TV & Radio
Wednesday May 30, 5:35 PM
INTERVIEW - Lesbian politician hopes to make Japanese history
TOKYO (Reuters) - Kanako Otsuji hopes to make history by becoming Japan's first openly lesbian national lawmaker.
Backed by the main opposition party in a nation so conservative that many gays prefer to stay in the closet, Otsuji, 32, would become the first openly gay politician of either sex if she wins a seat in parliament's upper house in a July poll.
A decade ago, she would have been shunned by major political parties, so the simple fact she will run with the backing of the Democratic Party shows progress, Otsuji says.
"Japan still isn't a place where people can come out, so many citizens don't know we are living right alongside them, or what we are suffering," Otsuji told Reuters in an interview.
"People who can come out should become visible, enter politics and gain wider understanding. Then concrete things like anti-discrimination laws will follow."
Otsuji, who served as a local legislator in the western city of Osaka for four years until April, said standing up for gay rights is more important than ever as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeks to revive traditional values under his slogan of "Beautiful Country, Japan".
"'Beautiful Japan' is a moralistic way of pushing one model and one form of ideal family, but the fact is that there are many different types of family in today's Japan and the more you do this, the more people will be oppressed," she said.
"Japan needs a society where differences are recognised as a form of affluence. To create this, we need minorities like me, who know society's pain, to be in parliament."
Otsuji said she didn't suspect she might be a lesbian until she turned 18, and that the pain and isolation of the five years until she accepted herself eventually led her to enter politics.
"Why did we have to keep on hiding ourselves like this? Why could we only be our true selves in bars?" she said.
"I began to wonder how I could change this so children of the next generation won't have to go through what I did," she added, speaking at her campaign office in Shinjuku Ni-chome, an area on the western side of Tokyo with several hundred gay bars.
Elected to the Osaka legislature in 2003, she helped change laws to make it easier for same-sex couples to rent public housing. She also fought unsuccessfully last year to keep a Japanese city from amending a rare law that had explicitly banned discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation.
Otsuji came out as a lesbian in 2005. In her autobiography, "Coming Out: A Journey to Find My True Self", she said: "I thought I could give courage to the most people this way."
Her constituents seemed not to mind, but she decided not to run again last April because a revision of legislative districts had reduced her chances of winning.
Early this month, the Democrats officially recognised her as a candidate for the upper house election.
The party decision, which she lauded as "courageous", faced some opposition from people who worried it might lose conservative votes. Some Internet sites have also criticised her.
Japanese media are taking sexual minority issues more seriously these days -- both TV programmes and a comic have dealt with transsexuals in the past year. But social acceptance remains limited and gays are still often shown as comic relief.
Otsuji remains optimistic, noting Japan has no religious prohibitions against homosexuality and that change often comes fast once it begins.
Supporter Mitsuo Fukushima, who heads of a group to promote Ni-chome, said Otsuji's candidacy will help speed that change.
"Having a role model that can be accepted is very important," he said. "Sexual minorities aren't only comic, they're just ordinary people right near you."