ArrowArtboardCreated with Sketch.Title ChevronTitle ChevronEye IconIcon FacebookIcon LinkedinIcon Mail ContactPath LayerIcon MailMenu BurgerPositive ArrowIcon PrintIcon SearchSite TitleTitle ChevronIcon Twitter

The LGBT rights movement is gaining recognition -- and allies -- across Asia

Businesses across the Asia-Pacific region are embracing the LGBT community. Australia and New Zealand Banking Group decked out these ATMs for the 2016 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival. Dubbed GAYTMs, the machines printed rainbow-colored receipts with the message "cash out and proud."

TOKYO   The spectacle of Coming of Age Day is something most young Japanese look forward to. Dressing to impress is part of the fun -- young men wear suits, while women don colorful kimonos.     

     For Tomo Shimosaka, it was not that simple. "I didn't want to wear a women's kimono, and I got so scared as the day approached. It was like a ticking time bomb."

     Shimosaka, a transgender man born with female physical characteristics, wrestled with his dilemma until the eve of the ceremony, which marks the transition to adulthood at age 20. Finally, he rushed out and bought a white dress shirt, a red checkered tie and a gold tie pin to go with the black suit he had purchased months earlier.

     "I had been lying to myself and my friends for so long," he said. "I was trying so hard not to cry during the ceremony, because it was the day I started my life as who I really am."     

An LGBT Coming of Age ceremony in Tokyo

     Unlike most of his friends, Shimosaka attended two ceremonies: one hosted by his city government, and another arranged by a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender nonprofit organization. The latter was sponsored by big-name companies such as Gap, Unilever and Google, along with Tokyo's Setagaya Ward.

     Today, the LGBT movement -- many activists add a "Q" for queer, or questioning one's sexual orientation -- is emerging as a powerful force across Asia. It is certainly catching the attention of governments and businesses.

IMPOSSIBLE TO IGNORE   The U.S. Supreme Court's decision last June to legalize same-sex marriage empowered activists seeking the same rights elsewhere, including places like Taiwan and Vietnam, which are considered relatively progressive when it comes to equality for the LGBT community. 

     New Zealand in 2013 became the first Asia-Pacific country to endorse same-sex marriage. Australia has yet to do so but does recognize civil unions; Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in January said his government would legalize gay marriage if a majority of the nation voted for it.

     Japan has not taken the legislative leap regarding marriage, but at least four municipal governments have taken matters into their own hands. Shibuya and Setagaya wards in Tokyo now issue certificates for same-sex partnerships. The city of Iga, Mie Prefecture, will begin issuing them in April, while Takarazuka, located in Hyogo Prefecture, will start in June. The hope is that these documents will help same-sex couples get the same treatment as married ones when it comes to, say, apartment rentals or hospital visits.  

     Even in countries where the authorities are generally mum about LGBT rights -- China, for instance -- businesses are warming up to the movement. This is especially true in the service sector. Beijing Kunlun Tech, a Chinese online game company, in January struck a $93 million deal for a 60% stake in Grindr, the California-based operator of the world's No. 1 gay social network. 

     The LGBT consumer market is becoming "something we just can't overlook," said Shiho Ikeuchi, director of overseas marketing at Hotel Granvia Kyoto. "Not a single day passes that we don't see a same-sex couple." In Asia alone, the community's annual spending power is already $1 trillion, according to a 2015 report by LGBT Capital, an asset management company. The global figure: $3.7 trillion.

     Hotel Granvia Kyoto has made a conscious effort to make LGBT guests feel welcome. It offers a special wedding ceremony package and, last year, it set up a gender-neutral restroom near the lobby. The concierges, who receive special training, wear pins from the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association, which the hotel joined in 2006.

     The tiny pin has a big effect. "One time, when a customer from the U.S. saw my pin, it took him by surprise and he told me how happy it made him," said Tadashi Tanaka, chief of overseas marketing at the hotel. "Other times, customers -- often Japanese -- ask us what it stands for," he added, suggesting the pin plays a valuable role in raising awareness. 

     Ikeuchi said a wake-up call came in 2013. At an IGLTA convention in the U.S., numerous businesses touted packages designed for the LGBT community, but not a single Japanese participant -- not even Hotel Granvia Kyoto -- had such products. "It was clear that Japan was lagging far behind," Ikeuchi said, "and soon we would be left out of the global market, with travelers choosing to go elsewhere."     

     Since then, the hotel has made significant strides, but there have been some missteps along the way.

     In the past, receptionists -- out of courtesy -- offered same-sex couples rooms with twin beds when they requested a double bed online. LGBT guests also said they were asked to refrain from displaying affection at a night club and bar the hotel recommended.     

Hotel Granvia Kyoto's gender-neutral restroom

     To avoid such mistakes, the hotel now holds seminars at least twice a year, giving employees a crash course in how to serve LGBT customers. The training covers basic knowledge of the LGBT community and common faux pas. 

     Hotel Granvia Kyoto is not alone. Numerous hotels and tourism companies in Japan are recognizing the need to train employees to better cater to LGBT travelers. 

OPEN GATES   Japanese religious institutions, meanwhile, are more approachable than many people realize. Some temples and shrines openly welcome same-sex couples for wedding ceremonies.  

     Kyoto's Shunkoin Temple, which dates back more than 400 years, held its first same-sex wedding ceremony in 2010. "Buddhist doctrine isn't incompatible with same-sex marriage," said Zenryu Kawakami, the temple's deputy chief priest. "The teachings of Buddhism are applicable to any marriage, and understanding the impermanence of all things can foster a lasting relationship."

