Akihiro Suto welcomes his clients with a smile. His real estate agency, IRIS, is located in a residential area of Setagaya district. This agency is unique in terms of being run for, and by, people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
Shota and Jay are a gay couple who decided to move in together. They chose IRIS as their agency because they didn't want to have to struggle to explain their relationship.
"When a male couple is looking for a room, realtors tend to be interested in their relationship. We hesitate to say we're couple," says Shota. Jay adds, "People who aren't familiar with the LGBT community sometimes ask rude questions. Here, we didn't have that stress and it was easier to talk."
To overcome prejudice
Suto knows the issues his clients face. He's experienced them himself.
He says that Japan's real estate industry is conservative. Landlords often refuse to rent to gay couples, or cancel a transgender tenant's contract after seeing that their gender doesn't match their ID.
"There are some owners who just don't know about LGBT people and because they don't know, they reject us," says Suto.
Suto began by trying to educate other people, including those in the real estate industry.
He tried to make his company known through TV, radio, websites and social media. Suto's company was featured by two major industry magazines. That coverage is helping bring attention to these issues.
He has also had to negotiate with management companies and property owners. One of the owners, Naoki Tsuchiya, says he didn't know the term LGBT, or understand that people faced these sorts of issues. After hearing about Suto's company, Tsuchiya has decided to create a share home specifically for LGBT renters.
Tsuchiya says he hopes his example will trigger a broader movement.
Since Suto started his company in 2017, the business has continuously increased.
Breaking down barriers through education
Suto also tries to fight discrimination by educating the next generation. In July, he visited a high school in Kanagawa prefecture, next to Tokyo. He spoke to the students and answered their questions about the challenge of being LGBT in Japan.
One student asked Suto about the time he recognized that he is gay. Another student asked him what measures Suto wants to see introduced in Japanese society.
Suto talked about the confusion and suffering he experienced when he recognized that he might be gay, and expressed hope that people in Japan will try to be more accepting, rather than deny something without knowing much about it.
After the class, Suto said that he isn't just focused on making a profit with IRIS. He also thinks about how he can contribute to society.
"I want to help make life easier for people who are LGBT or from another minority group," he says.