LGBTQ+ Equality in Japan with Alexander Dmitrenko
Part of Out Leadership's Global Pulse on Equality Series

Out Leadership’s Managing Director, Global Equality Initiatives, Fabrice Houdart spoke with Alexander Dmitrenko, Counsel and Head of Asia Sanctions at Freshfields, about the state of LGBTQ+ equality in Japan. Freshfields are an Out Leadership member firm. 

To the outsider there seems to be a Japanese contradiction – on one hand, “societal attitudes” seem rather supportive, on the other hand, the legal context lags behind. Can you decode the situation for our readers?

Indeed, the support for LGBT rights has rapidly grown in Japan over the last few years.  We are particularly thrilled about the shifting attitudes towards marriage equality. Recent surveys show that up to 80% support marriage equality and a 2019 Governmental survey indicated that 75% of married women supported marriage equality. Such progress is largely due to the hard work of the various NPOs (including our LLAN) and the increased social and media visibility of LGBT people. We have seen major progress towards LGBT equality within the corporate sector, municipalities, and judiciary. Many domestic and international corporates, after equalizing benefits and treatment of LGBT couples internally, took a truly impactful step to endorse the Viewpoint on Marriage Equality. The Viewpoint, which we launched with 5 Chambers of Commerce in September 2019, makes the business case for marriage and recommends the Government of Japan to extend equal marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples. Remarkably, 125 entities – both domestic and multi-national, big and small – have endorsed the Viewpoint. 

While the Japanese corporates, society, and municipalities have indeed taken the lead on this important issue of LGBT equality, our political leaders remained largely unaffected and the conservative attitudes remain prevalent among the current government. However, in Japan, as many of us have seen in corporate settings, leadership also requires reaching a consensus and even unanimity. Minority rights is obviously not a corporate setting. We certainly hope that the politicians will appreciate that LGBT equality requires true leadership to ensure all members of the Japanese society are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.

When talking about Japan, mental health is a recurring theme. Do you believe LGBTQ+ people suffer disproportionately because of their place in society?

Mental health is a difficult topic in any setting (we have just witnessed our megastar Naomi Osaka raising it in a tennis major).  It is, unfortunately, true that mental health has been a particularly challenging issue for LGBT individuals in any jurisdiction, Japan included. 

I have been a board member of TELL, a Japanese NGO focusing on mental health and suicide prevention. TELL began as the “Tokyo English Language Lifeline” 50 years ago and continues to provide helpline services to the English-speaking community in Japan. We estimate that up to 25% of callers are LGBT – certainly a disproportionate number. 

Oftentimes, being LGBT is one of the contributing factors to an individual’s well-being (after all, being LGBT is only one, albeit an important, feature of one’s personality). What makes it harder for LGBT people (anywhere) is the lack of acceptance or support by the community, family, friends, and workplace. Unfortunately, lack of any legal protections (such as non-discrimination legislation), coupled with the general reluctance to reach out for help (seen as an imposition on others of one’s problems), certainly contributes to mental health issues in Japan for our community.

Invisibility is a major obstacle to the improvement of the lives of LGBTQ+ individuals in contemporary Japanese society, including in business, can you explain to us why LGBTQ+ workers are so discreet?

This is a great question. For decades, the LGBT community in Japan (as in most other places) preferred to be invisible and keep sexuality in the private domain. I believe (and can personally attest that) for many LGBT people, visibility still represents a significant personal and professional struggle for a number of reasons. First, culturally, it is not encouraged to “rock the boat” in Japan. Second, coming out is a difficult process, which, frankly, never ends – and not everyone is keen to be gay all the time. Third, visibility requires a sense of security, acceptance, and even celebration of diversity. There is another element to visibility – being in a relationship. After all, the only distinction between gay and straight is whom we fall in love with. I often hear LGBT friends say that they would come out if they were in a relationship.

Seeing the progress made internationally, the LGBT community here is gradually becoming more visible – in large part due to committed leaders as well as phenomenal allies and ambassadors. For instance, our LLAN team of 600+ affiliate members is over 90% straight and 90% Japanese. It is truly empowering for the LGBT community to see such whole-hearted support from the business and legal sectors. Knowing that your sexuality will not be detrimental to your career, family relationship or even housing situation is huge. Therefore, like in many other jurisdictions that offer non-discrimination and marriage equality, LGBT people may feel it is easier to be more visible if such visibility is accepted by society and protected by law.

Finally, on a bit of a different note, few Europeans know Japan as well as you do. Do you have recommendations of destinations for LGBTQ+ tourists?

Oh boy, where to start?! Japan is an absolutely fantastic outta-this-world travel destination. You simply cannot go wrong! The unique history and ancient culture is still very visible across Japan. The cuisine goes well beyond sushi (and you probably won’t be able to eat sushi in your home country for a few months after trying the real thing in Japan.)  The nature features snow mountains in the north, sand beaches with emerald waters in the south. High-speed trains will make you a stronger supporter of Biden’s infrastructure plans. Above all, the people of Japan are what keeps me here for over a decade – genuinely friendly, uniquely fun, and utterly courteous. 

If you ask for my personal favorite destinations for a 2-3 week trip to our enchanted islands – I would recommend Kyoto and Koyasan (for culture and history), Tokyo (for food, entertainment, and museums), Miyakojima (for its emerald beaches), Hyogo (for a gorgeous drive through mountainous roads), Naoshima-Teshima (for a mix of the modernism and a picturesque setting) and Hachijojima (for something truly special). 

I have to provide a disclaimer – I am a Tourist Ambassador of Hachijojima, a very special remote island, where I have a small dacha with watermelon fields.  I am not entirely objective, but everyone who visited this gorgeous spot “in the middle of nowhere,” left in absolute awe. 

Japan is like living in the future where things work perfectly and people treat each other with great respect (we just need to make improvements in the equality department).  Best to come and explore for yourself – once we reopen – a real treat and a truly memorable adventure.  


LGBTQ+ in Japan with Alexander DmitrenkoAlexander Dmitrenko
Counsel and Head of Asia Sanctions

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