For millions worldwide, June 1 marks the beginning of Pride Month—a time for members of the LGBT community and their allies to recognize the impact that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals have had on society, celebrate progress, and fight for greater rights and protections around the globe. Fittingly, June 1 this year also saw the establishment of an official Rakuten LGBT* Network, one of the first of its kind among homegrown companies in Japan.

The creation of the LGBT Network builds on earlier Rakuten policies supporting the LGBT community. In mid-2016, the company was one of the first major Japanese corporations to offer equal benefits to employees with partners of all genders. From honeymoon leave to condolence payments – if a benefit is offered by the company to married male-female couples, it’s offered to registered same-sex couples. Likewise, Rakuten has worked to see their support for the LGBT community reflected in company services. These range from finding LGBT-friendly venues for weddings on Rakuten Wedding to being able to share a Rakuten Card family credit card with a same-sex partner, or nominate them as a beneficiary for a Rakuten Insurance life insurance policy.

The result of these steps: In 2016, Rakuten achieved Gold Level in the PRIDE Index, Japan’s first index to evaluate corporate efforts to support inclusiveness for LGBT employees.

Now, with the introduction of an officially-recognized LGBT Network, awareness of key issues and support of LGBT employees is set to rise. Made up of core members and an extensive mailing list of participants and supporters, the Network will work across all Rakuten departments to provide visibility on LGBT issues, advise on LGBT-inclusive policy and, perhaps most importantly, educate employees. The Network is aiming to host regular internal seminars for managers and staff and also set up an information contact point for all employees.

Developments to date have been positive. Employee participation has increased and the Network’s founding member, Brendan, is set to speak on a panel at a recruitment event for LGBT-identifying new graduates organized by the nonprofit JobRainbow later this month.

“The launch of the LGBT Network is a milestone for Rakuten” explained Brendan. “I hope that giving LGBT issues an official voice in the company will empower employees of all kinds to feel safer in the workplace. But of course, there is a lot more work to be done.”

Rakuten LGBT Network founder, Brendan speaks at a recent event with Niijiro

Rakuten LGBT Network founder Brendan is working to empower employees of all kinds to feel safer in the workplace.

For co-founder Annika, the emergence of officially-recognized LGBT groups in Japanese companies is an important step in the campaign for greater social equality.

“Setting a corporate example is very powerful in Japan. In a society that traditionally values a certain level of collectivism, it can be challenging for individuals to enact social change on their own. When respected homegrown companies like Rakuten move behind a cause, they can push societal change and combat stereotypes in a very pervasive way. As a company, we are in a unique position to make positive change.”

While same-sex marriages have yet to be officially recognized on the national level and public awareness of LGBT rights and issues is still relatively low compared to Western Europe and North America, progress is being made. Sapporo, a city in Northern Japan with a population of nearly 2 million, recently showed its support for LGBT citizens when it announced it was joining several other cities in allowing residents to register their same-sex relationship with the city. Many Japanese corporations, such as Panasonic and Sony, have also begun introducing inclusive policies in the workplace as well. With the arrival of groups like the Rakuten LGBT Network, this looks like the beginning of more positive change.

* While ”LGBT” was selected for the Network’s name, it is inclusive of all LGBTQ+ individuals.