A first conviviality center for the LGBTQ community opens Sunday in Tokyo, and activists hope that this initiative, linked to the next Olympic Games, will make a lasting contribution to combating prejudice and discrimination.
The Pride House (pride house) is similar to the temporary sites set up during previous Olympics. But it will also be a permanent space for exchange and information, with the aim of raising public awareness of sexual diversity and offering a refuge to victims of harassment or discrimination.
Although sexual minorities have some protections there, Japan remains the only G7 country not to recognize same-sex unions. Many of these couples also find it difficult to rent an apartment or obtain visiting rights at the hospital.
These problems show that places like the Pride House, set up in coordination with the organizers of the Tokyo Games, are needed in Japan, activists say.
“Japan, in sports circles and in all of society, including schools and workplaces, is not welcoming to LGBTQ people, and it is difficult to come out there,” told AFP Gon Matsunaka, responsible for the project behind the Pride House.
Although this center is set up as part of a recent Olympic tradition, the project is officially called “Legacy of Pride House Tokyo”, to go beyond the Games.
The place will be “an asset that could be a game-changer for the LGBTQ community within Japanese society,” Matsunaka hopes.
Coming out “unthinkable”
The first one Pride House, inspired by the tradition of Olympic pavilions for athletes and the public, was born on the occasion of the Winter Games in Vancouver (Canada) in 2010.
Similar temporary venues have also appeared at the London-2012 and Rio-2016 Summer Olympics, as well as other international sporting events such as the Commonwealth Games.
Faced with the impossibility of setting up a Pride House at the Sochi Winter Games in 2014, LGBTQ social spaces were set up outside Russia.
The Pride House from Tokyo has former athlete Fumino Sugiyama, who was on the women’s national fencing team before coming out as a transgender man, among its founders.
“When I was practicing fencing, it was unthinkable to come out in the world of sport, which was particularly homophobic,” recalls the 39-year-old activist.
“I was torn between playing the sport I love, without being able to be myself, and trying to be myself and having to stop fencing”.
Several stars of world sport have publicly asserted their sexual orientation, such as American football player Megan Rapinoe or British Olympic diver Tom Daley. But in Japan “not a single top athlete” has done it, regrets Mr. Sugiyama.
“Society has changed a lot”
In the Archipelago, some local communities, businesses and universities have changed their rules in recent years to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.
“Society has changed a lot, and the number of allies (of the LGBTQ community, editor’s note) is growing,” said Mr. Sugiyama.
“But there remains the fundamental problem of the lack of inclusion in the law of the rights of LGBTQ people, such as that of getting married”, he regrets.
Religions in Japan are relatively tolerant of homosexuality, and local celebrities are openly gay, but the coming out remains complicated outside the entertainment industry.
Activists have launched several legal proceedings, including against the government last year, over its refusal to recognize same-sex marriages. But there is still a long way to go.
Last year, for example, the Japanese Supreme Court upheld a 2004 law requiring transgender people to be sterilized if they wish to have their gender identity legally recognized.
For Mr. Sugiyama, it is important that the Pride House Tokyo remains open beyond the Olympics, because “LGBTQ people face little hassle or big problems every hour, 365 days a year.”