The path to diversity and inclusion in Japan: In conversation with Rakuten’s LGBT+ Network

Japan may not have celebrated Rainbow Pride Week this year with the usual in-person parties and parades, but that doesn’t mean the country’s LGBT+ community took the year off. Like millions of fellow community members around the globe, pride 2020 was an opportunity to connect and celebrate in new ways.

Rakuten Today caught up (virtually) with key members of Rakuten’s official LGBT+ Network to learn more about what made this year unique and to find out what the group has been up to lately.

The journey so far

Since its launch in June 2016, the Rakuten LGBT+ Network, officially recognized since 2017, has set an example for what LGBT+ equality can look like in corporate Japan. According to network founder and product manager in the Kobo Japan team, Brendan Paull, examples of company policy changes sparked by the Rakuten LGBT+ Network include the inclusion of same-sex partners in the benefits provided to married couples, the extension of sexual harassment policies to include same-sex harassment including outing, and supporting employees with diverse gender identities. Not only has this led to greater equality for employees, but it has been a plus for company recruiters as well.

Indeed, Rakuten receives a fair number of questions from prospective employees about the benefits that they provide to same-sex partners, as well as how Rakuten can support their gender identity. Melissa Kuwahara, a core member of the network and senior manager in Rakuten’s Group Human Resources Department, explained how she sees the recruitment of LGBT+ talent as an important factor that promotes diversity in the workplace. “There are employees from more than 70+ nationalities at Rakuten and support of LGBT+ employees is another important axis of  diversity,” Kuwahara said, describing how a diverse workforce is important for tech companies to build diverse products that empower all kinds of people.

Building inclusive workplaces

Rakuten brought the energy at Tokyo Rainbow Pride Parade 2019 — welcoming more than 100 employees, partners and friends to celebrate Japan’s largest annual LGBT+ event.
Rakuten brought the energy at Tokyo Rainbow Pride Parade 2019 — welcoming more than 100 employees, partners and friends to celebrate Japan’s largest annual LGBT+ event.

Of course, it isn’t only Rakuten that is working toward more equality for the country’s LGBT+ workforce. NIJIT, a group of IT industry leaders in Tokyo, was formed in 2016 as a platform to create a better workplace for Japan’s LGBT+ community. Its members include global tech companies such as Accenture, Airbnb, Box, Cisco, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Tableau and Rakuten.

The group meets every quarter to discuss initiatives ⁠— both internal and external ⁠— that are being led to create a safe working space for their LGBT+ employees. “The challenges that each company faces to promote diversity and inclusion (D&I) in their workplace are different,” explained Sakiko Matsushita, a producer in Rakuten’s Data Enrichment Group who attends NIJIT meetings regularly and is also a core member of Rakuten’s LGBT+ network.

Matsushita commented that the challenges faced by Rakuten, where the Rakuten LGBT+ Network is still operating at a grassroots level, differ from some other large multinationals with networks that are more firmly established. But one common challenge for all these companies is retaining LGBT+ talent. According to Paull, it is not uncommon to see LGBT+ employees leave Japan, which lacks a clear legal framework for same-sex partnership, to get married in a country which legally protects marriage equality.

This highlights the significance — and importance — of companies holding events where employees can meet and network with allies, supporters and other employees from the community. For example, Rakuten has actively participated in the Tokyo Rainbow Pride Parade since 2017. Members of the network also meet for dinner every two weeks. Other network initiatives include regular drop-in information sessions in the cafeteria, professional seminars, a network booth on Family Days and more.

But how does the network make sure that the community stays connected during the COVID-19 crisis? By taking most of what is possible online!

Fostering diversity & inclusion during a pandemic

The Rakuten LGBT+ Network stays connected during the COVID-19 crisis through online events.
The Rakuten LGBT+ Network stays connected during the COVID-19 crisis through online events.

According to a recent study by McKinsey, D&I initiatives may lose momentum during the pandemic as companies shift a greater amount of focus toward core business needs. However, companies that show resilience and can use innovation to unlock the power of D&I to create value in this difficult time have the opportunity to create a competitive advantage in the long run.

Adjusting to social distancing measures in place, Rakuten celebrated pride online this year. The company, which is a recipient of the “Work with Pride” Gold Level certification for the past four years, is also virtually participating in NIJIT quarterly meetings. And as for the network’s bi-weekly LGBT+ dinners, those are continuing as well ⁠— online. “Zoom dinners can get awkward,” said Kristen Huber, vice manager of the AI Project Management Group and another core member of the network. “So, we organize games to make it easier for everyone to participate.”

Making LGBT+ employees feel comfortable in the workplace is increasingly becoming a priority for companies in Japan, a country where 8.9% of the working age population identify as LGBT+. Thanks to leadership from groups like NIJIT and the Rakuten LGBT+ Network, LGBT+ employees have reason to be optimistic about seeing happier and more inclusive workplaces across Japan.

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