For the Japanese LGBTQ community, delaying the Olympics means more eyes on their fight for rights in one of the world's most conservative countries. Isn't this what the Olympics is supposed to do?
Every year, June marks annual “Pride Month” celebrations in honor of the Stonewall Uprising in New York City over 50 years ago, which kicked off the modern LGBTQ-liberation movement.
In the years since Stonewall, Pride has grown in stature to an annual event flush with corporate dollars. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic however, the traditional in-person parades and celebrations in cities around the world were held in scaled down events, and even virtually.
For the organizers of Pride House in Tokyo, this was a setback. June 2020 was supposed to be a month of celebration and organizing for the LGBTQ-space at the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. The month would end with less than 30 days to go until the 2020 Olympics kicked off, with a record number of openly-LGBTQ athletes.
Pride House began at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada and made its Japanese debut as a temporary installation for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, and was set to do the same for the 2020 Olympics through the 2020 Paralympics. Both installations would be the first of its kind for a Japanese major sporting event. After the Games, Pride House was set to become Japan’s first permanent LGBTQ-center in the entire country.
Once the Games were postponed, Pride House began working on flipping its steps to ensure there is a permanent LGBTQ-center in Japan, which will become a “temporary Pride House” during the Olympics and Paralympics, Pride House President Gon Matsunaka told Olympics Everywhere.
Matsunaka said that the permanent installation hopefully will open this fall, giving plenty of time to prepare for Olympic and Paralympic activation events. During the pandemic Pride House has been holding YouTube Live events and workshops to help connect the LGBTQ community in Japan as well as provide educational opportunities for the Japanese population at large.
Japan’s elder, generally conservative society generally does not know much about the LGBTQ community or the issues they face, Matsunaka said. Pride House has joined with 10 prominent Japanese companies to “give credibility” to the center for the general population.
“There is not a lot violence on the LGBTQ community compared to other countries,” Matsunaka said. “So people cannot see the inequality which LGBTQ people have been suffering. It is a human rights issue and LGBTQ lives matter, but the society doesn’t yet understand that concept.
“I believe that Pride House Tokyo can be the legacy of Tokyo 2020. If we can get authorized to be on the official program, we can pass the baton to Beijing (2022) and Paris (2024).”
The tangible impact of what Pride House is hoping to do in Japan can already be seen by the story of Shiho Shimoyamada. In 2019, while playing for a soccer club in the German second division, Shimoyamada came out publicly becoming the first openly gay Japanese professional athlete. She has since moved back to play for a second division Japanese club, but was inspired to return home to be a role-model ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and the rising number of LGBTQ athletes worldwide.
“I want to speak for the actual players involved and the problems in the sports world that they are struggling with,” Shimoyamada told Olympics Everywhere.
After coming out she said that her teammates and family have been nothing but supportive, and she received messages from LGBTQ athletes around the world applauding her courage. Still, due to lack of equal protections under the law, many athletes are afraid to let their clubs, coaches and teammates know about their identities, Shimoyamada said. In addition, the LGBTQ community at large can seem like it only exists on TV, she added, making it easier for people to dismiss the needs of the community and fight for change.
“The sports world is divided into men and women for the sake of fairness in the sport, but there are also many different types of men and women and they can express their expression of gender in various ways,” Shimoyamada said.
“I'm looking forward to seeing that such Olympic athletes will inspire many people all over the world. Also, those differences in sexuality and gender expression are completely irrelevant when you're playing sports. I hope that will be conveyed through the Olympics.”
Pride House is not the only group hoping to use the delay in the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics to draw attention to the LGBTQ community in Japan. In fact, numerous NGOs and other non-profits having intensified efforts to get laws passed at the city, prefectural, and national government levels in Japan to protect LGBTQ people from harrassment, ensure their marriages have full protection under the law, and prevent other forms discrimination such as employment discrimination.
At the national level, Human Rights Watch has rallied around 100 different groups to get the Japanese Parliament to pass a non-discrimination law for LGBTQ people. This non-discrimination law would go much further than the non-discrimination ordinance Tokyo passed in 2018, the first of its kind at the prefectural level.
“Together with the Japanese local NGOs, we've been lobbying diet, Japanese Parliament for the past five years,” Kanae Doi, Japan director at Human Rights Watch, told Olympics Everywhere.
“We have been thinking that the Olympics would be the best opportunity for us [to get a bill passed], and we think the postponement is a rare opportunity for that. Although we have to juggle with the situation of COVID, this time is a great opportunity for us.”
Without a national law, Doi worries that momentum will be lost towards protecting the LGBTQ community in Japan, due to the country’s strict social conformity and lack of representation of the LGBTQ community in all aspects of society. Currently, Japan has two openly gay members of parliament, as well as other LGBTQ politicians at the local level. Both members of parliament are members of the opposition, limiting their influence.
Working with the ruling right-wing LDP-Kōmeitō coalition is imperative for any piece of draft legislation to become law in Japan, as the coalition dominates Japanese politics. As a result, political change in Japan moves very slowly, Doi says. Five years ago a bi-partisan committee began working on an LGBTQ-rights bill, which has stalled at the national level. The non-discrimination law proposed by Japanese NGOs has already been approved by opposition parties, so lobbying efforts have been focused on getting the LDP to finish the work it started years ago. With the eyes of the world on Japan for another year ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, that work may finally get done.
“When the bipartisan MP group was set up in 2015, from that time they were thinking about the  Olympics,” Doi said. “Without protection for the LGBTQ population at the time of the Olympics would be a problem for an international event.”
Pride House was not one of the groups to sign on to petition the Japanese government to adopt a national anti-discrimination law at first, because it was still working to get recognition from the Japanese government. However, Matsunaka had been involved in different organizations working to secure equal rights for the LGBTQ community, such as “Marriage for All Japan” where he is one of the directors.
The group has filed multiple lawsuits in cities across Japan hoping to win a legal precedent that ensures the rights of marriage for same-sex couples, like the United States won in 2015. Board member Takeharu Kato told Olympics Everywhere that the group will be “seeking opportunities to leverage the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and its ‘Diversity & Inclusion’ theme by featuring sports celebrities that support marriage equality,” which has included Shimoyamada.
Kato says that from November 2015 to April 2020 the number of municipalities that afford respect to same-sex couples has risen from two to 47. However, this recognition isn’t a substitute for marriage protections under Japanese law, meaning it has been “two steps forward and one step back in the legal cases”.
Marriage equality, an anti-discrimination law, and having out LGBTQ athletes only reinforce to Matsunaka that the time is right for real change to come in Japan benefitting the LGBTQ community. Making strides in sports would be one of the “final frontiers” where LGBTQ Japanese face persistent discrimination and harrasment Matsunaka added.
“As the equality law will be [one of the] biggest legacies of Pride House, so we would like to co-work with the campaign somehow,” Matsunaka said. “This is a campaign against the government anyhow, and Japanese companies really avoid those approaches.If IOC endorses the Pride House Tokyo, as well as the equality campaign, that will be so powerful.”