TOKYO (Kyodo) -- People having their sexual orientation or gender identity revealed without their consent has become a deepening problem in Japan, a country known for its culture in which the "nail that sticks out gets hammered down."
In recent years, there has a been a growing number of cases in which a person has been publically "outed" by someone they trust, sometimes resulting in the affected person feeling they have to quit school or work to escape the fallout.
In the most tragic cases, public outings have driven victims to fall ill, including causing them to suffer mental health issues or even to take their own lives. Experts argue that such malicious or careless intrusions into someone's personal life should be considered discriminatory and possible grounds for criminal charges.
In June 2015, a 25-year-old male graduate student at Hitotsubashi University law school was outed as gay by a fellow student. The victim had his secret revealed to a group of nine peers on a messaging app.
"It's impossible anymore for me to hide the fact that you're gay," the classmate wrote to the group, ending the life-changing message with a simple, "Sorry."
Just two months earlier, the student had come out to the classmate and expressed romantic feelings toward him.
After he was outed, the student felt the need to visit a clinic specializing in psychosomatic disorders. Then, in August, he sent a message to the group, saying he cannot see himself operating in the same professional circle as the person who outed him and he "can no longer see this as an ideal profession." Tragically, he later fell to his death from a building at the university in an apparent suicide.
The parents of the student sued both the classmate and the university for damages, claiming the university failed to respond properly to their son's ordeal. Although a settlement was reached with the classmate, the Tokyo District Court dismissed the parents' claim against the university in February. The family is appealing the case.
"Outing someone destroys human relationships," the parents' lawyer Kazuyuki Minami said at a press conference following the verdict. "The court offered no mention at all on the substantive question of whether or not outing is an unlawful act," he said, clearly frustrated by the court's decision.
Over the course of six years from March 2012, one private support center said it received 110 calls to its 24-hour hotline service from people aggrieved about being outed.
But, because the hotline did not categorize callers as having suffered an outing in fiscal 2011, fiscal 2013 and fiscal 2014, and due to the heavy volume of calls that went unanswered, the total is believed to be up to 24 times higher than the 110 documented cases, the Shakaiteki Hosetsu Support Center said.
Indeed, experts point out this is a perfect demonstration of the damage being done to members of the LGBT community.
According to the center, there were 31 calls by people wanting to talk about being outed in fiscal 2012, 42 in fiscal 2015, 19 in fiscal 2016 and 18 in fiscal 2017.
Many of those who called said they were outed after confiding in someone they trusted or were badmouthed by friends for making "a sick display of affection."
Other than outing cases, many people call the hotline seeking advice about coping with their sexual orientation or gender identity, asking whether or not it is wise to reveal their secret.
Shinya Maezono, a lawyer who runs Saitama-based website lgbt.legaladvice.jp and has a long history of providing advice to the LGBT community, said the act of public outing can potentially have legal ramifications.
"There is a big possibility of civil or even criminal charges being brought," said Maezono, adding that the lawsuits might involve invasion of privacy or defamation of character. He added in cases of outing a person's sexual orientation by way of threats, it is possible to have a criminal intimidation or extortion charge filed if money or valuables have been obtained through leverage.
Maezono explained that the root of the problem lies in Japanese society's unwillingness to recognize sexual diversity. "Many sexual minorities are in a situation where they feel they must hide," he said.
"First of all, people other than those concerned need to understand sexual minorities better and then we can hope that (it will allow LGBT people to) become more open."
So what should be the proper response when a friend or coworker comes out to you?
Gon Matsunaka, a representative of a nonprofit organization which fights for sexual minority rights, said, "Coming out (to someone) is evidence of their trust in you. It is very important that you understand that this is serious and crucial information that (if discretion is not shown) could possibly have life-threatening ramifications."
Matsunaka stressed that if such a revelation is made, the person involved should check if the person coming out wants anyone else to know and to what extent.
And "if you are unable to accept the news you should talk to a person or group with expertise in the area and who will have the utmost discretion."
To move forward in dealing with the problem of public outing "we need to recognize that each and every person is an individual and that it is crucial that we have mutual respect and understanding," Matsunaka said.
Yuichi Kamiya, secretary general of Japan Alliance for LGBT Legislation, warns "it is still the tip of the iceberg," adding that most sexual minorities have experienced some form of discrimination.
Moreover, Kamiya says those who take the step to consult with a hotline have been pushed to the brink, the culture of discrimination taking them there.
Kamiya says he is calling on all members of society to be aware of the issue and for government to create policy solutions before it becomes a full-blown crisis.
It is important for everyone to recognize that there "is a serious problem that is close at hand and touches the daily lives of many," Kamiya said.