Member Tiger Shigetake discusses embracing his identity and fighting to change attitudes toward Japan’s sexual minorities.
Standing before a room full of United Nations officials, Tiger Shigetake talked candidly about the bullying, the ostracization and all the other invisible hardships of growing up gay in Japan.
During Shigetake’s remarks, Japan’s ambassador to the UN rose from his chair, turned away from the dais and left the room.
“The moderator at the event told us not to criticize our countries,” says Shigetake, 22, of his speech at a UN summit in May 2017. “How do you talk about problems if you can’t criticize?”
Even today, the Member and fourth-year political science major at Sophia University is eager to take on the societal attitudes he spent most of his childhood helpless to change.
“I had to drop out [of elementary school] because the bullying was too intense,” says Shigetake, who has been openly gay for as long as he can remember. “Punching, kicking, that’s OK, but it’s the words that really hurt the most.”
To the casual observer, Japan may seem ahead of the curve on rights for same-sex and transsexual relationships. Save for a brief period in the late 19th century, Japan has no history of criminalizing homosexual partnerships. In 2015, Shibuya became the first Japanese ward to issue “proof of partnership” certificates to same-sex couples. Several municipalities in Japan have followed suit.
With Tokyo’s weeklong Rainbow Pride events set to kick off on April 25, activists like Shigetake aren’t shy about calling the certificates a half-measure toward full rights.
“Can we marry?” he asks. “No. So this was just an excuse as we see it.”
A compounding issue is the representation of gays, lesbians and transsexuals in the Japanese media. The popular, cross-dressing personality Matsuko Deluxe, Shigetake notes, is primarily featured on talk show panels for comedic effect.
“If sexual minorities are portrayed in a comedic way…in school people will say, ‘Well, if my son hangs out with you, my son’s going to become a joke, too,’” Shigetake says.
In 2019, Shigetake won the Mr Gay Japan contest but has since disavowed the title. Rather than working on the competition’s advertised aims of promoting LGBT rights and reinforcing a positive image of community figures, Shigetake found the event organizers prioritizing sensationalism over outreach.
“I signed up for Mr Gay Japan in agreement of doing activism,” he says, “but it was not at all what I expected.”
Time may bring the change Shigetake seeks. While just 39 percent of Japanese citizens over the age 50 view homosexuality positively, that figure jumps to 71 percent for ages 30 to 49 and 83 percent among Japanese under 30 years old, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey.
If those figures lead to a wider social acceptance of the LGBT community, it’ll be down to Shigetake and others who refuse to compromise on who they are.
“I hope more people can be allies,” Shigetake says. “Fighting for rights aside from your own is what really makes a difference.”
Words: Owen Ziegler
Image: Valeria Koxonov