By Yvonne K. Tran
Photo and video assistants: Lisa Tran and Annie Hoang
Japan is having a remarkable year of progress toward LGBTQ equality and social awareness. According to a recent survey, 1 in 11 people identify as LGBT, but 65 percent of those respondents had not told anyone about their sexuality, for fear of a negative reaction. Without any civil-rights protections in place, many closeted citizens fear losing jobs, housing, and upsetting family members.
But with the recent wave of news articles, demonstrations, documentaries, and out characters in popular television shows, Japan’s LGBTQ+ communities cannot be ignored any longer. Visibility in society and through social media is making an impact as artists and actors come out and share their stories. Some local governments have started issuing same-sex partnership certificates. In February, thirteen same-sex couples sued the government for marriage equality. In April, the first transgender person was elected to a prefectural assembly. In June, the first same-sex marriage bill was introduced in parliament—shortly after Taiwan became the first place in Asia to allow same-sex marriage. A major victory just occurred on July 22, when openly gay lawmaker Taiga Ishikawa was elected to the Upper House. Ishikawa has been actively campaigning on recognizing same-sex marriages and LGBT rights. A cultural shift is taking place, and this generation will create change.
Numbered photos correspond to numbered text.
#1 In Japanese, “Aru ga mama o hokoro!” means “Be proud of who you are!” The Tokyo Rainbow Pride organization simply and joyously announced “I Have Pride” as its theme for 2019. The city came out in full force with festival attendance reaching 200,000—the highest ever recorded. Over 10,000 people marched in the 3-kilometer parade route through the bustling streets of Shibuya Ward. Countless spectators lined the streets from Harajuku to Shibuya to watch the fearless displays of love and diversity. Attendees included numerous foreigners and ally organizations from around the globe, including Amnesty International and other human-rights groups. Japanese Pride organizations from several regions also came to participate and show their support.
Tokyo Rainbow Pride banners and flags waved in the bright sunshine, and creative LGBTQ window displays lined the streets. People of all ages were enjoying the perfect weekend weather. Many eagerly set out early to attend the Pride Festival, meet up with their friends in the parade staging area, or find perfect viewing spots along the parade route. It was heartwarming to see so many LGBTQ families and allies with children in attendance. Babies, kids, and pets were everywhere in a truly family-friendly environment.
#2 We met a lovely French family consisting of a man with his partner and his mother. It was their first time attending Tokyo Rainbow Pride, although they had attended Pride events in France and several other cities in Europe. When we asked them what their organization was about, the son replied, “We are with Le Refuge. It is a French organization that takes care of young LGBT people from ages 15 to 25. A couple of employees and multiple volunteers provide psychological assistance, and help the youth go back to school and find jobs. Le Refuge accommodates around 10,000 young people a year, [but we must turn away] three times that many.”
#3 For this momentous 25th anniversary year of the Tokyo Pride parade, Tokyo Rainbow Pride organizers invited anyone who wanted to march to assemble in the staging area one hour prior to the start of the procession. This section of the park was packed with both eager LGBTQ marchers and spirited allies. Media partner BuzzFeed Japan not only offered social-media coverage of the big event, but also collected statements written by people living throughout Japan who could not travel to the celebration. Printed signs with those sentiments were carried down the parade route on behalf of those citizens. It was both a touching tribute and an inclusive way of encouraging widespread participation.
#4 We also met a gay couple from Spain who cut short their vacation in Hakone to head back to Tokyo as soon as they learned that Rainbow Pride was taking place. “We didn’t want to miss the chance to see it. This is our first day in Tokyo, as we were in Kyoto this week. The timing worked out perfectly!”
#5 Tokyo Rainbow Pride organizers kept the parade moving steadily for hours. Seas of participants in matching colored shirts marched while waving to the crowds and shouting “Happy Pride!” Flags representing different LGBTQI groups were carried between the parade floats. Activists held up signs while shooting videos on cell phones. Couples walked hand in hand. Several families with children were also marching in the parade. Mixed-race couples walked proudly with messages written on their T-shirts. Drag queens with incredible outfits and wigs posed for photos and vogued as they walked the streets. Various religious leaders—including priests, monks, Buddhists, and even a man dressed as Jesus—waved in solidarity. Marching bands and groups of traditional musicians played as marchers danced along. It was a beautiful sight to behold.
