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Japanese firms starting to create accepting environment for transgender individuals

Transwoman Nao Nagamoto, a taxi driver for Hinomaru Kotsu Co., smiles behind the wheel in her female uniform in Tokyo's Chuo Ward on May 10, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Awareness of the troubles transgender individuals face in the workforce is on the rise in Japan, and companies are increasingly making efforts to make the working environment more accepting, earning a favorable response both from inside the companies and from customers. The Mainichi Shimbun interviewed some of these firms about what measures were effective in making the atmosphere more accepting.

"If I hadn't found this company, I probably would have given up on a career and just done part-time work," recalls a 24-year-old transgender individual who was hired by an employment agency in April 2016. They said living as a "woman" was painful, and during their job hunt, interviewers would only ask about the person's biological sex. The constant attention made it impossible to make a pitch for their strengths during the interview process, and they ended up unable to be hired in their desired industry. The reason they joined this particular company was because they heard that the firm is understanding toward LGBT and other people of sexual minorities.

The individual in question was actually the first transgender employee that the company ever hired. Before the employee was appointed, the company asked about any requests they might have during the process of work, and held a LGBT training session for all of the company's employees.

Following the wishes of the employee themself, they were introduced directly as being transgender. The employee was free to use the toilet in the already existing men's private room, and the company also did away with its suit dress code for all employees so that the person did not feel any discomfort in gender-divided situations.

"Due to the adjustment in the working environment, we created a setting where all the employees were more understanding of each other's circumstances, such as those raising children as well," said the 47-year-old president of the company at the time who decided to make the hire. There were even other employees who came out as a result of the supportive setting.

One reason for the increasing focus on inclusive workplaces for LGBT and individuals with other sexual orientations and identities has been the approaching 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. The Olympic charter prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex or sexual orientation. Companies involved in the games are required to make adjustments to comply with the regulations. However, particularly when it comes to transgender individuals, there is a tendency to focus too much on difficult aspects like preparing a separate restroom, and it has been pointed out that this leads to companies putting off the adjustments all together.

But there is no need to focus on the difficult adjustments when there are many things that companies can do immediately to aid transgender employees. One example is major taxi service company Hinomaru Kotsu Co., based in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward. Last year, it hired 54-year-old Nao Nagamoto as a driver. On her resume, her sex was marked as "male" to match her family registry, but the company provided her with a female uniform at her request. The firm also explained the situation to the other female employees so that Nagamoto could use the same dressing room.

"They respect me naturally as a person, and there isn't any stress at all," said Nagamoto.

But that doesn't mean that Hinomaru was always so accepting. There was an employee in the past who had requested to work as a man for the company but their appeal went unanswered, and the individual was told to wear the female uniform and use the women's changing room in line with the female designation listed in their family registry. The employee worked for several years, but ended up quitting because being forced to work as a woman was difficult.

It was after that when Hinomaru President and CEO Kazutaka Tomita, 45, was exposed on a business trip to people of different sexual orientations and identities working happily at bars and restaurants in New York City. Then he regretted failing to foster the same environment at his own company. Tomita immediately began studying and preparing for the hiring process, and he says that eventually led to the appropriate handling of Nagamoto when she joined the company.

"Everyone immediately goes to only physical things like uniforms and restrooms first, but I noticed that the most important thing is to first start a conversation with the individual and show that you will take a stance toward meeting their needs," Tomita explained. In order to make this a reality, Tomita adds that strong intentions and efforts by those at the very top of the company is essential, as well as showing further confidence in hiring diverse individuals.

While the number of companies that make efforts to cater to sexual minorities from the time they are hired are still few, there are companies that have started to make changes even without being asked to do so. Two years ago, public relations firm Prap Japan Inc., based in Tokyo's Minato Ward with roughly 300 employees, voluntarily took up the initiative to reform company policies. Under the dress code stipulation that "men don't wear ties during Cool Biz season," a government campaign to save electricity used on air conditioning, the company changed the rule to a simpler one not making any mention of men or women. Not only were employees also allowed to use the restrooms and lockers that matched their gender identity, but they also became able to use their preferred name within the company as well.

"For example, when writing public relations documents, I noticed that people tend to make unnecessary divisions between men and women, like writing "father" or "mother" when "guardians" would suffice. Now, we check for those kinds of things over and over as a team," said 29-year-old Megumi Miyazaki, one of the employees involved in the restructuring of the gender policy. "Whether or not there is a transgender person involved, the changes have an important meaning."

By doing away with ideas of "masculinity" and "femininity," the company ended up with an environment more conductive to everyone working, Miyazaki feels. "I think it's easier for small to medium-sized companies to make these kinds of efforts," she continued. "If there are fewer employees, decisions and implementation of policies is faster, and it doesn't cost anything. There are plenty of things companies can do by just changing their perspective."

(Japanese original by Yoshiya Goto, Photo Group, and Yoshiko Tamura, Lifestyle News Department)

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