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In July, Shinjiro Atae, a 34-year-old Japanese pop star, made an unexpected declaration onstage in front of 2,000 fans: He came out as gay. In Japan, a conservative country that has not legalized same-sex unions, his announcement stunned the crowd.
But not Motoko Rich, a reporter in the Tokyo bureau of The New York Times, who was seated in the audience. The day before, Ms. Rich had visited Mr. Atae at his sister’s apartment in Tokyo. The two sat on the floor and, for an hour and a half, discussed how he came to terms with his sexuality. Mr. Atae told her that it was his recent move to the United States that persuaded him to come out publicly.
“He was very open,” Ms. Rich said in a recent interview. “He talked about living in Los Angeles and learning that there was another way to be in the world.”
In recent months, Ms. Rich has covered other pivotal moments for Japan’s L.G.B.T.Q. community, including the passing of a contentious bill aimed at tackling “unfair discrimination.” Here, she explains the significance of Mr. Atae’s public declaration and why the new bill, in some ways, still falls short of real change. This interview has been edited.
How conservative is Japan?
Given that Japan is a member of the G7, an international group of democracies, it’s surprising to me that the country is so behind the times.Here’s one example:Before the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, the International Olympic Committee issued a charter that said it would not accept any discrimination on the basis of race, gender or sexuality during the games. People hoped that the charter would help shine a light on Japan, since the country does not have anti-discrimination laws that protect the L.G.B.T.Q. community. A conservative lawmaker in Parliament even pushed for an anti-discrimination bill, but it didn’t get enough support.
Later, when it was announced that Japan would host the G7 summit this year, Japan’s Parliament passed an anti-discrimination bill, but it watered the language down; the bill said that Japan would not accept “unfair discrimination.” It left the door wide open for interpretation. This is the landscape that people like Shinjiro Atae have to deal with. It’s also part of why his coming out was a big deal. No one of his stature had ever done that before, according to activists.
What was it like being in the auditorium during his announcement?
When he came out, the room was silent. Everybody was shocked. Then he went on with his speech and talked about struggling with his sexuality. Fans started yelling: “We’re here for you” and “We love you.”
Shinjiro later pointed to members of his former band, AAA, at the back of the auditorium and everybody just fell apart. For many of his fans, it was like seeing the Beatles. Shinjiro had overwhelming support, even though he and his mother were very worried that he could be attacked. My colleague Hikari Hida and I interviewed some fans who were clearly uncomfortable with his announcement. One woman admitted that if somebody told her they were gay, she would feel uncomfortable, but that she loved Shinjiro and wanted to support him.
Do you think his coming out will change things?
One point about Japan that a lot of people have made is that it is a place where change happens slowly. Japan is influenced by far right-wing religious groups that have infiltrated the Liberal Democratic Party, which controls the country. There are a lot of social and political forces that prevent change from happening.
Japan’s population is among the world’s oldest. When the people who might hold more conservative views pass on, I think things will change.
You recently covered the decision of Japan’s Supreme Court to lift a restroom restriction at work for a transgender woman. What did that case involve?
The ruling stemmed from a situation involving a transgender woman who was forced to use a bathroom at work that was several floors away from her office. Now she is allowed to use a closer bathroom and one that is in accordance with her gender identity. It was definitely a sign of progress for the L.G.B.T.Q. community, in the same way it would be if Japan’s Supreme Court legalized same-sex unions.
As a reporter in Tokyo, what are some of your greatest challenges?
In Japan, it takes a lot of time to find people who are willing to speak with me on the record. But once people agree to speak, I find that they confess a lot because nobody has ever asked them about sensitive subjects. As a journalist, it is always a privilege to have people discuss their most intimate thoughts and difficult moments. I feel so grateful to people who are willing to share their stories. But I know how infrequent that is because so many people know that they may pay a high price if they tell the truth.