When 24-year-old Koki Hayashi first came out to his mom, he was a junior in college.
"I just kind of said it quickly, 'Hey, I’m gay,'" he recalls.
“Stop it. That’s disgusting,” she said, according to Hayashi. That really hurt.
Japan — unlike the US — doesn't have a Puritan history that says homosexuality is some kind of cardinal sin. And for years it wasn't uncommon to see a cross-dresser on TV giving fashion advice or a Japanese cartoon with gay characters.
But while being openly gay has been OK for famous people or anime characters, on an individual level, it’s been really hard to be out in Japan. Schoolyard bullying and discrimination are known problems. And LGBT individuals often feel isolated.
In college, Hayashi was doing research on the untapped LGBT market in Japan. One day a friend — the only other friend he had who was openly gay — said he wanted to start a company to do same-sex weddings. Hayashi jumped at the idea.
Together they planned a wedding and life services company for the queer community. And they won a huge student business competition. At first they were doing it mostly for fun, but then they started learning about the high suicide rate of sexual minorities in Japan. And then a friend committed suicide. And their sense of purpose changed.
"Say someone like me comes out to their parents in five years, and they’re also told that’s disgusting," Hayashi says. "That’s unacceptable. If we don't do something, the next generation will suffer just as much."
Today Hayashi is the CEO of Letibee — meant to sound like Let it be.
The company runs Letibee Life. It’s a media site featuring everything from news to stories on trans- and gay-friendly hair salons to people writing about their own coming out experiences. It’s the first of its kind in Japan.
They do corporate consulting, teaching companies about sexuality, sexual minorities — and how to respond to LGBT as customers and employees. And they’re about to launch an app they hope will provide a safe space for LGBT to connect and build community.
It hasn’t been easy. On top of the ups and downs of running a startup, Hayashi has been a running a startup aimed at a community no one thought was important.
And then in April, everything changed. Shibuya, one of the most well-known districts in Tokyo — think — Times Square mashed up with the West Village, but with more governing power — recognized same-sex marriage. Hayashi says until that moment, seeing LGBT rights splashed across the front page of the newspaper was unimaginable.
"We went from, 'Can you really be a company providing services to the LGBT community?' To: Letibee, your time has come," Hayashi says.
In July, Setagaya, another influential district in Tokyo, recognized same-sex marriage.
James Welker, a professor who studies gender and sexuality in Japan, says although neither district’s decision is legally binding it’s created a certain momentum about same-sex partnership and LGBT rights in a really short period of time.
The Japanese Parliament now also has a committee looking into how to end discrimination. And Yokohama, Japan’s second biggest city, adjacent to Tokyo, recently announced a city-supported LGBT festival for this fall.
"Because of the more positive normalizing — and normal is a problematic word in media discourse — ... more people are open to the idea that, hey, some people are gay or lesbian or bisexual. It’s not as big of a deal any more," Welker says.
One big way to tell perceptions are shifting is by looking at what’s happening to Tokyo’s gay pride festival. In 2014, 15,000 people participated in the festival. In 2015, the number was 55,000.
Since coming, Hayashi and his mom have made amends.
On a societal scale, Hayashi says Japan really is getting better. But on an individual level, there’s still a long way to go. But Letibee, Hayashi says, will play a part in changing that.
From PRI's The World ©2015 Public Radio International