A businessman sits in silhouette on a rainbow against a complex sky, contemplating coming out at work

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Japanese companies have unique cultural, communication, and operational challenges. But they also have values that have led to remarkable longevity. Check out this seminar to hear how these values help earn trust from overseas head offices and develop employees.

Joining a new company is always exciting. You have an opportunity to start fresh, wow people with your accumulated knowledge, and upgrade your skills.

But what about coming out at work? How much of your authentic self can you really show?

Fitting into an office culture, even when you’re not new, comes with obstacles. Some rules are written; others are subtext. And if you’re part of an underrepresented group, such as the LGBTQ+ community, things only get more complicated. Even companies that try to embrace DEI don’t always know how to facilitate coming out at work, or other issues across cultures, genders, sexual identities, and generations.

Olivier Fabre has enjoyed a long career in media, working with respected outlets such as Reuters and Nikkei Japan. But as a gay man, he’s also experienced self-doubt, discrimination, and systemic inequality. Now he works with Pride House Tokyo Legacy, a hub of NPOs, activists, corporations, and embassies that want to create a safe space for an LGBTQ+ community with much to offer.

We spoke with Fabre about coming out at work across multiple time zones and the obstacles that remain for Japan, Asia, and offices across the world.

Using Japanese Values to Thrive in Global Business

Japanese companies have unique cultural, communication, and operational challenges. But they also have values that have led to remarkable longevity. Check out this seminar to hear how these values help earn trust from overseas head offices and develop employees.

Image of Mr. Olivier Fabre
Olivier Fabre

“The moment I actually said it out loud, I realized…”

Insights: To begin, can you tell us how you approached coming out at work? Did you feel it had to be an announcement?

Fabre: I actually came out to the people in the office before I came out to my friends or my family. But I had to come out to myself first.

I was working in Singapore, at the Reuters regional HQ. That was the first time I saw openly out LGBTQ staff—one of them was my boss. She had a girlfriend on the desk, someone on the camera crew was gay, and the engineer was gay.

Then I took a weekend trip with a lesbian camera operator I worked with. We were having beers on the beach, watching the sunset, getting a little tipsy, and I thought to myself, “She’s a lesbian. I can probably talk to her about it.” And so I turned to her and said, “You know, I think I might be gay.” And the moment I actually said it out loud, I realized, “No. I am gay.”

It was a big moment for me, but she just kind of shrugged and said, “Yeah, all right. Good on ya, mate!”

Insights: So it helped to be around coworkers who were part of the LGBTQ community when coming out at work?

Fabre: Yes, but actually, I think what was really important for me was hearing the other non-LGBTQ people talk to their LGBTQ coworkers totally casually.

Once I’d given myself permission to be gay, I started dating guys and found Singapore was, surprisingly, a very easy place to be gay. Then one day I came to the office after a date, and somebody just said, “So who’s the lucky girl or guy?” And that was the moment. It was like an invitation to actually be honest. And that was it.

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“In Japan, in those days, it was fine to be gay if you were flamboyant, funny, and foreign. But that wasn’t who I was.”

Insights: Coming out at work in Singapore sounds like it went pretty smoothly, but you’ve also worked in Japan. Was the experience different here?

Fabre: Tokyo was a bit different. It was still fine in the end, but it was something I had to tell people.

In Japan, in those days, it was fine to be gay if you were flamboyant, funny, and foreign. You had to be the entertainer, the comic. And that wasn’t who I was. After Singapore, I came out in the Tokyo office, and it was like, “I’m gay!” . . . met by silence. But it wasn’t a big deal, either.

Insights: Do you think coming out at work would’ve been a bigger deal if you were Japanese?

Fabre: At that time, possibly. There were some gay people I worked with in Japan—from the older generation—who were really over the top, to the point where it made other people uncomfortable. And I think, for them, it was a protective shell. A lot of funny people do that. They are self-deprecatingly funny, and it’s fun until you realize they’re trying to protect themselves from somebody saying something really hurtful.

I met some of these people outside of work, and when they were around other LGBTQ people, they behaved much more normally.

Insights: Nowadays, is that pressure to conform to a stereotype when coming out at work fading?

Fabre: It is. For the new, younger generation, I definitely think so. The older generation is still stuck in what I think of as the old OS. We haven’t upgraded.

In Japan, it’s still about baby steps. One thing I’ve noticed is that Japanese people really want the official stamp on things. So once you have the government saying same-sex marriage is OK, it’ll be fine for a lot of people because it’s legal.

“We’ve got a generation of young Japanese LGBTQ people who are politically savvy and media savvy.”

Insights: Why do you think so many people find coming out at work so difficult? Is it pressure to conform, or something else?

Fabre: The best explanation I got was that, particularly in Japan, a lot of people move around within the same company. So they’re concerned that, even if their section of the company now is accepting, the next place they move to might not be. It might follow them, and they won’t have the choice of going back into the closet.

If you try to change companies, it might also depend on the industry. Media, in particular, is a small industry. People usually know each other.

Insights: Is that still a concern for members of the Japanese media?

Fabre: It has changed a lot, but it’s still a concern. There’s a Japanese word taikaikei, which means “sports club.” You’re all in a club together and fighting hard. It’s extremely macho, whether you’re a man or woman. You’re expected to be part of the team and work hard and be as macho as possible. That has changed a lot—some media companies have LGBTQ+ employee groups and even openly out broadcast reporters, but it’s all very recent.

Insights: What triggered the change?

Fabre: It really all started in 2015 with Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward becoming the first in Japan to recognize same-sex marriage. I think we’ve got a generation of young—and when I say “young,” I mean thirties and forties—Japanese LGBTQ people who are politically savvy and media savvy. The previous generation of Japanese LGBTQ activists were more intellectual. They wrote books and magazine articles, but they didn’t have the experience of the bigger corporate world.

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“The moment you confine an identity to a label, you lose the beauty of it.”

Insights: Coming out at work could label you as, say, “the gay guy.” What’s your perspective on labeling identities?

Fabre: Labels are tricky. It’s hard to be the lone voice, and that’s why labels are important. But we have to also be careful that labels don’t confine us. I’m gay, but that’s not all I am. I’m also a third culture kid, also French, also Japanese.

We were recently interviewing these nonbinary Japanese people, and one of them said something interesting about what it means to be nonbinary. We often think about having a line between male and female. But for them, it was more like having red water and blue water separated by a wall, and then having that wall lifted so the waters were mingling.

That’s how I feel my cultural identities are. It’s not French here, Japanese here. There’s a bit here, a bit there, some parts stronger than the others. I think that’s what identities are. But the moment you confine them to a label, you lose the beauty of it.

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