Jessica Goodfellow
Sep 17, 2020

A Japan perspective: Culture and working life as a LGBTQIA+ person in the industry

In the second iteration of our LGBTQIA+ interview series, a Japan-based executive discusses his experience coming out to his coworkers, and aspects of religion and culture that disenfranchise the community.

A Japan perspective: Culture and working life as a LGBTQIA+ person in the industry

At Campaign Asia-Pacific we are always looking to broaden our regular coverage of diversity and inclusivity—and that means not just talking about the LGBTQIA+ community when Pride comes along.

In July we published an interview with two Asia-based individuals working in the technology industry that are part of the LGBTQIA+ community, who discussed their experiences being openly gay and trans at work and in their country. They also offered advice to businesses looking to create more inclusive environments.

After publication, several individuals reached out to us requesting more editorial content in the same vein—that explores personal experiences of diverse individuals rather than solely focusing on company intiatives. After all, company initiatives are fruitless if they are not developed with and supported by the employees they are designed for.

With that in mind, we have turned July's LGBTQIA+ interview into a series that we hope will, over time, paint a picture of what it is like to live and work as an LGBTQIA+ individual in Asia-Pacific. Our first profile was of two Thailand-based individuals, and each subsequent article will cover a different market.

Because LGBTQIA+ rights in some Asia-Pacific markets are still informed by deeply ingrained cultural beliefs, we expect the responses to be quite different. If you or someone you know would be happy to share their perspective, please get in touch, we'd love to hear from you.

Today's interview is with a Japan-based individual: Phil Howell, the director of operations at adtech firm SpotX. Howell identifies as a gay male who keeps an open perspective about the possibilities life has to offer when it comes to love and intimacy. He relocated to Japan in 2018 having spent most of his life in the US, so is able to provide a perspective on how his experience living and working as a LGBTQIA+ compares in the two different markets.

Campaign: What is your experience as an LGBTQIA+ person in the technology/business sector, have your colleagues/company ever made you feel uncomfortable being a LGBTQIA+ in the workplace?

I have felt comfortable throughout my career and been quite fortunate to have never experienced discrimination for my sexual orientation. Early in my career I was surrounded by other people in leadership positions who belonged to the LGBTQIA+ community and were public about their sexual orientation (before I was). Seeing my colleagues in leadership positions being open about their sexuality made me feel more comfortable/confident in being open too.

Do you believe the tech/business sector to be more or less inclusive than other sectors? Why?

In my experience working in ad tech, I have found myself engaged with customers and colleagues from all walks of life, different nationalities, ethnicities, ages and sexual orientations. So in that regard, the tech sector seems to be inclusive of a diverse pool of people. Since I haven't worked in other sectors, I do not have a useful opinion on how it compares.

Is there enough of a focus on LGBTQIA+ in existing diversity frameworks in Asia? We seem to be making progress on gender, but that is only one element of diversity.

Compared to the US where I have lived most of my life, it seems that Asia could do more to consider LGBTQIA+ frameworks. Perhaps more importantly, more focus should be placed on diversity frameworks in general, especially for minority groups (ethnic, national, religious, etc) who are probably more likely to be subject to harmful discrimination.

Have your colleagues/company ever made you feel uncomfortable being a LGBTQIA+ in the workplace?

No. But I certainly wouldn't mind if they tried in the spirit of fun! I am not easily offended and believe that anyone should be able to speak to me about my sexuality so long as their intentions are not mean-spirited or vindictive.

Do you try to find out more about a company’s LGBTQIA+ stance before accepting a job offer?

No, I do not view my membership to the LGBTQIA+ community as a discussion priority when considering prospective employers. I believe there are other aspects of a company that deserve greater attention when considering whether to accept a job offer. While my approach here is passive, I would still be interested to know a company's stance if they felt inclined to share.

What is your experience as an LGBTQIA+ person in Japan, and how, to your knowledge, do you think this compares to other markets in Asia-Pacific, such as very progressive markets like Taiwan, for example?

When I began my position in Japan, I was not ready to open up to my Japanese coworkers about my sexual orientation. With regards to my sexual orientation, my style is reserved when I'm in the early phases of getting to know someone. After getting to know each of my coworkers individually, I eventually came out and things continued on normally from that point. I have also told many new friends and never experienced any negative reactions.