The Two-Day Pride Festival
Each year, the sprawling Yoyogi Park turns into the headquarters for the two-day Tokyo Rainbow Pride Festival. There is no charge to attend, and organizers have volunteers stationed at all park entrances handing out maps, event schedules, and Pride guides. This was easily the friendliest and most well-organized Pride festival I have ever attended. The official Pride guide was packed with detailed resources and an excellent written history of the last 30 years of the Japanese LGBTQI movement.
#6 Many corporate sponsors, non-profit organizations, student groups, political-action groups, and food vendors occupied the 278 festival booths. Several Japanese airline companies, travel websites, and hotels displayed their support, with groups of employees and allies both marching in the parade and running booths at the festival. All Nippon Airways (ANA) had a large group of marchers with all kinds of supportive signs. Japan Airlines (JAL) had a big interactive booth set up with photo-ops and travel information.
#7 One of the most popular booths contained a neon rainbow coffin for guests to lie down inside, take a deep breath, and close their eyes for a moment of healing meditation. Some guests even chose to hold a bouquet of flowers. The coffin lid would then be carefully closed for a minute of silent prayer. Once the lid was reopened, a photo would be taken to symbolize the participant’s rebirth. This process intrigued many festival-goers, and provided a way for guests to leave past selves or old wounds behind.
#8 At the Rakuten booth, three volunteers asked festival-goers to take part in a poll: What current LGBTQ issue do you think needs more support? Participants placed red-dot stickers on a poster board next to their most important issue. Among the issues listed were life insurance for same-sex partners, home mortgage loans for all couples, housing support, more LGBTQ-related media coverage, support for LGBTQ financial planning, LGBTQ-friendly job search tools, insurance coverage for gender transitioning, and LGBTQ-friendly hotel services and amenities. Booth visitors were having open, honest conversations about which issues they were currently facing.
Dentsu’s LGBT Rainbow Research booth was packed with current statistics from their many studies and polls taken in 2019. One display showed that over 78% of Japanese citizens would vote in favor of marriage equality. The display included a giant rainbow wedding cake with a 78% cake topper. People waited in line to take photos with delightful props inside a colorful rainbow. A shiny golden throne was placed on a platform where visitors could strike a pose.
People of all ages gleefully took turns creating fun memories. Inside this area were additional facts and figures next to a thoughtful rainbow-colored “action wall.” This section highlighted moments of activism and the change-makers who were working toward equality. Not only was this display visually interesting, it highlighted the many concerns that LGBTQ people in Japan must face without having laws in place to protect them. It successfully accomplished its intended educational purpose, and was certainly one of our favorite stops in the festival.
#9 The festival’s main stage had a non-stop lineup of musicians, live performances, and DJs. The headliner group m-flo created the first official Tokyo Rainbow Pride song, No Question, that was remixed by Mitsunori Ikeda. The mainstage lineup included Kiyotaka, Gaysha Gals, DoGaluuu, Lydia, Lyla Boops, and many more groups that provided the joyful soundtrack throughout the festival. We had a fabulous time wandering around the festival area, taking photographs and meeting people.
The Tokyo Rainbow Pride events calendar was also packed with every type of gathering you could imagine. There were parties and family-friendly events such as activists networking, Youth & Family Pride, Dyke Weekend, an LGBTQI family picnic, medical and mental-health meetings, an international film festival, educational lectures, sports events, book clubs, art exhibitions, club events, talk shows, hiking groups, yoga in the park, parenting workshops, and more.
Held in late April, Tokyo Rainbow Pride is Japan’s largest LGBTQ event, followed by Osaka’s Kansai Rainbow Festa (held in October), Sapporo Rainbow Pride (held in September), and Fukuoka City’s Kyushu Rainbow Pride (held in November). The Tokyo event took place during the national Golden Week holiday break that was extended to ten days this year. The additional time off made festivities much more accessible to LGBTQI residents across the nation.
I look forward to the day when Japanese LGBTQI citizens obtain equal marriage rights, when all Pride parade marchers can finally take off their masks and stop hiding behind signs, and when more people can give their full names to press reporters. Japan needs to follow Taiwan’s progressive example, and implement change.
This article appears in the August edition of OutSmart magazine.