More than 4,500 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from around the world descended on Harajuku, Tokyo, for the inaugural Tokyo Rainbow Pride, themed “Power of Rainbow,” on April 29. Not just a first for Tokyo, this marked the first pride event where members of OutServe – Japan could participate openly following the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
Among the 2,500 who marched in the parade, 12 were members of OutServe, marching proudly, holding banners with the OutServe logo and waving to those watching along the parade route.
“It was just awesome to come out here and to march with OutServe and be out and proud with my girlfriend and have a good time,” said Brittany Barlow, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force stationed at Yokota Air Base, Japan.
While the fight for LGBT rights in the U.S. is a hot topic from the political arena to the dinner table, the struggle for LGBT equality is still new to Japan. One example would be the fight for equal marriage rights. While some would say nationally endorsed gay marriage is still a long way off in the U.S., there isn’t even an open dialogue on the topic among the political leadership in Japan, let alone a roadmap to eventual policy change.
The struggle for recognition and equality in Japan is only just beginning, because to exact change, the LGBT community first had to be heard.
The Tokyo Rainbow Pride volunteer organization was founded in 2011 with a goal to create a sustainable yearly event to raise awareness of the LGBT community. While there have been pride events in Japan in the past, most notably a parade in 1994, the political and cultural climate in Japan at the time could not support them as annual events.
On June 6, 2011, Japan representatives on the United Nations Commission on Human Rights supported a resolution supporting human rights of the LGBT community, ultimately winning the resolution 23 to 19. According to the Tokyo Rainbow Pride website, the organization hopes to continue the push for rights endorsed by the UN commission.
While organized by Japanese citizens, Tokyo Rainbow Pride welcomes support from the international community.
“We are making conscious efforts to ensure that everyone can participate and get involved,” said Lauren Anderson, Tokyo Rainbow Pride spokesperson. “The bonds of shared experience and solidarity with the international community in Japan only empower us with the collective aim of seeking equality in love for all.”
The OutServe members who came experienced this empowered sense of community, and were welcomed into the parade itself. Event organizers expressed their appreciation of those who marched as well as the LGBT and straight spectators and supporters from the various bases around the greater Tokyo metropolitan area.
“The Participation of U.S. service members helps send the message to the public that there are people who identify as [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered] in every profession,” said Anderson. “The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has been a major breakthrough, not only for LGBT members in the military, but for the entire LGBT community. Fighting inequality in government legislation and winning is a fantastic achievement.”
The service members themselves earned notoriety last year during Operation Tomodachi, meaning Operation Friend, which was the relief effort following the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami which ravaged the Northeast Coast of Japan on March 11, 2011.
“In the days and weeks following the devastation in Tohoku, military forces were quick to the scene, helping with the relief effort,” said Anderson. “The stories and images surrounding Operation Tomodachi have fostered a profound sense of community and friendship. The participation of service members in the parade helps to strengthen the bonds that were cemented during the relief effort.”
Overall, the event and parade were considered a success, attracting worldwide media attention and guest speakers including Japanese politicians Taiga Ishikawa and Wataru Ishizaka, the first two openly gay politicians to be elected in Japan, as well as Aya Kamikawa, the only openly transgender official in Japan. Donations collected totaled to more than 500,000 yen, or approximately $6,300 to be put toward next year.
The Tokyo Rainbow Pride committee will continue to hold the event and parade at the beginning of Golden Week, a Japanese holiday week, each year, and hopes to attract 50,000 over the next five years.