Loretto Cunningham has had a rough day at work. A well-meaning colleague inadvertently revealed her sexuality to a senior member of staff at one of the primary schools in Tokyo where she teaches English.
The school was immediately supportive and reassured her that it changed nothing, but Cunningham, 29, who is originally from West Virginia and has lived in Japan for five years, does not like her private life being the potential subject of staff room gossip.
But whatever her own tribulations related to being a sexual minority in Japan, Cunningham knows that it is nothing compared to the pressures that face young people who are unsure of their sexuality or identify with the nation’s lesbian, bisexual, gay or transgender (LGBT) communities.
“There is so much pressure on young people in Japan and both students and teachers in schools here are still largely closeted,” she told This Week in Asia.
“The situation is very similar to the ‘don’t ask and don’t tell’ attitude in Japanese society in general, but these are children who have questions about being LGBT and they don’t have anyone to turn to for advice or support,” said Cunningham, who is president of the Japan chapter of Stonewall, the Britain-based charity that campaigns for rights for sexual minorities.
And those problems have arguably been worsened by regional boards of education that direct schools to be more open and inclusive towards LGBT students, but then provide no training or guidance to teachers or school counsellors.
The result has been that a number of pupils who have sought advice about their orientation have been “outed” against their will by well-intentioned teachers who shared their situations with parents or other students.
According to the newspaper Asahi Shimbun, there has been a sharp increase in the number of students seeking advice from specialist support groups after experiencing criticism from their own parents or ridicule from classmates.
According to a survey conducted by the education ministry in 2013, more than 600 students had spoken with a school official because they felt uncomfortable with the gender listed on their all-important family register at birth. That number, however, is believed to be a fraction of those who are experiencing gender issues but who are too afraid to come forward.
“LGBT has only recently become an issue in Japan and there have been a number of high-profile public awareness campaigns and events that have been featured on TV, so things are changing here,” said Cunningham.
“It has been the same in schools; the authorities have come up with some good ideas, but they have just been implemented horribly,” she added.
The guidelines that are being issued are not requirements of schools or teachers, so they have no power, says Cunningham. Teachers who are also of a sexual minority are wary of becoming involved in the campaign for fear of being “outed” themselves, while other teachers are reluctant because they have insufficient understanding of the issues and are being given no support by education authorities.
“Teachers are getting information but no training and not enough time, effort and money are being invested into getting teachers on board,” said Cunningham.
But Tomoya Hosoda, the first openly transgender man elected to public office in Japan, believes the situation is improving and that the lives of LGBT students will improve over time.
“Support systems have been introduced in schools in Japan, such as when LGBT students go on school trips, so things are becoming easier,” he told This Week in Asia. “At the moment, however, decisions on how these issues are handled are made at individual schools, so I believe we need to set up a unified system across the country.”
Elected in March to the city council of Iruma, in Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo, Hosoda, 25, campaigned as a transgender man and made diversity a main theme of his political platform.
“My main policy is to acknowledge diversity, and that is everyone from older people to children, women and men, people with disabilities, sexual minorities and others,” he said.
Hosoda also believes that more efforts need to be made to make sure children are not exposed to discrimination and, consequently, discriminate against others themselves. “We believe that children are able to respect human rights as a person and can nurture the sense of individuality in others,” he said.
Hosoda wants to promote a better understanding of LGBT issues as a whole and, more specifically, among officials in Iruma City. He also wants to create a counselling service based at city hall where teenagers struggling with their sexual identity can seek advice.
“I want to see children who are suffering at present, because they have no one to talk to, smile again,” he said. “I want them to be able to look towards a brighter future with confidence and hope.”
He agrees that Japan’s outreach to LGBT children lags that of other nations.
“Teachers’ lack of knowledge of LGBT issues is a problem and, for some, it is still impossible for them to talk with LGBT students,” he said. “For now, I want teachers to listen to students’ feelings and make the best possible response.” ■