Lauren Anderson: The Brit fighting for LGBT rights in Japan

GSN meets the girl from Liverpool who is committed to achieving equality for gays and lesbians in Japan and has become a key part of Tokyo Rainbow Pride

On a recent visit to Tokyo, Lauren Anderson’s name seem to come up a lot. The English communications officer for Tokyo Rainbow Pride – it was clear from the people that I spoke to in Japan that Anderson was well connected and well respected.

After an exchange of emails, we worked out that we would both be in London in December. We met in a Giraffe restaurant in the The Brunswick shopping centre in Bloomsbury, close to where Anderson is studying.

She ordered an orange juice, I opted for green tea. Young, but considered and direct, I was impressed with Anderson – you clearly got a sense this was someone that people would listen to, that people would trust, and who would get things done.

Although her accent is almost undetectable, Anderson grew up in Liverpool in the north west of England, moving to London in about 2009 to study Japanese and Korean at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

Built into the course is a year abroad as the third year of study – Anderson elected to study in Japan at top university Waseda, initially living on campus in the Waseda district before moving into a flat share near Nichome (Tokyo’s gay district). I started by asking her about that year.

Why Japan?

I’d wanted to go to Japan since I was 15. I began reading the books of Yukio Mishima and fell in love.

What’s it like being a lesbian in Japan?

I’d tried to do my research before moving to Tokyo, but there was a definite lack of resources regarding LGBT life. That lack of information can be quite isolating, and I initially found it really difficult to make friends and find a sense of community.

The LGBT scene in Tokyo is very gender-segregated – there’s only a handful of lesbian bars and not many mixed venues, this seems to amplify the isolation of an already marginalized group of people.

How did you begin to get involved with LGBT activism there?

I was at university in Waseda and one of my lecturers said to me: ‘What is a gay person?’

It was clear to me that some people in Japan didn’t understand who LGBT people were, and what the term LGBT really meant.

At about that time I came across an email about Tokyo Rainbow Pride, I went to a meeting and they were the nicest people I’ve ever met, simple as that.

What’s it like being an LGBT activist in Japan?

There’s an interesting saying in Japan: ‘The nail that sticks out will get hammered.’ There are a lot of people that fear the consequences of speaking out or making a stand.

It’s an interesting dynamic and it’s led me to decide to write my dissertation on queer identity and activism in Japan.

Is that why Tokyo Rainbow Pride seems to deliberately steer away from taking a political stance?

Absolutely – we want to make it a celebratory event everyone can get involved with, even if they’ve got no direct connection with the LGBT community.

However Tokyo Rainbow Pride does work to highlight the importance and value of diversity under the general banner of human rights, and the international recognition of human rights has the potential to elevate the work of Tokyo Rainbow Pride in that sense.

In addition, Tokyo Rainbow Pride encourages the involvement and participation of groups that may have a more political agenda – for example the White Ribbon Campaign, which focuses on LGBT suicide prevention, has been gaining a lot of attention in the Japanese media recently and has been mentioned in the Japanese parliament, the Diet.

What sort of impact do you think that Tokyo Rainbow Pride is having?

It’s difficult to say how long change will take, but I do think we are helping people to think in new ways. For example there’s a prominent politician called Haneda Keiji who has recently been speaking out on LGBT issues – he has a daughter who is lesbian. In an interview he was asked ‘what prompted you to start speaking out?’ His response was ‘It’s because of Tokyo Rainbow Pride.’

The internet is also having a huge impact – increasing access to information, and online everyone is free to be themselves.

Japan now also has a number of LGBT politicians – people like Aya Kamikawa; Taiga Ishikawa; and Wataru Ishizaka all become important role models and spokespeople for the LGBT community.

You’re now living in London but still actively supporting Tokyo Rainbow Pride – why have you maintained that connection?

In all of my time in Japan the most welcome I felt was being part of Tokyo Rainbow Pride. It was a natural progression to stay connected.

Since being back the UK I have looked at getting involved with Pride events and celebrations in this country, but they seemed to be a relatively closed shop. In Tokyo, the LGBT community is so small that it’s a lot easier to get involved and have a real impact – I feel that I have something to contribute and Tokyo Rainbow Pride enables me to do that.

What are your aspirations for Tokyo Rainbow Pride?

The 2013 parade will be on 28 April, the start of Golden Week in Japan, and we’re aiming to get 10,000 people involved.

By then we should have had 200,000 visitors to our website, and we’re continuing to make the movement as inclusive and collaborative as possible with volunteers from all over the world working together.

We’re also looking to get support from embassies around the world, demonstrating the support that different countries give to their LGBT communities – this is important to show that equality is an issue that effects people everywhere.

Building the sense of celebration at Tokyo Rainbow Pride is also important – ‘cosplay’ (character driven costume play) is really popular in Japan and we want participants in our parade to embrace that. There’s also the example of the Three Shrines Festival (Sanja Matsuri) which is one of the most famous festivals in Tokyo – Japanese people are normally very reserved, but at the Three Shrines people really let themselves go and embrace the festival spirit and we want to be the case with Tokyo Rainbow Pride also.

What next for Lauren Anderson?

This is my final year of study in London, so I want to go back to Japan and work there. Hopefully some sort of paid position that allows me to continue my activism work. I could be back there as soon as June 2013.

by Gareth Johnson
Source – Gay Star News