Long before the term LGBT came into vogue, Japan went its own way regarding gender definitions, before the Meiji restoration in the 19th Century opened Japan to Western ideas and concepts, including a more Victorian attitude towards sex roles.
Victorian attitudes are changing rapidly in Japan, led by big business seeking to tap into the underappreciated market for lesbians, gays and transgender people estimated at US$50 billion.
The online shopping mall operator Rakutan announced that it would recognise same-sex relationships for spousal benefits. Under the new rule, employee couples of the same sex can receive the same benefits and treatment as married couples, including condolence leave and condolence payments.
“We are very proud to support and provide an inclusive work place with services and benefits that recognise same-sex partners,” said Akio Sugihara, managing executive.
Rakuten is known as a trend-setter in Japanese business circles. It made news earlier when it announced that it was demanding that all 13,000 employees learn to speak English for the company to work better in a global setting. But other more venerable Japan Inc. companies are following suit.
The massive electronics emporium Panasonic announced it too would recognise employees in same-sex relationships by conferring on them paid leave and other benefits. One motivation is the 2020 Olympic Games to be held in Tokyo. It has a rule prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Panasonic aspires to be a prime sponsor.
Japan Airlines and its affiliate Trans Ocean Air Company together sponsor the Pink Dot festival on Okinawa, becoming the first Japanese airlines to sponsor a private LGBT event. JAL now allows officially certified same-sex couples to share their frequent flier miles as family members. Both JAL and Trans Ocean, based in Naha, rely heavily on tourism.
“We can see the ripple effect among numerous additional Japanese companies”, says Ayumu Yasutomi, a professor of social ecology at Tokyo University’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Asia.
Tokyo Disneyland sponsors an LGBT Pride event. This includes a popular marriage hall, which performs a kind of symbolic marriage ceremony for same-sex couples. Nomura Securities, was one of the first major LGBT-friendly companies in Japan when in 2008 it bought the US investment bank Lehman Brothers and adopted its marriage equality policies.
Hakuhodo DY Holdings, a major Japanese advertising firm, this spring established a think tank, the LGBT Research Institute, to cater to Japanese firms that feel they need to learn more about sexual minorities and their buying habits. “The LGBT market is still largely uncharted territory,” declared institute chief Takahito Morinaga. His research shows that LGBT people tend to spend more on travel, art and pet goods, he says. “I believe there are tremendous big business opportunities,” he said.