TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Japan's gay and lesbian community marched in Tokyo on Saturday at the first gay parade in three years, campaigning for greater acceptance in a socially conservative country where being openly gay remains taboo.
Police said about 4,000 people in flamboyant costumes, waving rainbow flags and dancing on trucks rallied at the 7th Tokyo Pride Parade, the biggest gay parade held to date in Japan which has a traditional, family-orientated society.
The parade returns after a three year absence because the organizers struggled to find enough staff for the event with many gay Japanese hiding their sexuality at home and in the workplace.
In Japan gays are prohibited from donating blood and same-sex couples have no rights to civil partnerships. Some gay Japanese men and lesbian women will marry someone of the opposite sex to hide their sexuality and avoid discrimination.
Hideki Sunagawa, organizer of the rally, said coming out in a workplace was nearly impossible and Tokyo Pride is a rare opportunity for people to really be themselves.
"We are desperate to move mainstream to show people that being gay is normal," Sunagawa told Reuters.
"This year for the first time ever apart from the usual gay websites and bars we also attracted big international sponsors such as Google, Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Citigroup."
The parade has grown from a local rally first organized 10 years ago into a major event involving lawmakers, non-government organization activists, celebrities and local councilors.
Many side events took place alongside Tokyo Pride in the city's Shinjuku district which is home to about 250 gay and lesbian bars.
Japan has no laws against homosexuality but there are few openly gay politicians so political parties express little public support for gay rights.
Although the number of participants in the parade is on the rise, it is a small crowd in a city of 12.8 million people and the event is relatively small even by Asian standards.
"In a society that makes you think only love between man and woman is correct, many homosexuals struggle to accept themselves the way they are," said Aika Taira, 42, a protestant pastor from Kanagawa prefecture near Tokyo waving a rainbow flag.
"I'm openly gay and this makes it easier for homosexuals from the community to come to my church and seek advice."
Reporting by Antoni Slodkowski, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith