Harvey Milk is part of U.S. history but Japan has yet to see anyone like him 32 years after his assassination, according to Taiga Ishikawa, an openly gay candidate running for the Toshima Ward Assembly in Tokyo.
Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office. After becoming the city supervisor of San Francisco in November 1977, he was shot to death after 11 months in office and is remembered as a historic gay rights activist.
Ishikawa, a 36-year-old writer and activist with inside experience in politics, said he is not trying to become Japan’s Harvey Milk. But what he is aiming for as a politician is to make his neighborhood more friendly to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and foreigners.
"I know it’s a big plan, but if elected, I hope I can enact a partnership ordinance" that would allow unmarried couples regardless of gender to have equal rights as married couples, he said.
Ishikawa is a former secretary to Social Democratic Party leader Mizuho Fukushima and plans to run as an SDP candidate in the election, which is scheduled for April.
Under the Toshima partnership ordinance he envisions, the ward would issue a certificate to two adults who register as "partners," giving them the right to apply for ward-managed housing and hospital visitation rights.
Ishikawa likes to compare the idea with the French PACS (a civil union of partners) system, which effectively gives unmarried gay cohabitants the same rights and tax advantages as married couples, but admits it may be difficult to achieve at the national level. He also wants to support gay children by giving school nurses and counselors more education on the issue.
"Data show that the suicide rate for such children is higher," he said.
He added that he supports local-level suffrage for foreign residents of Japan.
Now a well-known advocate for LGBT rights, Ishikawa said the first time he ever met a gay man was when he was 26.
Growing up near the Jizo Dori shopping arcade in Sugamo, an area often called "Harajuku for old ladies," Ishikawa had no one to share his feelings with regarding his sexuality.
At the time, a frequently discussed topic among teenage boys was female idols, Ishikawa wrote in his book "Boku no Kareshi wa Doko ni Iru" ("Where is my boyfriend?"). So he always had to have an answer ready to prevent his classmates from guessing he liked men, he wrote.
One of the things he dreaded most during his school years was that he " might mutter the name of a favorite male idol while he was asleep on a school trip," he wrote. As a result, he had to sleep later than roommates and wake up earlier as well.
"In Japan, gay people instantly know they shouldn’t tell anyone about their sexuality," he said, noting it is partly because the media portray gay men as comical or weird. "Coming out as a gay is not easy in Japan yet."
Japanese society takes heterosexuality for granted, making it harder for those who are not to come out, he added.
"Homosexuals are perceived as strange, but I believe it is society that is strange."
Ishikawa mostly kept his sexuality secret, even while at Meiji Gakuin University, where he studied human rights and law.
A breakthrough came in 1999 when his father bought a computer and asked him to set up a website for his clothes shop in Sugamo. Through the Internet, Ishikawa began to realize there were a lot of people like himself out there. This led him in 2000 to make his first gay acquaintance, a university student in Yokohama.
The encounter motivated him to do something for sexual minorities in Japan.
"I have three important things I want to accomplish," Ishikawa said. "First is to encourage LGBT people and connect them. Second is to give information on LGBT to heterosexual people. Third is to change politics."
Ishikawa therefore joined an LGBT support group and began talking to the public.
"It all happened only three months after I met the Yokohama student," said Ishikawa. While working as a member of the support group, he published "Where is My Boyfriend?" in 2002 under his real name. He also started organizing events where LGBT people could make friends and began to get involved in activities concerning legal rights for gay people.
International marriages sometimes require an official certificate to prove the Japanese applicant is unmarried, and the government used to refuse to issue such certificates to Japanese homosexuals attempting to marry in countries that permit same-sex marriages.
But after Ishikawa, his support group and SDP chief Fukushima kept lobbying for change, the government in 2009 effectively allowed Japanese to marry foreigners of the same sex by issuing a new certificate that does not include a sex designation entry to fill in.
"I have realized that if politics change, society will change," Ishikawa said.
"By embracing diversity, I believe Toshima will be a great place to live," he said.