(Updated November 2021)
Gay Life in Japan
One person’s experience of Gay Japan, like anywhere, depends on where one is standing and who one is with. The range in this country is from dark closets to public pride events.
In their upbeat report Nomadic Boys Travelers Stefan and Sebastien have mostly positive things to say about being gay in modern Japan: friendly people, good food, easy travel as found in their gay guide to Tokyo, which is the best place to start with the most to offer to LGBT visitors. There are many websites to examine with dozens of venues and scenic activities, online and in print. It is not easy to discern the difference between a gay bar and a gay club. Often they blend into similar modes with a bar, stools, tables, perhaps a small stage for shows, usually drag. Some are aimed at specific patrons: men only, women only, trans-friendly, Japanese only, foreigner-welcome, bear clubs…there are venues for all flavors—fems, butch, rice queens, karaoke, professionals, thinks and seniors.
A gay traveler can spend a few weeks mingling with only ‘our community’ such as the popular Shinjuku Ni Chōme area of Tokyo, and come away with a happy selective experience. Many first-time folks prefer to book a tour to help navigate the intense blaze of neon in Tokyo’s narrow streets and the maze of visible and invisible places to eat and drink.
But the everyday ‘lived experience’ of being LGBT Japanese is diverse and quite different from the tourist-friendly happy hours and cheerful comrades that visitors commonly find. I searched the Net and strangely found only a few gay saunas for a city of 22 million people. On the other hand I found hundreds of bars hidden in plain sight.
I looked for a mix, for the ‘other’ world, the one where a 36 year-old tour agent is not out to his parents, yet. Where my personal experience included being turned away from several hotels in the red-light district because we were two guys.
To dig more deeply into the truth of LGBT life in Japan, I reviewed a survey (2017) by an academic Japanese person, Masami Tamagawa, who teaches at Skidmore College in upstate New York. She interviewed dozens of LGBT Japanese people about their lives in contemporary gay Japan. Here’s a sample of some of her findings:
Scholars and activists attest that it is difficult to come out of the closet in Japan. Difficult to come out to parents, more than to coworkers or schoolmates. Four reasons for this include patriarchy (dominant cultural male influence), predominance of a heterosexually oriented culture, a lack of widespread GLBT presence in popular culture and general homophobia in contemporary Japanese society.
A major part of these four parts is the lack of widespread and intelligent LGBT visibility in popular culture. Clownish transvestite characters on TV and social media lead to a misperception of ‘real’ gay people in the public mind. On the contrary, most LGBT people are thoughtful and ‘normal’ with real jobs and real families.
The effect of this lack is that only 5% of Japanese—compared to 46% worldwide—admit to having a colleague, close friend, or relative who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, second lowest among developed countries. The Japanese closet is big and crowded.
Home is where people traditionally express their authentic feelings for better or worse. Home is the seed for personality as a person grows and develops into full adulthood. The principles and ethics of one’s life begin here including love and homophobia. Coming out to parents is a critically important decision for their own emotional well being. As a result, most LGBTs are not out: one study found only 7.3% are out to both parents, whereas 44.4% say that they came out to someone other than their parents. Japanese mothers often blame themselves as the cause of their children’s homosexuality.
In Japan LGBT individuals usually don’t easily become independent of their families because Japanese society strongly stigmatizes LGBT individuals, possibly as well as their parents, when/if they come out. Legally there is a lack of protections for same-sex couples in contemporary Japanese society. Recently a Japanese district court for the first time ruled that not allowing same-sex couples to marry is unconstitutional however, the Japanese national government has consistently denied the right of same-sex marriage.
Because of strong Confucian influence, the maintenance and continuation of the family is considered one of the most important aspects of Japanese culture. Japanese parents urge their children to have heteronormative lives by marrying and having children thus producing grandchildren (future caretakers) for them. Usually this is not stated directly but quiet homophobia is present in every corner of Japanese society. It is often said that coming out is an ongoing process, that it is necessary for LGBT individuals to come out again and again throughout their lives. Some gay individuals and couples never succeed in this daunting effort to come out to parents. Since the family is the basic unit of Japanese society it is the context where negative attitudes and feelings toward homosexuality are most often internalized. A strong fear exists of “queering the family home” by declaring one’s unusual orientation; the closer the relationships, the less likely they are to come out and risk being unaccepted. If a gay son or daughter considers introducing a boyfriend or girlfriend to their parents, they usually use the only acceptable option—introduce them as just a friend.
Japan has well-known gay communities all over the country, most famously Shinjuku in Tokyo, the leading hub of gay subculture. Shinjuku contains one of the highest concentrations of gay bars and night clubs. It is said there are more than 300 within this area, according to one count. These bars are where LGBT individuals feel more at ease spending time separate from their everyday lives—it’s not unlike an entertainment district, including brothels (gay and straight), game shops, restaurants overnight hotels and 7-11 stores open 24 hours. Gay folks of all ages come and enjoy what Shinjuku offers and then leave to resume their normal lives.
(It is notable, however, that very few well-known people have dared to come out in Japan. However Star Trek, American-Japanese actor George Takei, is probably the most well known out gay person. Said he recently, “after Pearl Harbor my family were rounded up and taken two-thirds of the way across the country to the swamps of Arkansas. There, we were confined in a barbed-wire prison camp.”)
I visited the Shinjuku area one night to find it bustling and confusing. Few signs are in English and many of the tiny bars are on the uppers floors in residential apartment buildings accessed by tiny elevators whose push-button directories are not in English. Be prepared to ask questions of strangers—anyone—who may speak English.
Once inside a venue I found a really small space, short bars with perhaps five or eight seats and little standing room. Often there will be a patron or bartender who can speak a bit of English, enough to order a drink—an expensive soft drink costs about US$12. I felt awkward as I had no one to converse with and ask questions so the little bar became boring and claustrophobic. This happened at all three places I visited so it helps to be with a guide or group.
The generational gap in attitudes toward homosexuality in Japan is the widest among 57 developed countries worldwide. The oldest generation (60s and above) is far less tolerant of homosexuality. Younger generations have been exposed to and influenced by the so-called gay boom since the early 1990s in the West, as well as the popular media in Japan. American TV shows and films that deal with or feature LGBT characters or issues are not uncommon.
Gay Comic Books
A unique feature of this culture is the popularity of LGBT comic books (graphic novels—manga) which feature blatant sexual content—stories and images—very popular especially among young women. I saw dozens of these books on magazine racks in shops and in street kiosks in the gay areas with drawings of colorful sexy guys in homoerotic positions.
The term yaoi translates to no climax (as in the climax of a story), no plot, no meaning. This references to the lack of story in the comics and the focus on sex or s/m violence. Yaoi has become a more encompassing term of any fictional media that focuses on homoerotic relationships. The lead characters in yaoi novels are often bishounen or beautiful pretty-boy types of men with very feminine features—as well as buff muscular men. The majority of these comics are written for women by women, and some yaoi authors are lesbians. Of course such books are appealing to a wide segment of gay people.
Japan’s first Lesbian and Gay Parade, was held in Tokyo in 1994. Stonewall happened in 1969, 25 years previous. The first Trans march in Tokyo was staged in November 2021. They have become formidable gatherings of Japanese LGBT culture.
Gay Japan News & Reports 2000 to present