One Love

An organization — and an individual — dedicated to LGBT equality

Alexander Dmitrenko

In September, six foreign chambers of commerce in Japan made a very bold move, issuing an official joint “Viewpoint on Marriage Equality” to request that the Japanese government legalize same-sex marriage.

In the document, the American, British, Canadian, Danish, Irish and Australian and New Zealand chambers of commerce in Japan argued that marriage equality in this country would improve the global competitiveness of Japanese businesses, putting them in a strong position to compete for talented candidates who come from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.

The public announcement of the Viewpoint was a long time in coming — it was the pro­duct of many meetings, held over several months — and the organization that took the leading role in making it happen was the Lawyers for LGBT and Allies Network (LLAN).

Founded in 2016, LLAN is made up of LGBT lawyers and their allies, and in­clu­des mem­bers from some of Tokyo’s most prestigious law firms and in-house legal departments. LLAN’s goal is to provide legal assis­tance in promoting the understanding of LGBT and other sexual minorities, eli­mi­nating discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and contributing to the realization of a society where “all people may realize their full potential in safety.”

One of the people who was absolutely instrumental in bringing LLAN to life is Alexander Dmitrenko, who co-founded and co-chairs the organization. A Ukrainian- Canadian, he has studied law at New York University, the University of Toronto and Central European University. Dmitrenko’s first legal experience was working on ground­breaking same-sex marriage and LGBT rights cases in Canada. Prior to joining Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, he worked for Sojitz Corporation in Tokyo and Debevoise & Plimpton in New York.

At his office, we spoke with Dmitrenko about how LLAN got started, the importance of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan’s (CCCJ’s) support for the Viewpoint, and some of the challenges involved in help­ing Japan achieve a greater acceptance of its LGBT community.

“I think dialogue is the most important thing, and I believe strongly if you open a heart, it will not close.”

Strong Allies

As Dmitrenko explained, LLAN’s first major project and group solidifier was the creation of a “Foreign Language Report on Equal Marriage” (which covered 11 jurisdictions with marriage equality and was drafted by 50 lawyers from 10 different law firms). The report was prepared to support a group of domestic lawyers that has been petitioning for same-sex marriage in Japan. Through the help of LLAN’s other co-founder and co-chair, Naosuke Fujita, general counsel for Goldman Sachs Co., Ltd., the organization was able to bring in some key domestic firms to support the effort and participate on LLAN’s board, including the four major Japanese law firms — Anderson Mori Tomotsune, Mori Hamada Matsumoto, Nagashima Ohno & Tsunematsu and Nishimura & Asahi — as well as Nomura Holdings, with which LLAN has co-hosted multiple events in Tokyo and Oita Prefecture.

Delegates gathered for the announcement of the Viewpoint on Marriage Equality

Dmitrenko admits that he was pleasantly surprised by the support that came from the legal community: “I think that law, generally, is a conservative field. LGBT equality is not an issue every person, every lawyer, will want to address. It takes guts, it takes leadership, it takes belief to really find time and push for these issues. We are lucky to have a board of people who do feel passionate about this and who want to be part of this project to bring equality to Japan.”

There are now 40 to 50 active members of LLAN, and as Dmitrenko points out, 90 per cent of the organization — and 80 per cent of its board — comprise allies, rather than LGBT lawyers. “Again, that is the beauty of it,” he says. “Many allies are even more active than some LGBT members, to be entirely honest. Many people come to law because they believe in justice and equality, and even though our daily billable work doesn’t always allow us to work towards such principles at the same level, this work does.”

LLAN now works on a variety of projects, from a yearly Equality Gala and lectures at the Keio University and Chuo University law schools to regional awareness events that have been held in locations from Okinawa to Ibaraki.

Another recent effort involves a pair of videos called Love Is Love. They present a lesbian and a gay couple, profiled along with their parents and their friends. The videos poignantly show that LGBT couples are no different from straight couples.

A Shared Viewpoint

And, without a doubt, one of LLAN’s biggest recent projects was the Viewpoint on Marriage Equality.

Just as Dmitrenko takes pride in the fact that Canada was the first country outside Europe to legalize same-sex marriage, he is almost equally proud of the fact that the CCCJ was first of the chambers to approve LLAN’s Viewpoint.

Members of the LLAN team

“I am very proud of being Canadian and I’m very proud of being a CCCJ member, particularly because the leadership put their money where their mouth is. Very quickly, I’m going to say within a month, Neil [van Wouw, CCCJ president] put the Viewpoint before the CCCJ board. I understand there was no opposition whatsoever, with many people saying, ‘why didn’t we do this before?’”

Currently, some cities around Japan, and a few Tokyo wards, offer same-sex certificates, but these have practically no legal standing. Dmitrenko sees the Viewpoint as a necessary first step towards addressing the issue, but there’s still a long way to go.

“I think the Viewpoint here is really for educational purposes,” he explained, adding, “I think it brings the discussion to the table. It makes it more formally qualified … if Japan wants to compete for talent, do something about it. The next step would be to have a press conference and media sessions. It’s likely that there will be further discussions on behalf of the CCCJ and the ACCJ with their government contacts and the LLAN team can make itself available to talk about the law. The ultimate goal, obviously, is legal change.”

Looking Ahead

LLAN chairs Alexander Dmitrenko and Naosuke Fujita

The upcoming Olympics is a great oppor­tunity for Tokyo to put all of its diversity on display, which is why Dmitrenko is also working with the Tokyo 2020 diversity and inclusion team, and he believes that the group has learned a great deal about how other nations have successfully highlighted what makes them special.

In Dmitrenko’s opinion: “They are an amazing team because they really have taken their time to understand and learn what has been done in other places … The big question is, obviously, what can be done during the Games to make the Olympics, Tokyo and Japan be seen in a better light. I think you will probably see a lot more inclusion than many might anticipate.”

When it comes to more daily acceptance in Japanese society, Dmitrenko argues that some of the biggest obstacles to a greater understanding of the LGBT community is a lack of visibility, the need for greater education and people who can advocate for the community: “You don’t have [an LGBT] presence on TV, you don’t have education in schools. A lot of the community is still in the closet, so you don’t have that personal know­ledge. Finally, it is crucial to have ambassadors in the right places.”

But he’s optimistic that the country can learn from how marriage equality has been achieved in other countries, and bypass some of the preliminary steps: “If you think about the evolution of LGBT rights, usually you go through a few stages: first, you get general anti-discrimination protections, then some protections of law for couples, and then comes marriage. In Japan that should not be the case because the country is not in a vacuum; it can see what has been done in other countries. There is plenty of evidence that marriage equality shouldn’t be a staged approach. There should simply be equality.”

And Dmitrenko is even more optimistic about the power of communication to open minds: “I think dialogue is the most impor­tant thing, and I believe strongly if you open a heart, it will not close.”