in the conversation.

These are just a few examples of the range of issues that are yet to be adequately addressed. 

Still, what Japan has been able to achieve within a year is quite impressive in my opinion. Japan has managed to make decisions that took other countries years to do in one sweeping motion of the hand. What more will 2016 bring?


For LGBTQIA+ support, contact or join Stonewall Japan!


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