Koki Hayashi of Letibee was walking a difficult path by combining a startup business with social activism. Japan is very rapidly becoming more accepting of LGBT individuals, and we’ve seen very rapid progress over the past two years for gay rights.

Letibee is an online gathering place for Japan’s LGBT community, and they generate revenues not only by selling advertising to companies wishing to reach the gay community, but by providing consulting services to Japanese corporations who increasingly want to understand how to better interact with their gay customers and employees.

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The following is a summary. You can hear the full interview with Koki on the podcast.

Tim: Tell me a bit about Letibee.

Hayashi: Letibee runs a community app for Japanese LGBT people called Nesty. This group originally conjugated on Mixi, but we wanted to offer the community more.

Tim: What is your business model? It’s great to develop a community and to promote social goals, but how do you make money from it?

Hayashi: We make money a few ways. First, we sell advertising to companies who want to target the LGBT community. Dentsu research has shown that this is a huge market in Japan, but only a few brands have successfully targeted it so far. We also provide corporate consulting for companies on how they can better interact with both their gay customers and their gay employees.

Tim: Are your consulting clients more focused on reaching gay customers or on working with gay staff.

Hayashi: Right now most of them are interested in the marketing opportunities or better serving the gay community. For example, we worked with a wedding chapel that wanted to work with gay couples, but they didn’t understand how to connect with them or what kinds of services they expected. However, over the last few years, their has been an increased focus on gay rights in Japan, and many companies do want to understand the needs of their gay employees better.

Tim: Last year Dentsu research showed that 7.6% of all adult Japanese identify as gay or bisexual. With so many people openly identifying as gay, is it easier for employees to be openly gay at Japanese companies.

Hayashi: For now, it is still very difficult. I have some friends who are open to their company about being gay, but most choose not to. They think it will hurt their career. Most Japanese people don’t know what to expect when dealing with LGBT people. Their opinions are formed mostly by watching TV shows, so it’s not a realistic view. Even though there are many LGBT people in Japan, being open can cause a lot of confusion or discomfort amount your business colleges, so most people just keep it to themselves.

Tim: Are things changing?

Hayashi: There has been a lot of progress recently. A number of wards and cities accept same-sex marriage, and several politicians are talking about the need for better understanding gay citizens. I think the trigger was probably the discussion about gay marriage in America. That got a lot of people in Japan discussing the topic as well. There have also been a few companies like GMO Internet who have run marketing campaigns focused on how they support the gay community,

Tim: Everyone says that Japan changes slowly, but that’s not really true. When change starts to happen, things can change incredibly quickly.

Hayashi: That’s true. Actually, Japan does not traditionally have a negative attitude towards gay people.  In the Meji era, Christianity came to Japan and the social attitudes changed. That influence is still very strong today.

Tim: Really? There are many more gays than there are Christians in Japan.

Hayashi: I guess that’s true, but the Christian influence was what changed Japan’s attitudes towards gays, I think that’s why we’ll see the attitudes change back quickly. Most Japanese don’t really care if a person is gay or not. There is just uncertainly about how to interact with them.

Tim: Do you think being an outsider has helped you think more innovatively or helped motivate you to start a company.

Hayashi: Yes, I think so. Being different makes you question things a lot more. It makes you see a lot of situations and think “That’s not right. I can improve that.”  Is also helped that I have a strong passion about trying to change things. More importantly, though, I think that diversity of opinion and experience is very important. For example, out team has a mixture of Japanese and Western staff.

Tim: How does that help?

Hayashi: It gives you different ways of seeing things. What’s considered normal in Japan and the US is very different, so sometimes we get a variety of views on any given challenge. Of course, sometimes this leads to a lot of disagreements, but I think diversity is an advantage overall.

Tim: That makes sense. In fact, I think the increase in acceptance of startups will probably lead to more social acceptance as well. A society cannot say “We want economic innovation and diversity, but not political and social innovation and diversity.” Everything changes together.

Hayashi: Maybe we will see that. I hope so, but you work with a lot of startups. It’s not typical. Most of Japan just wants to follow the rules. It’s easy to have a good life in Japan if you just follow the rules. I think what we are seeing with gay rights in Japan now, is that people are not really anti-gay, but are simply trying to figure out what the appropriate rules are. That’s why I am optimistic about progress in the future.

Since the original interview, Hayashi-san has left Letibee to pursue other goals. We will have to wait for a few more years to see if his predictions about the course of gay rights in Japan come to pass.  The trends he mentions are still in motion, and I think most people are cautiously optimistic.