“if there are more allies, there will be more people who feel that it’s OK to come out”

An ally of the LGBT community

Shibuya Ward Mayor Ken Hasebe

Text by Andrew Howitt

The mayor of Tokyo’s Shibuya ward, Ken Hasebe, is responsible for introducing to his district the partnership certificate, a non-legally binding marriage certificate for same-sex couples. Born and raised in Harajuku, Hasebe first worked for an advertising firm before founding an NPO, Green Bird, for picking up garbage and cleaning up different areas of Tokyo. In 2003, he became a member of Shibuya’s ward assembly, and was elected mayor two years ago. He spoke with Eurobiz Japan about his path to becoming an LGBT “ally” and the impact the partnership certificates have had.

Can you tell me how you came to take up the LGBT cause?

I think that “ally” would be the best word to describe my position today. But I haven’t always been involved in LGBT activism. I used to be quite ignorant.

People in the LGBT community are just regular people, but I didn’t have much experience of that reality until I actually started to meet them. After university, I got a job at an advertising company. There are quite a number of LGBT people in the advertising industry. I’d go to a photo shoot where the photographer, hairstylists, makeup people, and models were from the LGBT community, and I’d realise that I was the minority in the room.

After turning 30, I started the NPO Green Bird. The person who led the clean-up efforts in Kabukicho was F2M [female-to-male transgender man]. He explained that he had the body of a woman but the heart of a man, and wanted to become a man. A lot of boyish-looking girls also came to help with the cleaning, and I thought they must all be dealing with similar issues. It was then that it really hit me just how many people there are in the LGBT community. I’d heard that LGBT people made up at least 8% of the population but, suddenly, that 8% figure seemed to be too small.

I started thinking about whether there was something I could do as a politician. However, doing something about same-sex marriage is difficult at the local level since it involves playing with the family register system, which is the exclusive realm of the national government.

I’m married, and I remembered how taking our marriage registration to the ward office made my wife and I feel like we’d really gotten married. I asked the man leading the clean-up team in Kabukicho if it would make him happy to be able to get a certificate like that — even if it wasn’t recognised outside of the ward, or didn’t have any legal meaning. He told me that, yes, it would make him very happy, and I really took that answer to heart. That’s how, nine years ago, I started trying to figure out how we could issue those partnership certificates.

How were you able to start issuing same-sex marriage certificates in Shibuya?

I was the first to officially propose the idea to the ward assembly six years ago. Similar proposals had been suggested before that by human rights groups, but they were always solely from a human rights angle. Human rights issues are important, of course, but I felt that, if we thought about it from the perspective of how Shibuya could mature as an urban centre, then taking this kind of step would start to seem the natural thing for us to do. A lot of discussion followed.

Soon after the ordinance was adopted, I stood in the mayoral election and won. Once I became mayor, we started issuing the certificates. I got to put the finishing touches on this, after I’d been the first to propose the idea. It was a great privilege to be able to do this.

What kind of impact has this had?

One thing that’s happened is that an increasing number of municipalities are saying that they want to issue certificates, too, which I’m very glad about. It’s happened in Setagaya, Takarazuka, Iga, Naha, and, in June, it started in Sapporo. It’s significant that this began in government ordinance cities — big cities with over a million people. Since this happened two years ago, it has become a catalyst for people to start thinking about the fact that LGBT people are everywhere.

Many private companies are getting involved. Their level of participation has led insurance companies to consider accepting beneficiaries based on same-sex partnership certificates, which means corporate welfare programmes would apply to them. In the end, culture is something that’s shaped in the private sector, so it’s very significant that there is this kind of movement.

Since the certificates are not legally binding, what are the next steps to seeing same-sex marriage recognised in Japan?

If the country doesn’t make a move, nothing can get started. The issue is starting to be raised on a national level, and there’s a Diet members’ caucus focused on LGBT issues. I think it’s just a matter of “when”, but it’s difficult to predict exactly when that might happen.

What’s next for Shibuya?

What’s most important is to consider how we can make this movement take root here. We’re bringing in a manager to take charge of looking for ways to better connect with people, such as LGBT youth who are contemplating suicide, and building awareness among schoolteachers. We are also organising different educational activities, such as showing movies about LGBT issues as a way to increase awareness.

If we persist in doing these things, we can increase the number of “allies”. And if there are more allies, there will be more people who feel that it’s OK to come out. That will help make the LGBT community just another regular part of society. 

“What’s most important is to consider how we can make this movement take root”