Bay Area Reporter by Matthew S. Bajko

Kanako Otsuji is a rare political voice for Japan's LGBT community. Last summer when she took to the stage at Tokyo's Pride festival and came out, she became the first out lesbian politician on the island nation.

Elected to the Osaka Prefecture in April 2003, Otsuji wasn't exactly in the closet. But no one had bothered to ask her about her sexual orientation, either, so she never publicly revealed it during her campaign.

"If someone had asked me if I was a lesbian I would have said yes. But no one asked me. If they asked me if I was married, I would say no," said Otsuji, speaking through a translator.

Technically, it was the truth. She and her partner, Maki Kimura, a member of her Assembly staff, are not able to marry. Once in office Otsuji decided it was time to break her silence about being gay, and in the words of another pioneering gay politician, give hope to Japan's LGBT community.

So the 31-year-old penned a book titled Coming Out: The Journey to Find Myself – it has sold 5,000 copies – and shined a spotlight on a topic still considered taboo in her country. She also jumped on a bullet train last August for the two and half hour ride east to take part in Tokyo's Lesbian and Gay Pride Parade. Otsuji decided to make her announcement there because Osaka, Japan's second largest city, does not host a Pride festival – though it does have a gay film festival – and it was the first time Tokyo's LGBT community had organized a Pride event in several years.

"If I was going to come out I wanted to come out to other gay people," said Otsuji during an interview with the Bay Area Reporter on June 26, the day after this year's San Francisco Pride Parade, in the lobby of the Vintage Court hotel. "I got about 300 e-mails from LGBT people. Most of them were very grateful but at the same time they also were concerned about me. There are very few people in Japan who are openly gay. People were afraid by publicly coming out I would be harassed."

As for any backlash to her decision, Otsuji said, "I may have received two or three e-mails and maybe two or three phone calls but that doesn't mean I am accepted either."

The true test of how accepting Japan's public will be of a lesbian lawmaker will come next April when Otsuji must run for office again. There is precedent for Japanese voters overlooking a candidate's sexual minority status – a transgender candidate won a political office in 2003.

Even more than her being an out lesbian, Otsuji's electoral chances have been complicated since her first campaign due to redistricting. When she ran the first time her district elected 10 people. Now the district is divided into six different districts with each electing two people to the Assembly. Not a member of the leading political parties, Otsuji said she is unsure if she can win a second term and may seek to run for a different office.

"Since I am an independent my chances are very low," she said. "If my district was still electing 10 people I would have been elected."

Powered by Pride

Visiting five American cities as part of a State Department-sponsored exchange, Otsuji's stay in San Francisco coincided with the annual Pride celebration. She took part in the Friday night Transgender March, participated in the pink triangle ceremony and met other Asian women at the Dyke March and rally Saturday, and watched the parade on Sunday.

She met one woman who thanked her for writing her book.

"On Saturday I met a Japanese woman who lives here. She told me her father read my book and could understand [her] better after reading it," recounted Otsuji, who traveled to Washington, D.C.; Buffalo, New York; Austin, Texas; and ended her trip in Seattle.

Along the way she met with fellow out politicians, including U.S. Representative Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) and local lawmakers Assemblymen Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and John Laird (D-Santa Cruz); Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Bevan Dufty; and city Treasurer Jose Cisneros. She also met Mayor Gavin Newsom whom she said, "was tall and handsome – like a model."

Asked what she thought when she learned about Newsom's decision to marry same-sex couples in 2004, Otsuji remarked, "I thought, 'Good, old San Francisco.'"

The most impressive aspect of her visit, she said, was the city's Pride festivities. Compared to the 3,500-person crowd at Tokyo's Pride, Otsuji said she was astonished to see hundreds of thousands of people at San Francisco's celebration.

"I was so surprised by how many gay and lesbian people there were," she said. "I was speechless by the fact that the San Francisco gay and lesbian community has so much support and so many different people are doing different things and everyone just lives naturally out, because there is discrimination and prejudice in Japan."

In Japan, she said, there are no laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation at the national level. In Osaka, she said there is a statute regarding human rights that includes sexual minorities, but it is not in the law itself.

"It's in the plan that is based on the law," she explained. "It was there before I joined the Assembly."

Since she came out, she has pushed the Osaka government to host a training for employees about LGBT issues and change the cohabitation policies in its public housing system.

"Previously, it was restricted to just families. Now you can live there with a friend. It is not at all the housing, but at some," said Otsuji. "Now same-sex partners can apply to live in the public housing buildings. I also confirmed in the Assembly that same-sex partners have access to visit their partners in the hospital."

Leading a second gay boom

Otsuji is hopeful that the future holds greater acceptance and positive changes for Japan's LGBT community.

"It is something that nobody can stop. My role is to speed up those changes," she said.

She sees her generation – which came of age during the 1990s when women's magazines published glowing accounts of gay men being a "fashionable presence" – as leading a second wave of public awareness about gays and lesbians.

"For lesbians in 1993 and 1995 two books were written in which lesbians came out. I read those books when I was 20. Now those of us in our teens during the first boom are creating a second boom," said Otsuji. "The issue of same-sex marriage is not on the political agenda in Japan. But I would like to work to put the issue of same-sex partnerships on the agenda in the next decade."

The first step she said is for more Japanese to come out. It is the same route to political power and social acceptance that her hero, former San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, constantly challenged this country's LGBT community to do.

"First, we have to create a society in Japan where more people can be out, otherwise people's mentalities won't change. People are not aware of the fact there are gay and lesbian people in their families, workplaces and at their schools," she said.

Unlike those gays and lesbians who opt to live outside Japan, Otsuji does not imagine herself leaving her homeland.

"LGBT people cannot choose where they are born, so if I go to San Francisco by myself the problems in Japan won't be solved," she said. "I'd rather change the city where I live to make it easier for other gay people to live like here in San Francisco."

Her guide is Milk, one of the first out gay men to hold public office in the U.S. and the first to serve openly on the city's Board of Supervisors.

"When I was 24 years old, I saw Harvey's movie and [read] his book. What I learned is if a politician has the will to change things and courageousness then things will change," said Otsuji. "Harvey gave that famous speech where he said you've got to give them hope. It really moved me; that's why I became a politician. The things that happened in San Francisco in the 1970s didn't just stop in San Francisco. They crossed the ocean and are influencing Japan as well."