I have little insight into how my experience might have translated in other Asian countries. From a demographic standpoint, other Asian countries have larger Muslim populations compared to Japan. A religious majority can have a lot of sway over public policy to the detriment of LGBTQIA+ equality. Driven by persistent action from LGBTQIA+ leaders, I hope Asian countries erode the aspects of religion/culture that disenfranchise people for being different.

Do you believe there are certain countries in APAC that are more accepting of the LGBTQIA+ community than others? If so, why? What do you think needs to happen in your own country to reach the same standards?

Certainly, as mentioned above it is clear that some countries like Taiwan stand out with regards to acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ community. I often consider how governments prioritise marriage/economic equality to be a good measure for how progressive a culture/country is on LGBTQIA+ issues. I visited Taiwan and spoke at length to a gay couple living there. This couple received their marriage certificate from the Taiwanese government. Our conversation left me with the impression that Taiwan has made and continues to make great strides towards advancing equality for the LGBTQIA+ community. The same possibilities do not exist in many other Asian countries, including Japan. Given that, I feel those governments are less progressive on the LGBTQIA+ agenda. The cultures and societal views on the other hand may not always reflect their government's policies.

In order for Japan to reach the same standards as other progressive Asian countries, leaders and people of influence in Japan's LGBTQIA+ community need to be respectful, persistent and disciplined in their efforts to elevate equality. Furthermore, those efforts need to be primarily focused on the issues of marriage/economic equality and attaining legal protections for harmful discrimination.

Do you believe your race has played a part in your experience as an LGBTQIA+ person in Japan?

When looking back on my time spent in Japan, I cannot recall any instances where race determined my outcomes or had any noticeable impact on my experience. I often find myself in public places where I am the only white person (especially nowadays!).  Coming from the US, living in a society as a minority was a novel experience. But after a while it became a total afterthought.

I have been treated with exceptional hospitality and kindness during my time living in Japan. Rather than race, I have come to learn that language ability, politeness and having a generally positive disposition, among other things, are more considerable factors in determining the quality of experience here.

When it comes to LGBTQIA+ acceptance more broadly, what progress have you seen being made (for example, more LGBTQIA+ representation in media), and where is there still progress to be made?

I often think about the successful TV show Ru Paul's Drag Race as a symbolic measure of progress for the LGBTQIA+ community. The show has become mainstream and reaches audiences from all walks of life. Influencing culture through entertainment—especially entertainment that thoughtfully considers and showcases the challenges and struggles faced by members of the LGBTQIA+—seems to be a positive way to create a society that is more comfortable with diverse lifestyles. If people are generally more comfortable with member of the LGBTQIA+ community, equality will be more likely to be a shared goal. Many times, though, it seems that LGBTQIA+ voices are relegated to non-mainstream media or to media that don't reach a diverse audience outside of their group. For real progress to be made, LGBTQIA+ leaders should strive for a voice in media that reach audiences outside of their own community.

What advice would you give businesses looking to create more inclusive environments for people across the LGBTQIA+ community?

I think it all starts with the online presence, especially the company's primary website. The online presence is often someone's first impression of a company and it is critical to reach people with a positive message from the beginning. If companies consider adding a diversity dedicated section to their websites, it would demonstrate to prospective employees what type of work culture they can expect and hopefully foster a more diverse group of job seekers.

Do you think the government or corporations play a bigger role in improving LGBTQIA+ equality in your market and in workplaces?

While both institutions have a critical role to play, and while both institutions influence each other, governments play a bigger role in improving LGBTQIA+ equality. Laws hold companies accountable for their practices and ensure fairness across the board; companies do not have the broad brush to impact equality with the same scale.

Furthermore, government policy impacts equality outside the workplace. For example, government policy determines who we can marry and what groups receive economic benefits whereas company policy plays no direct role in those determinations. So while companies can certainly foster a more hospitable environment for LGBTQIA+ employees and exist as a force to drive forward policy change, the government itself is responsible for whether or not those changes are implemented.

We understand LGBTQIA+ individuals may have different experiences to those described above. We would love to hear from you, wherever you are based. We understand the sensitivities of talking about being LGBTQIA+ in certain markets, so we are happy to run anonymous commentary. Please reach out to the editorial team or share feedback on the website.


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