Two Japanese LGBTQ rights activists of different faiths find common ground

LGBTQ activist and Buddhist monk Kodo Nishimura brings his hands together in a gesture of prayer at his family’s temple in Tokyo on November 22, 2021. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) – Buddhist monk Kodo Nishimura and Christian pastor Yoshiki Nakamura share the belief that the queer lifestyle and organized religion can coexist, even when Japanese society tricks people into believing it is quite impossible to find such a community.

Those who don’t fit perfectly into the genre’s standard checkbox like Nishimura and Nakamura are rarely greeted openly. That, added to personal experiences of exclusion, has been reason enough for many LGBTQ people and their communities to abandon religion altogether.

But homophobia, in a country that has yet to legalize same-sex marriage, hasn’t stopped these Tokyo-based gay religious leaders from doing what they’re called to do: share the teachings of Buddha and Jesus. , although in a less traditional way.

“I don’t want to convert anyone to Buddhism. I use things like social media and fashion to reach people who aren’t really interested in Buddhism,” Nishimura said in a recent interview with Kyodo News .

“When I discovered Buddhism, he said that everyone can be liberated equally. It was very empowering and I felt that I was not inferior to anyone because I am homosexual. What matters is, it is the soul. This message helps us protect our own rights. ”

Nishimura, who is also a professional makeup artist, is not very fond of the words people use to describe his gender identity as he presents himself as a man but feels that he radiates both feminine and masculine energies. He says he’s good at the genre.

While Nishimura, 32, will shrink from the word gay, Nakamura, 53, says he doesn’t mind the label because he belongs to the older generation whose dictionaries didn’t include neutral pronouns.

“I have no preferences. I tell people I’m gay. I was gay before the world came up with gender pronouns and LGBTQ inclusive language. I don’t even know all the terms, but if I look carefully enough, I know I belong to more than one box, ”Nakamura said.

A Dentsu poll released in April showed that 8.9% of Japanese people, or about one in 11, identify as LGBTQ.

Polls suggest that millennials like Nishimura are much more likely than older generations to identify as something other than heterosexual.

Born into a Buddhist family, Nishimura admits that he has the freedom to work on his own terms as his home is the 520-year-old temple in which he practices.

When not putting on a robe, he works backstage at beauty pageants, does modeling concerts, writes books, and posts on Twitter and Instagram. He even made an appearance on Netflix’s Emmy-winning hit “Queer Eye”.

Nakamura leads a quiet and low-key life, and he sticks to Facebook. He sees the pastor as a divine call to serve and not as an earthly career, but life has not always been easy for him.

“I have dual minority status, as a gay and a Christian. I live on low wages, like most pastors,” Nakamura said.

Only about 0.8 percent of the Japanese population is Christian.

When he started preaching, Nakamura worked alongside the corporate world to make ends meet until the 7-day work week took its toll on his mental and physical health. At one point, he even owned a bar in Shinjuku Ni-chome, one of Japan’s most famous gay haunts.

He has slowed down after taking a pastoral leadership position at Yoyogi Uehara Church, a Protestant denomination of the United Church of Christ, nearly two years ago.

Like Nishimura, who realized that he did not fit the traditional idea of ​​a man’s society in early childhood, Nakamura took an approach outside the church and shared messages aimed at resonate far beyond the pulpit and benches.

Nakamura knew he was attracted to other boys by the time he was in high school, when homosexuality was seen as a temporary condition and not a permanent identity and even classified as a psychiatric disorder.

Nakamura attended church regularly as a child and was baptized at the age of 15. He decided to follow the call to ministry and enrolled in a seminary in his thirties.

Today, he seeks to help people struggling with their sexual orientation integrate the Bible into their lives in a practical way to help them solve secular issues and make his church a safe place for LGBTQ people.

He officiates weddings for LGBTQ couples, although the Japanese legal system does not recognize same-sex marriage. He believes that if Jesus were alive today, he would accept any marriage based on love, even if it is between two men or two women.

Nakamura, who has been with her partner for 20 years, divides her time between the parsonage belonging to the church and her own house where her only roommate is her cat. He also runs a networking group to bring together LGBTQ and religious communities.

“I know about 10 pastors in my denomination who have identified themselves as LGBTQ. But that doesn’t mean the group has accepted us. They don’t know how to deal with people like us,” Nakamura said.

Churches that fail to recognize and respond to the cultural changes that are occurring will quickly lose members, Nakamura believes. He has heard of anti-gay pastors who preach love and spread hate.

“I don’t believe Christianity will ever go away, but I think it will be a thing for old people. The church has too many rules.”

When teaching a high school Bible class once a week, Nakamura rarely reads scriptures, but instead addresses topics such as the risk of suicide among LGBTQ youth. It also brings broader issues of debate in society like Black Lives Matter into the classroom.

“I tell them that one in 11 is LGBT, and it’s comparable to the left-handed or blood type AB population. I ask them, “If you don’t discriminate against lefties or type AB people, why would you discriminate?” against gays and lesbians? ‘”

Nakamura, whose parents died before he came out, and Nishimura, whose parents affirm his sexual orientation, do not impose their religion on anyone and do not try to force people out of the proverbial “closet”.

They want the Japanese to adopt the mentality of loving neighbor, doing no harm and being allies of the LGBTQ movement. They hope that more people, young and old, loosen the chains of traditional identities and embrace who they are on their terms.

Nakamura believes people can be true to their religion and support progressive reforms such as LGBTQ rights. He’s taken his students to visit a nearby mosque, and he’s collaborating on a bereavement care project with a nearby Shinto shrine.

Nishimura also wants to imagine a new humanity beyond religion. He feels welcomed by the Buddhist community which tries to live by the timeless message of non-violence and compassion of Buddha.

“I want people to rethink what is considered ‘normal’ or ‘common sense’ so that they are awakened to righteousness. I get wonderful comments from people who believe in different religions. I want people to see me. and know that there is nothing wrong with them, ”Nishimura said.

“I do what I do to get people to wonder and think. Should Buddhist monks be minimalist and free from all desire? Can’t they put on makeup and walk in heels? religion was made to help us be free. ”

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