TOKYO (AP) – For decades, Panasonic Corp. has shaped Japanese corporate tradition – be it morning exercise routines or lifetime employment. But don’t hold your breath waiting for other Asian businesses to emulate its latest policy announcement: Recognizing same-sex partnerships.
Much of Asia remains far behind the West in such attitudes. Panasonic’s move is rare, although bold, and seems unlikely to herald a sea change.
In China, South Korea, the Philippines and much of the rest of Asia, “coming out of the closet” still has enormous consequences, not just for the individual but also for family members who might become targets of abuse and ostracism. It’s an act requiring tremendous courage in Asian cultures that value conformity, traditional family structures and harmony.
Even the way Panasonic responded to media queries about its decision was telling. It said it had considered the move for more than a decade, but offered no details. The maker of the Viera TV and Lumix camera appeared overwhelmed by the outpouring of interest, mostly from Western media, and said it could not provide interviews on the issue.
Lenny Sanicola, an employee benefit expert at WorldatWork, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, was surprised by Panasonic’s low-key stance. A U.S. company pioneering such a move would be announcing its decision with fanfare and likely getting showered with praise, he said.
“Panasonic would be a pioneer in Japan,” he said, noting that sending a message about valuing diversity would attract younger talent that is urgently needed in an aging society like Japan.
It’s only a matter of time before Asian nations adopt what has become the dominant message in Europe and North America, Sanicola said.
“It’s business as usual. We treat everyone the same,” he said in a recent telephone interview.
Same sex marriage is legal in the U.S. The Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that same-sex couples have the right to marry. In the U.S., employers are required to abide by federal regulations on retirement plans, health insurance and other benefits for spouses already, and a review of company policies on the state level has begun.
“Recognition of changing social mores and a desire to enhance diversity appeal to prospective employees, as well as prospective customers,” said Karen Cates, a professor at Kellogg School of Management. “In short, it is good business.”
Throughout Asia, same-sex marriages are not legal. A few local governments in Japan now recognize such partnerships as the equivalent of marriage. That includes Tokyo’s Shibuya ward, a bastion of Japan’s youth culture and its equivalent of Silicon Valley. There are no legal penalties for violations.
Japanese public sentiment is generally unsympathetic to LGBT issues, and local media speculated that Panasonic merely made its same-sex marriage decision because it was an Olympic sponsor.
The International Olympic Committee opposes discrimination on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. But Emmanuelle Moreau, an IOC spokeswoman, denied it influences company policies, including Panasonic’s.
Toyota Motor Corp. of Japan and Samsung Electronics Co. of South Korea have diversity policies. But Toyota said that doesn’t extend to recognizing same-sex marriage, and it’s not considering any change. Samsung said its policies are specific for country depending on local laws, including benefits.
Tomoshi Sakka, a lawyer who represents gender-related discrimination cases, said Panasonic’s decision could serve as a precedent toward recognizing same-sex marriage in Japan – a demand he feels is sure to grow in coming years.
For many in Japan and elsewhere in Asia, though, the hardships are daunting and few outside the entertainment industry are open about being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Most people working in mainstream companies stay closeted.
“First of all, it will take a huge toll on one’s promotion possibilities,” said a 30-year-old gay man who works at one of South Korea’s top companies and who requested anonymity. He did not want his employer identified for fear of reprisals and no one at his company knows he is gay, he said.
“People in senior positions are older, and they are not open-minded. It’s not just at my company. I never heard of anyone at any other company,” going public about being gay, he added. “It’s not socially accepted.”
The East-West cultural divide on LGBT issues was at the center of a lawsuit in Hong Kong filed by a British woman whose lesbian spouse was repeatedly not granted a spouse visa. She had to periodically leave and return to Hong Kong on a tourist visa. The case is still pending.
Companies in Asia can embrace change despite laws that lag international standards, as many companies in the West did years ago for the sake of attracting the best talent, said Michael Vidler, the plaintiff’s lawyer.
“They’re not doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. They are doing it because of the bottom line,” he said.
Panasonic should be applauded for making the first move, said John Challenger, chief executive of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a Chicago-based company that specializes in jobs and careers.
“A spouse is a spouse,” he said. “People have come to the conclusion there is no reason for people to hide their sexuality. Why put them through that stress?”