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Panasonic's same-sex marriage stance isolated

By Associated Press in Tokyo (China Daily) Updated: 2016-03-02 08:20

For decades, Panasonic Corp has shaped Japanese corporate tradition - be it morning exercise routines or lifetime employment. But don't hold your breath waiting for other Asian businesses to emulate its latest policy announcement: Recognizing same-sex partnerships.

Much of Asia remains far behind the West in such attitudes. Panasonic's move is rare, although bold, and seems unlikely to herald a sea change.

In China, South Korea, the Philippines and much of the rest of Asia, "coming out of the closet" still has enormous consequences, not just for the individual but also for family members who might become targets of abuse and ostracism. It's an act requiring tremendous courage in Asian cultures that value conformity, traditional family structures and harmony.

Even the way Panasonic responded to media queries about its decision was telling. It said it had considered the move for more than a decade, but offered no details. The maker of the Viera TV and Lumix camera appeared overwhelmed by the outpouring of interest, mostly from Western media, and said it could not provide interviews on the issue.

Lenny Sanicola, an employee benefit expert at WorldatWork, a Washington-based nonprofit, was surprised by Panasonic's low-key stance. A US company pioneering such a move would be announcing its decision with fanfare and likely getting showered with praise, he said.

"Panasonic would be a pioneer in Japan," he said, noting that sending a message about valuing diversity would attract younger talent that is urgently needed in an aging society like Japan.

It's only a matter of time before Asian nations adopt what has become the dominant message in Europe and North America, Sanicola said.

"It's business as usual. We treat everyone the same," he said in a recent interview.

Same-sex marriage is legal in the US. The Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that same-sex couples have the right to marry. In the US, employers are required to abide by federal regulations on retirement plans, health insurance and other benefits for spouses already, and a review of company policies on the state level has begun.

"Recognition of changing social mores and a desire to enhance diversity appeal to prospective employees, as well as prospective customers," said Karen Cates, a professor at Kellogg School of Management. "In short, it is good business."

Throughout Asia, same-sex marriages are not legal. A few local governments in Japan now recognize such partnerships as the equivalent of marriage. That includes Tokyo's Shibuya ward, a bastion of Japan's youth culture and its equivalent of Silicon Valley. There are no legal penalties for violations.

Japanese public sentiment is generally unsympathetic to LGBT issues, and local media speculated that Panasonic merely made its same-sex marriage decision because it was an Olympic sponsor.

The International Olympic Committee opposes discrimination on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. But Emmanuelle Moreau, an IOC spokeswoman, denied it influences company policies.

Toyota Motor Corp of Japan and Samsung Electronics Co of South Korea have diversity policies. But Toyota said that doesn't extend to recognizing same-sex marriage, and it's not considering any change. Samsung said its policies are specific for the country depending on local laws, including benefits.

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