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Interview: Rath Wang on LGBT Inclusiveness at Workplaces in Japan

Rath Wang in professional attire of white shirt and black coat. His hands are crossed, and he is smiling. The image is from the torso up.

Rath Wang is a founding member of Nijiiro Diversity (Rainbow Diversity), Japan’s first non-profit organisation promoting LGBT equality in the workplace. He leads the Ernst and Young Unity Network for LGBT employees and allies in Japan. Rath appeared at number 4 in the OUTstanding and The Financial Times 2015 listing of The Top 30 LGBT Future Leaders.

In this e-mail interview, Rath talks to Shaifali Agrawal, our volunteer at TARSHI, about LGBT inclusiveness at the workplace in Japan, efforts of the country’s first inter-company alliance for LGBT and Allies networks called LGBT Finance and what it does, and what the future looks like for LGBT people at the workplace.

Shaifali: How do traditional Japanese cultures view LGBT issues? Has the scenario changed much in modern Japan? If so, how?

Rath: Unlike the West, Japan has historically been more receptive of LGBT people, especially of same-sex relationships, in traditional medieval culture. However, with deeply ingrained Confucian familial obligations of continuing the family lineage by having sons, grandsons, great-grandsons, and with the country adopting Western values with the advent of industrialisation – Japanese culture stresses on specific family roles and social harmony that often are less receptive to the ‘non-traditional’ roles that LGBT individuals are usually associated with.

With recent initiatives by some local governments, including the issuance of same-sex partnership certificates for limited purposes (mainly around local housing arrangements/co-habiting with renting property, hospital visitation rights, plus some insurance benefits), public acceptance and media attention is improving. Also, the percentage of people who self-report to be LGBT has increased from 5.2% in 2012 to 7.6% in 2015 (Dentsu nationwide survey) in a span of several years, and public support of homosexuality is now at a near majority.

Shaifali: What inspired you to found Nijiiro Diversity in 2012?

Rath: When I received the opportunity to find a support group during my university, and at my first employer, Lehman Brothers, I realised it was important to help others be their true selves at their workplace – the place where they spend the majority of their lifetime.

Shaifali: Nijiiro has delivered diversity and inclusion training to a range of multinational corporations and foreign-based companies in the country, including Sony, Shiseido and Nomura. How welcoming are people in Japan of the efforts of global corporations?

Rath: Japan, in many cases, is receptive to change once it becomes or is perceived as part of the mainstream. As LGBT issues are increasingly perceived as a part of everyday life and not that of a small minority, the Japanese people appear to have become more accustomed to the idea of LGBT individuals. This has also been aided by progress around the world, especially the US Supreme Court’s landmark ruling on marriage equality, and the amount of coverage it has received in Japan.

Shaifali: How inclusive are Japanese corporations when it comes to LGBT employees?

Rath: While some firms have taken longer than others, the general response has been extremely positive. Enacting change takes more than a day or two, and given that Japan has a consensus-based and highly risk-averse culture, decisions of change are only made when most, if not all, leaders are on board.

Therefore, when firms show support for LGBT inclusiveness and employees, the move is often boldly visible and public. There has been considerable recent progress, including one of the largest manufacturers, Panasonic, announcing recognition of same-sex unions. Although LGBT-inclusive firms in Japan still amount to only several hundred, the speed with which firms are embracing LGBT inclusiveness is rapidly increasing.

Shaifali: How much, statistically and socially, have things changed over the years for LGBT people in the workplace in Japan? How effective have workplace alliance networks and support groups proven to be?

Rath: As I’ve said, acceptance has been gradually increasing over the last decade and even more so this past year.  Though domestic partnerships are not yet recognized at the national level, a number of local governments’ have issued certificates recognising same-sex partnerships as equivalent to marriage, as mentioned earlier.

LGBT Finance (Ernst and Young, EY, is an active member), the first inter-company alliance in Japan for LGBT and Allies networks has been phenomenal in facilitating best practices, implementation of LGBT-inclusive policies, cultural change, as well as increasing the visibility of support for LGBT individuals and the community through co-event sponsoring and co-advocacy on a wide range of issues in political and corporate spheres.

Shaifali: Is there any difference in the policies for LGBT people at EY and their implementation between its branches in Japan and those in the West, because of cultural differences?

Rath: As with many other global firms, EY has a strong corporate culture that puts an emphasis on valuing and including differences in all aspects, both visible and invisible. Likewise, EY also takes into account local cultural aspects and sensitivities in countries that it operates in, while ensuring that its employees are comfortable and free to be themselves to the extent possible. EY is proud to be a member of LGBT Finance, a network comprised of companies perceived as the leaders of LGBT inclusiveness in the country.

Although EY has achieved milestones in implementing anti-discrimination policies and LGBT-inclusive benefits, sponsorship of major LGBT community events, and being the only Big Four professional services firm in the country to have an LGBT and Allies network, there is still much room for progress around advancing inclusiveness from within and with clients and other stakeholders.

Shaifali: Several other global corporate organisations, like Barclays and MasterCard have also had diversity and inclusiveness efforts put in place in their branches across Asia. How hopeful are you of the future? What is the biggest struggle, according to you, that still needs to be overcome?

Rath: With a few exceptions, there has been considerable progress in Asia on visibility and social acceptance of LGBT people. Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong and many other countries in the region have introduced recognition initiatives or at the very least started discussions in making lives easier, and alleviating discrimination against LGBT individuals. Therefore, I am personally very hopeful of progress in future years to come.

Some of the largest areas that require attention are social acceptance (especially in the family and workplace) of LGBT relationships, and creating a place where individuals are comfortable to be open about their sexual orientation without the fear of being isolated or rejected. A key factor in realising this is having visible role models, which is currently almost unseen in Japan. Companies here can start by raising awareness of LGBT inclusiveness first by gaining more ‘active’ allies – especially at the C-suite and executive level. Senior leadership can regularly and effectively advocate the importance of being one’s authentic self. They can also influence policies and employee benefits such as introducing same-sex couple benefits, and ultimately, create a culture that is inclusive of LGBT people so that more employees, including LGBT leaders, can feel comfortable to ‘come out’.