     More than 10 same-sex couples have exchanged vows at the temple. They have come from as far away as China, Taiwan, the U.S., U.K. and Brazil.

     Kiyoshi Momoyama, chief priest at Negainomiya Shrine in Osaka, believes same-sex nuptials belong in Shinto -- Japan's indigenous faith.

     Some Shinto priests have declined to conduct same-sex wedding ceremonies because they are wary of changing the words of prayers that have been said for hundreds of years. Momoyama is undeterred. "Though there is a general form for prayer," he said, "I believe priests can adapt it for same-sex couples."     

     Yoshiaki Hirata, a gay man in his 50s, was surprised to find an "understanding priest" at Negainomiya. He had dreamed of having a wedding at a Shinto shrine but assumed none would agree to host the ceremony. Hirata and his partner, Kazushi Yoshitake, forged their bond before the gods in late February.

     Like many in Japan and other countries, however, they felt they could not open up to their loved ones. "We couldn't tell our parents and family, the people we wanted to invite the most," Yoshitake said.

     Hirata added: "My parents are in their 80s. I can't let them go into the afterlife feeling uncomfortable because of me."

     Support for LGBT rights runs high among young Japanese, but that is not the case with older generations. In a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center of the U.S., 83% of Japanese between the ages of 18 and 29 said "homosexuality should be accepted." The figure topped those for Britain, the U.S. and other Asian countries. 

     Among Japan's 50-plus set, however, the ratio came to only 39%.   

Yoshiaki Hirata, left, and Kazushi Yoshitake exchange rings at a Shinto shrine in Osaka.

     "Discrimination and prejudice toward LGBT people stem from a common misunderstanding that sexual orientation is based on individual preference," said Mika Yakushi, CEO and founder of ReBit, a nonprofit organization. "Likewise, a heterosexual person doesn't choose to fall in love with a person who is a different gender." 

     ReBit guides LGBT students through the job-hunting process, which can be stressful in ways heterosexual individuals might not realize. Many transgender people, for example, are unsure whether they should circle "male" or "female" on job applications. This can be a painful and discouraging reminder that society seems to reject them.  

     Yakushi draws on his own difficult experience as a transgender man with some female functions. "Once, when I explained my sexual orientation in the middle of an interview, the interviewer told me to go home."    

     To create an LGBT-friendly workplace, Yakushi said it is important for management to not only set rules but also ensure those rules are not merely a facade. Even if an employer officially acknowledges same-sex partners, for example, an LGBT worker may still find it difficult to ask for a honeymoon vacation if his or her boss lacks understanding of the community or the company code.

     Nomura Securities, one of Japan's few corporate role models when it comes to LGBT rights, educates workers every chance it gets -- from fresh recruits right up to management. Slides concerning LGBT topics are regularly shown in training sessions, even when diversity is not the subject of the day. The company also has an internal LGBT networking group led by "allies," heterosexual or cisgender employees who support the community.  

     More companies are positioning themselves as future role models. The equal rights movement, especially the legalization of same-sex marriage in the U.S., has increased pressure on their overseas branches to set new policies, building awareness at home. "More Japanese workers in the U.S. are getting married to locals," said Maki Muraki, a founder of Nijiiro Diversity -- one of Japan's most influential nonprofit LGBT organizations.

     Sony in February announced that all employees with same-sex partners are now entitled to the same family benefits as other workers. These include gifts of cash when they marry, time off for childbirth or caring for elderly parents, and family separation allowances when they are assigned to positions away from home.     

     Panasonic plans to add a provision to its company code in April, banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in line with local laws. It, too, will grant family benefits to all of its workers in Japan. The company, which has 250,000 employees worldwide and racks up 7.7 trillion yen ($68.9 billion) in annual sales, could serve as a powerful example to other businesses.

NEIGHBORS AND COLLEAGUES   It is no surprise that things are changing, when you consider that 1 in 13 people in Japan identifies as LGBT, according to an estimate by Dentsu Diversity Lab. A typical Japanese high school class is estimated to have three LGBT students.

     Yoichiro Hirano, founder and CEO of Infoteria, believes diversity has a positive impact on his Tokyo-based software development company. He spends a lot of time in Singapore, where he sees "different cultures not only coexist but motivate each other, creating more innovation," he said. 

     One out of every 13 people may seem like a small segment of the population, but factoring in "allies, it easily becomes the majority," said Naoki Atsumi, a research associate specializing in diversity and work-life balance at Toray Corporate Business Research. Eventually, he warned, Asian consumers are highly likely to boycott companies that do not embrace the LGBT community.     

     In Japan and most other Asian societies, there is strong pressure to conform to the mainstream. Rather than stifling the LGBT movement, this could work in the community's favor.

     "Once businesses and authorities realize that they will be in the minority if they don't accept the LGBT community," Atsumi said, "the pressure to conform will spur rapid change."

Sponsored Content

About Sponsored Content This content was commissioned by Nikkei's Global Business Bureau.

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this monthThis is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia;
the most dynamic market in the world.

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia

Get trusted insights from experts within Asia itself.

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Get Unlimited access

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this month

This is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia; the most
dynamic market in the world

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Try 3 months for $9

Offer ends June 30th

Your trial period has expired

You need a subscription to...

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers and subscribe

Your full access to the Nikkei Asian Review has expired

You need a subscription to:

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers
NAR on print phone, device, and tablet media