Smiling image of Kan, a Japanese gay man striving to become a role model for psychological safety in Japan
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“It’s OK not to be OK.” These words, shared with Time Magazine, summarize an important lesson we all learned from tennis pro Naomi Osaka this year. The world watched as Osaka went from ranking No.1 among female players to exposing her mental health vulnerability and raising her voice for Black Lives Matter. Her courage exposing her weakness has made her a powerful and relatable role model.

In a world struggling with psychological safety, role models are more important than ever.

Another iconic figure out of Japan, professionally known as Kan, is also on a journey to become a role model. His mission? To support inclusivity for the LGBTQ+ community. And like Osaka, he sees vulnerability as a strength.

Kan’s struggles with the unbending gender roles of Japanese society started early. As a child, the pressure to conform took a psychological toll, such that he was unable to attend school until the middle of junior high. How did he go from a shy, confused boy to an iconic figure featured on Queer Eye: We’re in Japan!?

The answer came in finding psychological safety—and a mission to share his courage with those who are still marginalized.

Image of Kan speaking while wrapped in a rainbow flag
Kan’s mission to become a role model for LGBTQ+ psychological safety began with his own struggles with sexual identity. | Photo credit: Kan

Searching for a Safe Place

Misato Nagakawa: Tell us about your childhood. What did you want to be when you grew up?

Kan: I didn’t really have a dream when I was a kid. I don’t think I had the space in my mind to think about the future.

I actually stopped going to school from kindergarten to the middle of junior high. School was an uncomfortable place for me. At that time, I couldn’t explain why, but looking back, it had to do with my identity as gay—something I didn’t really realize about myself until the end of middle school.

If I had felt more comfortable, if there hadn’t been such pressure to conform to such strict gender roles and heteronormativity, I could’ve focused a lot more on other things that made me happy. But so much of my energy went into just feeling safe.

Nagakawa: What eventually made you want to go back to the school?

Kan: I found joy in studying English and joining club activities. Those things gave school meaning again, though unfortunately it didn’t last forever. I ended up going back to correspondence school for high school—for the same reason.

During university, I was still looking for places where I could feel safe. Every time I moved to a new place, I had this creeping doubt: “Will they judge me for who I am?”

Later, job hunting really became a hunt for psychological safety. That was more important to me than thinking about what I wanted for my career. Japan didn’t seem able to offer that, so I decided to go abroad. In Canada, it seemed to me that everyone was very open about their identity. It made me feel safe.

Nagakawa: It sounds like you had a really tough situation growing up. Was there anything early on that could have changed your experience?

Kan: Role models. Back then, we did not have smartphones, and most of the computers were huge desktop types. Information was very limited. The only openly LGBTQ+ people I saw were on TV, and they were subject to societal pressure, too. Many of them were objects of ridicule, the butt of jokes. It wasn’t the image I needed. I needed a role model for daily life.

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A Culture of Natural Authenticity

Nagakawa: You worked for a Japanese cosmetics company when you returned from your studies. What made you want to work in that industry?

Kan: It goes back to my time in middle school. I had terrible acne, so I used my mom’s face wash. I was so amazed at how it cleared up my skin. I wanted to work for an industry that makes people feel that kind of happiness.

Nagakawa: Was there any particular reason you chose a Japanese company rather than an international one?

Kan: I just thought that the experience of working for a Japanese company would be beneficial. It has to do with my roots—I am Japanese, after all, and understanding the culture and system of my home country felt necessary. And my experience in the cosmetic industry was a positive one. It was fun, and the culture and people were very good. They did not see me as a category—my age, sexuality, or where I graduated from. They saw me as an individual. I felt I was accepted.

Nagakawa: After struggling with psychological safety growing up, what aspect of the cosmetic company’s culture made you feel safe?

Kan: I was able to be open about being gay. They took it as something very natural. I took two-week breaks twice a year to visit my now-husband Tom in the UK, and whenever I came back, they always asked, “How was your partner?”

This might be a common culture within the cosmetics industry—accepting different lives of different people.

Nagakawa: And yet eventually, you decided to move to the UK, where you now live with Tom. (Congratulations on your recent wedding, by the way!) Was it difficult for you to leave Japan for good?

Kan: Yes, I did struggle with the decision. But in Japan, I didn’t even have the choice to get married. Same-sex marriage isn’t legal here, and Tom and I knew that early on. We’d already promised to live in the UK together.

The really difficult thing is that I don’t even know if I’d choose Japan if I could. The option doesn’t even exist. That’s really sad.

A Safe Space on . . . Social Media?

Nagakawa: You’ve been active on social media, gaining a growing following on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. How did you get into that?

Kan: When I was kid, I did not have role models. I want to be a part of fixing that. Of course, I don’t represent the whole gay community, but I want to do what I can as one individual.

Nagakawa: Social media can be a tough audience. How has your experience been so far?

Kan: Well, most responses are positive, especially on Instagram. This has to do with the characteristics of the platform. On Twitter, things are a bit different since people can spread my posts by retweeting. When that happens, the tone of the opinions sometimes changes. There are some negative voices. But I have a personal rule to use social media only as far as it brings me happiness—as long as I feel psychological safety. If I don’t have enough mental energy to deal with certain voices, I just don’t react to them.

However, I also try to learn from different opinions, even the negative ones. This requires some effort from both sides, but still, I feel I need to  hear those voices to understand them.

Kan and his husband Tom happily embracing at their wedding
Kan and his husband Tom at their wedding | Photo credit: Visuals of Scotland

The Many Kinds of “Us”

Nagakawa: When you hear the word “diversity,” what comes to mind?

Kan: It’s really difficult to understand what diversity truly means. Take the Tokyo Olympics, for instance: one of the three core concepts was “Unity in Diversity.” But was Japan really representing either of those concepts? Did we all have the same understanding of whose diversity we were talking about? Society naturally has a lot of diversity—there are many kinds of “us.” What matters is to create a society where no one is left behind.

Nagakawa: How do we create such a society?

Kan: First, each of us should ask ourselves what privileges we have. My privileges, for example, are being a man, being multilingual, and having a higher education.

Once we recognize our privileges, it changes what we say and what we do. And that’s a good thing—we should all act knowing what privileges we carry. That’s how you become aware of not only “the majority” and “the minority,” but other, intersectional groups. Awareness enables you to hear voices that are often suppressed in society.

Finally, we all need to repeat this process. Re-evaluate your privileges from time to time, and think about what you say and do. That’s how we create a society with true diversity. 

Nagakawa: Very inspiring! What would you say to someone who says, “I want to be like you”?

Kan: I would ask them what they mean. Are they talking about my career? Or living overseas? Or my relationship? Which aspect of me are they looking at?

I believe that weakness is strength. In fact, I’m concerned that when people say or hear, “Be yourself!” the spotlight is on the positive. To me, being myself means being who I am—all the positives and negatives. So I don’t just want to accept my weaknesses privately. I want to show them. And I hope that by showing them, I can encourage others to do the same. That is the kind of role model I want to be.

Nagakawa: In Japan, people tend to have an image that LGBTQ+ activities are mostly done by activists. How can we expand that view to involve more people?

Kan: Once again, it’s important for everyone to start thinking about their own privileges. It’s not a matter of “What can I do?” but a matter of “What can we do?”

I sometimes get inquiries from corporations asking me how they can promote diversity and inclusion through their business activities. But looking outward is not always the right first step. It’s also important to look internally. There are many kinds of people inside of every company—think about their diversity and how to include them.

If you can’t create psychological safety for the people you have inside, how can you expect to make a difference outside?

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