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6 Aug 2007

new beginnings for gay movement: kanako otsuji

Despite her loss, Kanako Otsuji is upbeat that her candidacy will give rise to a new movement dedicated to gay rights advocacy in Japan. She speaks to Fridae's Tokyo correspondent Kimberly Hughes in an exclusive interview.

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In the wee hours of Jul 30, the scene outside Kanako Otsuji's campaign office in the heart of Tokyo's famed gay district of Shinjuku ni-chome was a sober one. Despite the overall resounding success of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in defeating the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), it became clear as votes were tallied that Otsuji would not be amongst those in the DPJ landing a seat in the Upper House of Japan's National Diet. When the loss was confirmed, many campaign supporters broke down in tears.

Kanako Otsuji became Japan's first openly gay politician when she was elected to the Osaka Prefectural Assembly in April 2003 at the age of 28 - making her the youngest person ever to be elected to the Assembly. From the top: Otsuji speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan in June 2007; she was an Asian Junior taekwondo champion and only just failed to make team Japan at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games (the image was used in some on some of her campaign flyers); and Otsuji on the campaign trail in Tokyo's Shinjuku district.
"This was a defeat for the sexual minority community in Japan, and it was unbelievably painful," Otsuji told Fridae in a telephone interview last Tuesday evening. "But at the same time, this is also an exciting time of historical new beginnings for us as a movement."

As a politician in Osaka's prefectural assembly, where she earned a strong reputation for supporting LGBT and other minority communities, Otsuji was handpicked by the Democratic Party of Japan in a strategic move aimed at deliberately wooing the gay vote. For this reason, her entire campaign platform - from every speech to every flyer - openly declared her sexual orientation.

Since the beginning of Otsuji's campaign, the obstacles seemed to loom large from all directions.

"LGBT people in Japan have what is known as a 'political allergy,'" she explained, referring to Japan's famously complex and obscure political process that most citizens find intimidating - as well as the aversion toward governmental policies that many sexual minorities have found to be especially exclusionary and punishing. "And on the other hand," she continued, "many of those in the mainstream here still have no real understanding of homosexuality other than the simplistic sexualised image of two people of the same sex together in bed. This likely negatively impacted my campaign amongst straight voters as well. "

One major aim of Otsuji's campaign was to draw attention to the fact that the human rights of many people living in Japan - including but not limited to sexual minorities - are not being protected by Japan's present administration.

"I will work toward eliminating existing disparities and discriminatory attitudes in our society so that everyone may live freely as they are," stated one of her campaign pamphlets.

Following the election, Otsuji touted this strategy as having been a successful one. "Human rights for LGBTs and other minorities were not even on many peoples' radar screens," she told Fridae. "But my campaign put it out there as a viable issue that people in mainstream society could really connect with."

Otsuji's campaign also infused fresh energy into the LGBT rights movement itself. Her campaign offices in both Tokyo and Osaka were constantly filled with the comings and goings of community volunteers learning the ropes of political campaigning, and several online communities were devoted to galvanising support for her campaign. These included a sub-community within Japan's popular "mixi" social networking site with nearly 1000 registered members titled "Go for it, Ottsun!" - referring to Otsuji by her affectionate nickname - as well as a supporter blog and even a site for her supporters who remained closeted about their sexuality.

Numerous events were also held throughout Otsuji's candidacy whereby she offered down-to-earth explanations of the confusing political process to LGBT individuals and allies - who in turn voiced their needs and concerns in the hopes that she would be able to take them with her to the National Diet. One such gathering was held at a Tokyo lesbian resource center in early summer, where the atmosphere was intimate, laid-back, and often emotional.

"This society has told us too many times that we are meant to be the object of shame," Otsuji told those gathered as she fought back tears. "Well, I believe the time has come to let people know that we are nothing to be ashamed of."

At the same gathering, one woman in her 50's said poignantly, "I've continued to vote in every election for candidates whom I thought might repay some of the sacrifices that I have made in this country as a woman and as a lesbian, but I have been disappointed every single time around. This time, I truly hope things will be different."

Despite Otsuji's loss last Sunday, the rallying of LGBT individuals around her candidacy has provided the basis for a fledgling community movement based upon advocating for sexual minority rights in Japan.

"Even though our movement didn't work for winning the election this time, the network between LGBTIQ and friends became stronger than ever," said Eri Nagai, a graduate student in Tokyo majoring in queer performance who worked on Otsuji's campaign.

Asked about her next step, Otsuji told Fridae that she is firmly committed to working toward the passage of a domestic partnership law in Japan that will enable same-sex couples to receive the same basic rights as their heterosexual counterparts. "I had hoped to be able to do this within the National Diet but I will still continue to do whatever I can from the outside—perhaps in some sort of lobbying capacity."

In the more immediate future, Otsuji plans to appear in the upcoming Tokyo Pride Parade on Aug 11, where she will likely be sharing a float with lesbian-oriented organisations, including several community resource centers, cafés, and bars. She will also make an appearance at the Ni-chome Rainbow Festival - a showy affair featuring numerous queer performers that is scheduled for the day after the parade.

Otsuji also plans to continue her work encouraging human rights for sexual minorities overseas, for which she has proven a consistent supporter. She directed a documentary film titled No Border that screened at the 16th Annual Tokyo International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival last month, which featured messages from activists around the world whom she interviewed during the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) conference held last year in Geneva. Otsuji also addressed audience members this past April at the "Asian Queer Film and Video Festival in 2007 Japan," where she spoke of the need to increase international solidarity between activists working in the area of sexual minority rights.

"Ten years ago, who would have thought there could be an out lesbian in Japan backed by a major political party running in a national election?" Otsuji pointed out. "People in other countries where the situation is still bleak also shouldn't give up hope of a better day."

Reader's Comments

Comment #1 was deleted by its author
2. 2007-08-08 19:50
thats a taekwondo uniform. karate isn't in the olympics. taekwondo is.

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