Definitely not the only gay in the village

Definitely not the only gay in the village

Tokyo's minorities finally find their voice in local politics

Wataru IshizakaIshizaka in a relaxed mood after his local election victory.The victory of an openly gay assemblyman in local Tokyo elections last April was feted by the world’s media, including the Huffington Post and the Advocate, as a groundbreaking event.

But what many reporters missed was that not one, but two gay councilmen were elected. There is also a gay assemblywoman in the city of Osaka, and a transsexual councilwoman in Tokyo.

All this should mean the tide is turning for Japan's sexual minorities, and when we spoke to 34-year-old Wataru Ishizaka -- the only open gay among the 42 winning candidates in Nakano Ward, western Tokyo -- he was indeed bright about the prospects.

Change is on the way, he says, but it will only come at its own, Japanese-style pace.

CNNGo: Japan is relatively advanced among Asian countries for its acceptance of gays, but still behind much of the Western world, would you agree?

Wataru Ishizaka: Yes there are good points about Japan. There’s not much bashing, though you can’t say there’s none. Still, you can say “I’m gay,” and even if people look at you strangely, you won’t get stoned.

CNNGo: Tell us about yourself.

Ishizaka: I was born in Tokyo and graduated in economics from university, then took an extra year’s training as a special needs teacher -- that’s been my vocation. I’m 34.

CNNGO: When did you come out?

Ishizaka: When I was 17 -- to my parents and close friends. My parents’ reaction was awful; things were horrible for about three years. But I hung in there, and now everything is fine.

CNNGo: How did they react to your election?

Ishizaka: They were very happy.

CNNGo: Has society changed a lot since you came out?

Ishizaka: Well, the Internet was not around then, though there were online bulletin boards. You could write things like, “Today I went out with so-and-so.” I found it interesting that many gays thought you shouldn’t do that, as it would expose the people you associated with.

Wataru IshizakaThe local community is of prime importance in finding acceptance in Japan.

I even had some people saying I created a nuisance by coming out. There are still many hidden gays, but no one says I created trouble by being out.

CNNGo: Have you met Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara?

Ishizaka: Not directly.

CNNGo: He wants to shut down [Shinjuku gay nightlife area] Ni-chome.

Ishizaka: Yes ... I’d like to meet him and find out exactly what he thinks is the problem with Ni-chome, and with gays. We’ve only heard from him that it’s “not a good image,” but if he went there and met and talked with people, I’d like to ask him then how he thinks things should change.

CNNGo: How did you decide to run?

Ishizaka: This is my second attempt, my first was in 2007. I’ve always been interested in social issues and politics, and my partner and I used to sometimes talk about running.

The elections would come around and there are always so many candidates, many from the same party, and as the candidates don’t reveal anything about their orientation, we thought it would be good to know where they stand.

We formed the Tokyo Metropolitan Gay Forum, which was actually just two of us, and we sent out questionnaires and put up the answers on our website, so people could know where their candidates stood on sexual minorities.

One thing that motivated me to run was that up until 2006 a lot of gay-unfriendly candidates were getting in, and also being a teacher, I was interested in working with the vulnerable and contributing to a society that’s more gentle to them, including sexual minorities.

Another thing was that in 2000 there was the killing of a gay middle-high school kid by a gang in Yume-no-shima Park in Shin Kiba, and there were also assaults on the homeless at that time; in 2006 there was another gay bashing at the same place.

Yet even so there were some in the gay community who just said, “You shouldn’t go to Yume-no-shima.” But what does that mean? That it’s okay to kill or bash?

So, I wanted to help make a society where that’s not okay, and I figured that working in schools alone was not enough. And I also want to help improve conditions in special-needs schools, such as wages and staff levels.

There’s not a whole lot I can do all at once over just four years in Nakano, but I can do something.

CNNGo: Tell us something you hope to achieve in your four-year term.

Ishizaka: First, something easy: find out the exact position of sexual minorities, the socially vulnerable and the handicapped in Nakano Ward, from a human rights standpoint.

For example, the difficulties in renting a home. It doesn’t cost much to research this, so it’s something that neither liberals nor conservatives should oppose.

CNNGo: You have to balance what you want to achieve with what’s practical -- given you’re spending tax money -- and I imagine you face some hardline opposition. How much influence can you have?

Ishizaka: At the very least, I can make our demands heard by everyone, from the hardline conservative Liberal Democrats to the more liberal Communists. There’s not a whole lot I can do all at once over just four years in Nakano, but I can do something.

There’s no reason to think there aren’t politicians with the same thinking as Governor Ishihara in the Nakano assembly. But I won’t change anything by going into it really loudly. I want to work on changing awareness.

For example there’s an elevator being put in at Nakano Station. Some people oppose the movement toward “barrier free” or “universal design” as a waste of money. But these things not only make life easier for the weak, they also make society better for everyone.

CNNGo: What are some of the biggest problems facing Japan?

Ishizaka: One is fear. My gut feeling is that the economically weak are more afraid of risking their livelihoods if they speak out.

CNNGo: What’s the biggest challenge facing Japan’s gays?

Ishizaka: You can have a legal victory; you can come out to your family, but there are cases when your acquaintances refuse to recognize you.

We call those people your “seken,” your “social neighborhood,” the people between your family circle and the outside world.

It’s a typically Japanese concept. People say that even if your parents support you, it’s meaningless if your seken refuses to acknowledge your existence. In those cases, who do you turn to?

Mark Robinson is a writer and editor based in Tokyo.

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