Taiga Ishikawa is not the first member of Japan’s LGBT community to win elected office in a deeply conservative country few politicians have done more to promote marriage equality, tolerance for lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgendered people orHIV awareness there.
First elected to local government in theToshima-ward of Tokyo in 2011, Mr Ishikawa sought changes to Japan’s marriage laws that would recognize same sex unions between Japanese and foreign nationals when they were officiated in countries where it was legal. In a county where isolation and loneliness are a perennial problem for many his support group, Peer to Peer, offers care and community to LGBT people with few friends to lean on.
On Friday the Bangkok-based HIV/Aids outfit APCOM, awarded Mr Ishikawa the ShivanandaKhan Award for Extraordinary Achievement in recognition of his 20 years of activism aimed at improving the lives of LGBT people across Japan and throughout Asia. The award is named after the late Shivananda Khan, APCOM’s founder. I caught up with MrIshikawa for a brief Q&A.
Q: As Japan's first openly gay politicians to win election do you feel any extra responsibility to be successful?
A: When I won, there were transgender member of city assembly, former lesbian member of prefecture assembly. I was the first openly gay male politician. So, I was a bit nervous. Not because I was the first gay politician, but because I do not represent all gays, as many people saw it.
Q: How important was your sexuality when you were first campaigning in 2011? And what about now? Have other openly LGBT politicians followed your lead?
A: I have been engaged in LGBT's rights activities since 2000 and have also appeared on (the public broadcaster) NHKin Japan. So, a lot of people knew my sexuality. However, in the electioncampaign, rather than talking only about LGBT issues, we campaigned on issues related to welfare and the progress of shopping districts in a well-balanced manner.
Q: How do you think people see you as a politician? Have you had any unpleasant experiences in public life?
A: When I joined a primary school entrance ceremony, a teacher asked me, "What grade is your child in?" She assumed I am heterosexual, married, and had children.”
Q: As a politician who is gay how do you convince heterosexual voters to consider LGBT issues to avoid skepticism that you are pushing an agenda. I guess I’m asking, how do you convince people to listen to your arguments based on their merit and ignore your sexuality?
A: To straight people I speak in terms that are not just a matter of LGBT, but as something that they can relate to. So, in Japan, 8% of people are thought to be LGBT. So that means it’s likely that you may have a close friend, a relative or even a son or daughter who is LGBT. Or maybe your own child is bullying an LGBT classmate because he isn’t aware of the importance of tolerance and so on. It is said that a society where minorities find it easy to live in is a society that is easy for the majority to live in, too.
Q: How would you evaluate the status of gay rights in Japan? What are some of the big issues facing LGBT Japanese?
A: We’ve gained a lot of things compared to 20 years ago. However, discrimination in Japan is often invisible. So, the problem is that the existence of LGBT is rarely acknowledged within the social system
Q: What are some reforms you would like to see introduced that will help LGBT Japanese?
A: Civil partnership is effective not only for the people applying for them but for city officials to acknowledge that there are LGBT people in their city! Private company initiatives will also help transform society.
Q: I've read some comments from right wing politicians that LGBT couples are "unproductive" or being gay is a "hobby". To a foreigner these comments seem mild or maybe laughable but in the Japanese context they expose deep seatedintolerance toward homosexuals in Japan. Do the views of those politicians represent the views of the majority?
A: They are speaking to incite some nationalists. In Japan, there are many citizens who support gay marriage in opinion polls. However, there may be many people who have the same idea as the LDP 's old members who are still have a lot of influence in Japanese politics of Japan.
Q: What are your own plans? Will you remain in local politics or will attempt to enter parliament?
Q: I announced in November that I plan to run for the elections to the House of Councilors (upper house of parliament) to be held next summer. I’ve joined the opposition, Constitutional Democratic Party.