Fighting For Recognition in Japan

Soshi Matsuoka campaigns to change LGBTQ portrayal in the media.

Photos by Jun Tsoboike

TOKYO — When 13 LGBTQ couples sued the Japanese government earlier this year, arguing for legal recognition of same-sex marriage, it made headlines around the world as a historic moment in the country’s journey toward equality.

But for the couples involved, it’s been a long journey – and one that legal experts say may last many more years.

The 24-year-old activist Soshi Matsuoka, founder of the human rights organization called Fair, is one of the campaigners behind the scenes. 

In a country where prejudice is still prevalent, Soshi has worked to publicize the landmark case and to create new guidelines around LGBTQ reporting in the media. As many as 60% of LGBTQ students report experiences of verbal or physical bullying at school and many chose not to come out publicly.

During a meeting at a cafe in Tokyo’s Harajuku district, Soshi described what it’s like to be young, gay and outspoken in a conservative country.

The conversation has been edited for clarity.

How did you get involved in activism?

When I started to open up about my sexuality in college, there was a clear line between my LGBT group and other friends, and I wanted to do something about that. I found a nonprofit organization that organizes lectures in schools about being LGBT, and I started helping out.

 

Why did you start Fair and what do you do?

Giving lectures was great but I knew that there were more problems in the suburbs… such as harassment in the workplace. So I wanted to work for legal protections because we still don’t have legal laws to protect the LGBT community in Japan.

What encouraged you to come out in public?

Gay people are just like you and me, normal folks. I wanted people to understand that.

In general, people have been supportive but there are some haters, especially online. There are many in the LGBT community who are very vulnerable. I’m happy to take those negative comments and even challenge those haters. I’d like to be a shield for those who are vulnerable in order to change society.

When did you realize you were gay?

By high school, I knew I was gay but I couldn’t come out. I didn’t want to lie but I couldn’t tell the truth. The only way was to make fun of myself because, when I was growing up, being gay was [ridiculed] or portrayed as funny. So it was either use humor… or hide.

I first came out right after high school to my close friends. It wasn’t like I was planning to do so or preparing for that. It just happened. They asked me straight up. I thought I was ready to tell them so I did. The reaction was calm. They said, “no big deal, you are you.”

What about your family?

I was in college. One day, my mom asked me if I had a girlfriend. When I tried to change the subject, she asked me, “Do you have a boyfriend, then?”

I was shocked she knew. But she was waiting for me to tell her the truth. She said, “it’s important for you to have someone by your side when you are sick, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a guy or a girl.”

After I came out, my mom got involved in LGBT issues and now she’s an activist herself, trying to figure out ways to educate people at an early age.

I didn’t come out [to my father] by myself. My mom did it for me. She thought he might know but he didn’t and he was very shocked.

For half a year or so, he was not comfortable hearing about my LGBT work. But one day, he started to accept me. He said he got used to the fact I’m gay.

He used to think being gay will be a big burden in my life. But as mom kept telling him my news with so much joy, he started to think, “maybe it’s not that big of a deal.”

Now, I bring my partner back home or take small trips together with my family.

I’m so blessed. Many of my friends have harder times.

Do you have any advice for those in the LGBTQ community who are struggling?

It’s easy to say, “just be yourself.” It’s beautiful. But so hard to do.

If you think you are strange because you are different, I want to tell you, it’s not strange at all.

Don’t deny yourself or your struggles. Cherish it instead. They will be your strength someday. Turn them into positive actions and be kind to others.

There’s no practical advice on how to navigate through life as an LGBT person because everyone is different.

But one thing I emphasize is to have allies who support you.

You are not alone.

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