Japan: To Court Workers, Japanese Firms Try Being More Gay-Friendly

Once a week, the Japanese insurance company where Shunsuke Nakamura works tries to enliven its morning staff meeting by having employees give personal presentations. The topics tend to be mostly innocuous: hobbies, pets or wine recommendations.

Mr. Nakamura used his turn, though, to come out as gay.

“There was silence. People were surprised,” Mr. Nakamura, 33, said of his talk, which he gave to a group of about 50 colleagues last year.

His company, like many in Japan, is trying to become more gay-friendly. It recently extended family benefits to employees’ same-sex partners, and said it would allow its gay customers to name their partners as beneficiaries of its life insurance plans, something previously limited only to legally sanctioned, opposite-sex spouses. Such changes have proliferated across the economy in recent years, with a rising number of goods and services targeting the gay community in what many Japanese describe as an “L.G.B.T. boom.”

It is a striking trend in a country where departures from the norm, sexual or otherwise, have long been something to keep hidden — especially at work. Being openly gay was something for niche transgressive pop stars; for the average gray-suited “salaryman,” it was all but unthinkable. And when it comes to the government, marriage for same-sex couples remains off limits.

But a combination of evolving social attitudes and competition for talent is forcing businesses here to adapt. As Japanese companies expand overseas, and increasingly face off against Western businesses at home, they are having to change how they hire.

“In Japan, the image of L.G.B.T. people is in transition, from invisible to open,” said Ken Suzuki, who studies sexuality at Meiji University in Tokyo and is active in Japan’s gay-rights movement.

Yet the reality for gay Japanese workers is only starting to shift, and unspoken expectations of secrecy remain the norm. Mr. Nakamura said that his colleagues had been supportive, but that coming out at work was still seen as peculiar enough that his supervisors asked him to keep his company’s name out of this article. He reckons that despite his employer’s efforts to be more inclusive, he is still the only one of the firm’s roughly 5,000 employees who is openly gay.

Professor Suzuki said the prevailing attitude toward homosexuality in Japan had long been “indifference rather than hate.” Where traditionalists in the United States have sought to root out gays, for example, with anti-sodomy laws, “in Japan, people just don’t want to know,” he said.

Vibrant gay clubs operate freely in big cities here, but it remains relatively rare for people to come out to their families, let alone their co-workers and bosses. While surveys show the public is evenly split on gay marriage, organized political campaigning on the issue is still marginal. The government, which is dominated by conservatives, has mostly steered clear of the issue. Gay marriage has received no serious political debate.

“As far as the law is concerned, homosexuality doesn’t exist,” Professor Suzuki said.

Acceptance of this “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach is declining, however, as younger people insist on living more openly. Japan is also facing a painful shortage of labor, largely the result of low birthrates and limited immigration. That shortage is forcing employers to compete harder to attract workers, and advertising tolerance appeals to young people generally, not just sexual minorities.

Kento Hoshi, a 23-year-old law school graduate, has seen that competition firsthand. He pitched his idea for Job Rainbow, an employment website aimed at gay people, in a business contest sponsored by Japanese tech companies two years ago. He won 10 million yen, or about $9,100, and set up the site with his sister. Read more via New York Times