Fighting for LGBT rights in Niihama, Ehime

It was February 3rd on a Friday night when, in Ehime prefecture, Niihama’s Akagane museum opened itself up to the gay community. A friend asked me to present about something I felt passionate about and LGBT rights was an obvious choice. The attendees slowly gathered. Niihama residents from various walks in life came to the underground café at Akagane—a retired elementary school teacher, a dentist assistant, a Japanese teacher, some members of Niihama’s guides club, two city hall employees, and one high schooler were in attendance for the LGBT presentation.

The presentation started with a basic explanation of the acronym “LGBT”. After explaining what each letter stands for I believe most people got the general gist of it. For about 70% of the audience, it was their first time seeing the acronym.

After a few minutes we started a “maru-batsu” quiz (true or false quiz). The first question was: “According to global statistics, in a class of 30 students, there are about 1 or 2 students who are LGBT.” This statement is true, and the majority of people guessed correctly. People were really shocked to learn that 7% of Japan’s population is LGBT. Or that the earliest some LGBT people realize their identity is before they enter elementary school — others realize as late as junior high school. One of the biggest shocks for people was hearing there was a gay bar in Niihama!

Another thing that shocked people was that in the next town over, Ehime, there is a support center for sexual minorities. After sharing these statistics about LGBT Japan, people had many questions. As a group we clarified each other’s questions. Some people who were knowledgeable about the LGBT community were able to answer questions better than I could in Japanese.

Following the maru-batsu section we broke into group discussions. The first question I asked everyone was: “If your child was a boy and said he liked boys, what would you do?” This was the high point of the lecture. People had very deep and intense conversations. I went in and out of several groups, listening to the conversations people shared. One man gave a superb example of explaining sexual identity: a woman tastes an apple, she likes it. She then tastes an orange. She doesn’t like the orange as much as the apple. Why does she prefer the apple over the orange? The answer: preferring an apple over an orange, a woman preferring a woman over a man, or preferring both, these are natural choices. Those choices are different for each person. It’s not wrong, it’s not right, it’s just different, and that’s perfectly fine. For example, how does a man who likes women explain why he likes women? Can he explain that? And why should he need to explain that? In Japan’s society, however, being different from the group is bad. In schools, children get bullied for being different from everyone else. Standing out makes things harder and “the nail which sticks out gets hammered down” 「出るくぎは打たれる」 is, unfortunately, still the mindset of most Japanese people.

Towards the end of the presentation, one older Japanese man stood up to give his opinion on our group discussion. He said, “This was the first time I heard about people who are LGBT. In Japan, this is an issue we don’t normally talk about. I think it’s important for everyone to understand what being LGBT means and to be accepting of sexual minorities.” The presentation that day ended well and I felt everyone was on board with understanding more about the LGBT community.

My name is Scott Tamaki, I’m an ALT from America. I’m not LGBT, but I have supported LGBT people/sexual minorities and their rights since high school. My uncle is gay and married to a nice English man. I have lived in Japan for three years and heard horrible stories of LGBT Japanese people committing suicide, being violently bullied, fired from work for being gay or lesbian, unable to visit their loved one in the hospital after an accident, or being denied adoption rights.

My simple request for people who read this article: Do your own research about LGBT people. Learn about the Japanese LGBT community, watch an LGBT movie, or learn more about the LGBT support organization: “Pride Ehime.”

The human rights violations against the LGBT+ community can end if more people become allies (people not LGBT but who support LGBT rights), and if more people understand the issue.