Creating Space For Queer Nikkei: Okaeri holds online conference to educate and form community


Delayed by about a year, and held wholly online, Okaeri Los Angeles held its fourth conference to connect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Nikkei and their allies from across the country. The two-day conference, held over Zoom meetings, featured presentations on mental health, the state of the campaign for marriage equality in Japan, and discussions on sexuality and the non-binary pop-star Utada Hikaru. 

According to Justin Kawaguchi, an Okaeri co-chair, some 200 participants from 15 states, as well as Japan, Canada and Peru joined the conference this year. It also featured musical performances by queer performance artists, and a closing drag performance by Gia Gunn. 

The opening plenary featured personal stories by Jen Ruggirello, Keisuke Lee-Miyaki, Mariko Fujimoto Rooks and Janet Umezu in a discussion moderated by Mia Barnett. 

Their stories reflected the diversity of topics and people attending the event.

Ruggirello, a Yonsei writer and YouTuber, spoke about her experience working at BuzzFeed and how her coming out intersects with her Japanese American identity. After coming out as a lesbian on a video for BuzzFeed, Ruggirello said they realized the impact they made, as well as realizing what it means to have a community. While working on a piece about the Japanese American wartime incarceration, she met a queer Japanese American coworker who had also seen her LGBTQ content.

“When I was talking to my coworker about Japanese American stuff, and I found out he was LGBT, it was like this, kind of big crystallizing moment for me, because I realized I hadn’t really known out Japanese Americans at that point in my life,” Ruggirello said. “I hadn’t realized I’d felt so alone in that very specific way until I started meeting other LGBT Japanese Americans and it was this really overwhelming thing because it was like, how amazing is it that like, the world is so huge, but also somehow small enough for us to find each other?”

For Fujimoto Rooks, her Japanese American identity was fundamental since an early age, growing up Southern California. The Black Yonsei reflected on her own queerness and how it challenges the status quo of what it means to be Japanese American. They argued, as much as Japanese American sports and community spaces helped give them a place and identity, they also enforced a cisgender heterosexual norm. Combined with prejudice particularly against outspoken Black women, it took some time to find their authentic self.

“And this is why queerness, I think is so powerful. Queerness teaches us to question everything, to question what we assume to be true, and why and how we come to those conclusions and assumptions,” she said. 

Lee-Miyaki, meanwhile spoke about how he was outed as a gay non-binary Buddhist priest in Hiroshima, Japan. The societal expectations and pressures within the Japanese Buddhist church drove him to leave the country for San Francisco, where he met his husband and started to make amends with his family. As the heir to a family temple, Lee-Miyaki said he was expected to live a cisgender and heteronormative life to carry on the family legacy. Those expectations ran counter to his identity. While the Buddhist church in Japan had officially welcomed LGBTQ+ people, he said the patriarchal systems that expected him to find a wife and have kids resulted in him being harassed and bullied by his community.

The Zuckerberg San Francisco General and University of California San Francisco Medical Center Buddhist chaplain, however, said his family has gradually come to accept him, enough so that several of his family members attended his wedding in 2016.

Janet Umezu brought a parent’s

perspective to the event. Umezu, who is the mother of a lesbian daughter, transgender son and a cisgender daughter, recounted the 12-year journey her family has undertaken since her son Norio first came out as a lesbian in 2009. Later, when Norio came out as a trans male, Umezu said she buried her head in the sand at the news. After her son introduced her to Marsha Aizumi, Okaeri’s co-founder and a fellow parent of a trans son, she found comfort in knowing she was not alone.

“I thought to myself, at least there’s another Japanese family out there, who was going through what our family was going through. And that is when I realized, eventually, that meeting other parents who were going through the same thing as I was experiencing, or had already experienced, made me feel not alone. It helped me to come to truly accept my children as they are.”

While the conference had a wealth of programming centered around queer Nikkei and their experiences, the programming also focused on building connections among allies, especially among parents of LGBTQ+ children.

During the “Through the Ups and Downs, Loving Our LGBTQ+ Children” panel moderated by Stacey Shigaya, board secretary of PFLAG Denver, panelists discussed their journeys as parents of LGBTQ children. Cas Mitsuko Zirkelbach spoke about raising her younger children and how she raised Rose, her six-year-old genderqueer daughter. Karen Murakami spoke about how she stood up for her two adult gay sons within her community. Erik Takayesu reflected on how he had to grow as a parent after his step-daughter came out as transgender.

Murakami said she wanted to foster a welcoming environment for her sons, especially after learning that one of them was shunned from church life when he first tried to come out. Murakami said she wanted to protect them “no matter how old they are, as their mom.” 

“While my journey keeps changing, I know it is important for me to continue to work to provide a safe space for my sons and a place within the church community where my son’s and other LGBTQ people can attend and feel fully welcome for whom they are,” she said. “It’s also been really important for me to help create the same type of safe space at my place of work,” Murakami said.

Takayesu also spoke about his own experience at work. While he felt he was supportive, he learned there was much to do when his daughter came out and told him and his wife that she did not trust them.

“That conversation was, I would say, an awakening because I had known Alex since she was four years old. So to come out, as nearly in high school to say, ‘I don’t trust you,’ that brought a lot of feelings. It brought a lot of realization,” Takayesu said. “That’s where I think my own acceptance journey began, because I realized that I wasn’t self aware of my own behaviors, how they might be contributing to the way Alex was feeling.”

The panel discussed a poster the Family Acceptance Project developed at San Francisco State University. The poster explains 100 behaviors parents exhibit that are both helpful and hurtful to their LGBTQ+ children. While the posters offer parents guidance on how to do better for their kids, Shigaya said they can serve as encouragement as well.

“It kind of looks like a bingo screen, if you start looking at the affirmative behaviors and realizing, ‘Oh, well yeah, I’ve been doing this and I’ve been doing that’ and it does make you feel like you’ve been making progress and you can give yourself a pat on the back,” she said. “Give yourself some grace if you’re still struggling. Everyone is at their own point in the journey, so we want to make sure that we don’t inflict more pain on ourselves as allies and family members and parents, when we find that we either aren’t doing as many positive behaviors as we would like, or we are doing hurtful behaviors.”

Aizumi, one of the founders of Okaeri Los Angeles and the mother of a transgender son, said she organized the conferences to show support for the LGBTQ+ members of the Japanese American community, as well as their family. While this year’s conference was held online, she hopes to hold a hybrid event in 2023.

“One mother talked about how afraid she was of rejection from our JA community and how Okaeri was a place where she felt safe and supported to learn and grow. As human beings we are all wired for connection. We all want a place to belong. And so I hope Okaeri can be one of the places where people feel they belong and are valued,” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly in an e-mail.

 “I hope people felt seen, heard and valued. I hope people were transformed into being more loving, more courageous and will go out and become more visible voices in their families, schools, companies, churches and temples,” Aizumi said. “I hope allies see that LGBTQ+ people and their families are just regular people wanting to find meaning and joy in their life, just like everyone else.”

To download a copy of the Family Acceptance Project posters, visit:

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