In Tokyo’s Shibuya and Setagaya Wards, same-sex partnerships have started to be officially acknowledged. Societal acceptance towards the LGBT community in Japan is growing. However, school environments may not be prepared for this new world. LGBT children, in particular, still face multiple challenges -- they worry that they may not be able to receive accurate information or gain understanding from their teachers and peers.
A survey focused on gauging the conditions of school life for LGBT students was carried out in 2013 by a group named Respect Life: White Ribbon Campaign, which provides support for LGBT individuals who are at risk of suicide. Eighty-four percent of respondents said that they had observed bullying that had been triggered by the sexual orientations of victims. Sixty-eight percent said they had experienced violence or bullying because of their orientation. Twelve percent of these cases involved a teacher as the perpetrator, according to the survey.
“I thought that the fact that I liked girls meant I was really a boy, and thought I should try to accept that.”
What is it that these young people need from their schools and from adults around them? What do they see when they think about their futures? We met Riina (her online handle), an 18-year-old high school student who identifies as a lesbian, through a social networking site.
Riina first came to our attention after she published a post on a social networking site. She voiced concerns over a lack of understanding at her school for LGBT issues. After exchanging many messages with her, we interviewed her when she came to Tokyo from the Tokai Region, where she lives.
Our impression of Riina from both her emails and when we met her in person was that she is wise beyond her years. She is very collected, and hardly seems like a high school student. It was easy to imagine that she was respected among her friends and teachers alike.
After spending some time talking to her, we discovered that her knowledge of current affairs was excellent. When we asked her why she watches the news so much, she gave us a wry smile.
"TV dramas only feature heterosexual love, which I can't relate to. Variety shows often have oneetarento [effeminate male or trans female TV personalities] or okama [effeminate gay men] as the subject of their jokes. Such programs don't give me a very pleasant feeling. By process of elimination, I now watch nothing but news," she said.
Riina first realized she was gay when she was 12 years old. She was in her sixth year of elementary school and noticed that the people she had feelings for belonged to the same gender she did. But that’s all she knew.
"I thought that the fact that I liked girls meant I was really a boy, and thought I should try to accept that," she said. "But the clothing I liked and everything other than my sexual orientation was female, nothing else was unusual. I figured that meant I must not have Gender Identity Disorder, and so I felt perplexed."
Then Riina went to middle school and started using the Internet. In her second year, when she was around 14, she learned about homosexuality. She learned about the idea of sexual minority groups, and was finally able to understand herself. However, her new understanding did not mean her concerns disappeared.
"My parents said that the homosexual talents who appeared on comedy TV programs were unpleasant, and they looked down on them. I thought I was supposed to react the same way, and didn't say anything to them about it. When I realized I was like those talents, I felt a sense of rejection because that meant my parents would think I was 'unpleasant' too, and my self-respect was shattered."
Without anyone to show her tolerance or to talk things over with, Riina descended into apathy. She felt that life was no longer very enjoyable.
The turning point came during Riina's second year of high school, when she was 17. Surrounded by her conservative suburban family and schoolmates, her worries had been growing deeper each year, and she didn't know how to go about resolving them. Information was still difficult to come by. She consulted the books at her local library, but they weren't much help.
"My school's library had some books on the topic, but they were kept in the human rights section, directly in front of the checkout counter and it was hard to casually just go look at them," she said with a laugh.
"I tried to go there when no one was at the counter and not too many patrons were around," Riina continued, "but the contents of the books turned out to be rather old and said things like 'It's not an illness, so it's not contagious.'"
“I had thought the road ahead was completely dark.”
Fatefully, while gathering information on the Internet one day, Riina learned that there was a sexual minority group that met regularly in the town she lived in. She gathered her resolve and went to one of their meetings.
"That's when I realized that I wasn't the only person going through these things, and that there are all sorts of people within the blanket term 'sexual minority.' I gradually came to be able to accept myself for who I am," she reflected.
"I saw in everyone's stories that even though they were going through a hard time, at home or elsewhere, they were going about their daily lives with a smile," she added. "I had finally found a future to model my life on, and thought that maybe I could have a happy life even though I was part of a sexual minority. Until that point, I had thought the road ahead was completely dark."
For a long time, Riina hadn't been able to share much about herself at home or at school, but she recently came out to her close friends. Weighed down by her reluctance to participate in her friends' lively discussions about their love lives, Riina had been missing classes. Her friends gently asked what was going on, and before she realized it she told them.
"Telling them the truth was very scary, but their attitudes didn't change. On the contrary, they said things like 'Since we're good friends, I had wondered why it felt like there was a distance between us,'" she said. "Since I told them, our friendship has just gotten stronger."
At first, she only came out to her close friends, but afterwards she also told a teacher she deeply respects. The teacher, who Riina describes as good natured but uninformed, had a moment of panic when she heard her confession.
"It seemed they were very surprised to find a member of a sexual minority among their own students," Riina said with a wry laugh. "I still get along with that teacher, and I think telling them has been a catalyst for thinking about all sorts of things. I'm a third year student and I’m about to graduate, so I decided to tell my teacher because if I had ruined our relationship at this late stage, it wouldn’t have mattered that much."
Riina says she feels better with the support of her friends at school, but that she does not intend to come out to her parents.
"My parents often watch the news, and so they understand the current situation regarding sexual minorities and society," she said. "Yet, they have no inkling that anyone around them might be a member of such a minority.
“My parents would be the type to blame themselves and feel they made mistakes in how they raised me. Plus, they're counting on me having a regular wedding and giving them a grandchild," she continued. "Sometimes I think it would be easier if they lived their whole lives without finding out about me. Right now, I'm living in my parents' house and relying on my parents' money, and not being able to tell them the truth is difficult."
What is it Riina most needs from her school and the adults in her life?
"Even now, in our health textbooks it says, ‘When you reach puberty, you start having feelings for the opposite gender.’ In our home economics and health textbooks, the incumbent value system is that ‘A man and a woman marry and establish a household, and the woman gives birth to and looks after babies.’
"Even the teachers and counselors don't have information on sexual minorities," Riina added. "The health teacher knew about Gender Identity Disorder, but not much beyond that. In one area of the Kanto Region, an independent study group on the subject is growing, but it's limited to that one area for now."
"I don't want minorities to get special treatment. I just want them to be able to be a part of society and no longer feel alienated," she said.
Riina feels that seeds of change may be growing. "Our parents' generation feels strongly that when a woman marries, she spends her time at home, but I think that when people who are now in their teens and twenties become parents the differences between the sexes will decrease. Just recently, one of our female teachers gave birth and came back to work very soon afterwards. When the students heard that her husband had taken paternity leave to care for their baby, they became very excited and remarked that he was a cool husband. That story didn't seem to hit much of a chord with my parents, though."
Riina is looking ahead to next spring, when she will become a college student, and is studying for her exams. But already she knows that she will want to get a job in a tolerant workplace.
"I've been thinking that if it turns out the company that hires me isn't a good place for a minority, I would just change jobs, or start my own business, or work for an NGO making the world a better place with my own hands."
That doesn’t mean she’s not anxious about the future. However, a 40-year-old member of the sexual minority group Riina attends recently said something promising.
"They said they hadn't thought this much change would happen in ten years -- so I have hope that ten years from now, wonderful things will be happening."
Creating such a future, where young people like Riina can have hope and live in peace, is the responsibility of adults like us. Let's do it for Riina.
This story first appeared on HuffPost Japan. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.