TV & Radio
Japan's first openly gay politician speaks up for nation's silent minorities
(IHT/Asahi: December 21,2005)
By NORIKO YAHIRO, The Asahi Shimbun
OSAKA--Kanako Otsuji was dumbfounded one night in late 2003 when a woman friend accused the newly elected assembly-woman of being a dilettante.
"What would you know about human rights and discrimination?" the friend asked of Otsuji, who had just won a seat in the Osaka prefectural assembly on a minority rights platform.
A few days earlier, Otsuji had raised issues facing minority people such as gays during a question period at the assembly.
"You've made it to the assembly in just one try. Your life has been breezing along without a hitch," the friend went on blithely.
Angered, Otsuji let it all out. "I'm a lesbian," she shot back. "That was me. I was talking about myself."
In early 2003 at age 28, Otsuji became the youngest person ever elected to the 110-member assembly. The representative for the city of Sakai, she is just one of seven women members.
Otsuji knew her four-year term was never going to be easy. But since her decision last summer to come out as a lesbian, however, the gossip and silent treatment in the chamber has tested her resolve.
In many other countries, the news that a public official has a different sexual orientation is no longer considered the stuff of bold headlines.
But in Japan, it's still uncharted territory. No other elected official here has ever openly admitted to being gay.
The day before her book, "Jibun rashisa o mitsukeru tabi" (Coming Out: A Journey to Find My True Self), published by Kodansha, hit bookstores on Aug. 13 this year, Otsuji says, newspapers had a field day with sensational headlines like: "Lesbian comes out with tell-all book."
Otsuji says she and her 30-year-old partner bought all the newspapers and pored over the printed reactions to her revelation.
During her 2003 campaign, Otsuji had spoken out in support of minorities, promising better representation for voters ignored by mainstream politicians. Her sexual orientation was not mentioned.
But she knew she eventually wanted to come out. In late 2003, she decided to announce she was a lesbian during question time in the prefectural assembly's end-of-year session.
Circumstances prevented that, however.
Her own office staff opposed the idea, telling her it would generate glaring headlines. "How are we supposed to cope with that?" they asked.
So, she compromised with a declaration that if she couldn't come out, she would at least speak out about minority issues during the question period.
"I want 21st-century Osaka to be a place where everyone can live their own way of life, and everyone can embrace each others' uniqueness," she said in her speech.
It was an emotional moment for her, bringing back memories of her college years at Doshisha University in Kyoto.
She had spent most of her time alone in her apartment, depressed, lonely and feeling different from everyone else.
Raised mostly in Kobe, the athletic Otsuji was on the karate team at high school. After graduation, she studied tae kwon do at Seoul University, hoping to go to the Olympics. When that didn't pan out, she returned to Japan and entered Doshisha.
She was 24 when she ventured to go on her first date with a woman. It was another year before she built up the nerve to tell her close friends and mother that she was a lesbian.
It was another four before she found herself blurting it out during that evening out with a small group of associates her own age, only days after her address to the assembly on minorities.
Otsuji realized then and there that "People won't understand any of this unless I come out about my own life."
She decided to go public and write a book. She signed a deal with Kodansha and her future was forever changed.
In February, when the next question session rolled around, Otsuji held a meeting for her supporters at her Sakai office and told them of her plans.
Intent on prepping them for the expected questions, she distributed reference materials on gay and lesbian issues.
One of the supporters refused to take them. "I'm uncomfortable with the idea of people discussing their private lives in the assembly," he told her.
In fact, most of her supporters were against her decision.
"You can't use a public forum--a place for discussing public policy--for your personal use," another supporter said. Others warned: "You're just going to get bashed by the media."
Months after that meeting, her Shuken Osaka assembly faction traveled to Kanagawa Prefecture on an inspection tour. She told her elected colleagues matter-of-factly, "I am publishing a book. And I will be announcing that I am a lesbian."
An uneasy silence followed, she says. One assembly member at least tried to be diplomatic, "Well, it's nothing new in the West."
Another worried: "What are we going to do if people think we are all (gay)?"
The months following her decision to come out, says Otsuji, were intense. She couldn't eat properly and worried constantly about how her revelation would be received. She also wondered what would happen to her political career. She even hired security to guard her office.
A day after her story broke, reality set in.
On Aug. 14, at a peace memorial service in Osaka, Otsuji expected some response from fellow assembly members, perhaps a few encouraging words or congratulations.
They said nothing.
Some officials, she says, avoided even looking her in the eye. She felt invisible.
Initially, the public response was frigid.
Many calls to her office were along the lines of, "Who cares what goes on in your bedroom?" and "We can't have an abnormal person in public office."
Some people even returned the newsletters her office had mailed out.
"(Otsuji) seemed to be wiped out (by the backlash)," a male prefectural assembly member said later.
"She had to make an effort to even speak to people," he recalled.
Another member described his inability to understand the issue. "I had never set eyes on a lesbian before. I didn't have an inkling what I should say to her," he admitted.
Otsuji had been warned of the potential fallout by Aya Kamikawa, a member of the Setagaya ward assembly in Tokyo.
Kamikawa was the first transsexual in the nation to be elected to public office in April 2003. She offered Otsuji much-needed support.
"(My office) was bombarded with nasty posters and people stormed the place," Kamikawa said.
"But you just have to keep on doing what you have to do. People will come around."
And slowly, people have, says Otsuji. She has received hundreds of e-mail messages, most of them encouraging, many from members of Japan's gay community.
A 22-year-old with a gender- identity disorder wrote: "It's awfully hard not being able to live my life the way I want to, although I've done nothing wrong. Your decision to come out gave me courage. Thank you."
A 26-year-old man wrote: "I want my parents to understand, but I can't take that final step. I feel you've given me the strength to go ahead."
In September, Otsuji had the honor of speaking at the assembly as a representative of her faction--her first such chance since taking office.
She told herself, "I shouldn't make this personal, I am speaking for the group."
But another assembly member, Tatsuya Doi, told her she ought to say more about her sexual orientation. "Your words carry weight as a first-person narrative."
On Oct. 5, Otsuji spoke to the assembly about cases in which same-sex couples were being denied apartments. She says she could feel assembly members stirring in their seats, whispering to each other as she spoke.
But, she says, she took a deep breath and persevered. "Solving the problems faced by minorities is one way to create a kinder society, one where everyone can breathe easier," she said.
同性愛公表 戸惑い・声援 尾辻かな子・大阪府議が著書出版 (朝日 2005/10/16朝刊)