Friday, 8 July 2011

Being Gay in Japan

I think it's fair to say that being gay is difficult. I imagine that being gay in a new country is even harder. Imagine being gay in a new country that keeps its homosexual urges under wraps and where you possibly can't speak the language. In this article I aim to give an idea of what it's like to be gay, bisexual, unisexual, fluid, whatever word you want to use - in Japan. After interviewing some of my friends and scouring for resources, my aim is to provide some useful resources and insights into the nature of sexual orientation in Japan

1) The Social Scene

A week after I first moved here, I found myself single (long story). In a new country, preparing for a new chapter in my life, I figured that it was as good a time as any to explore my lady-loving side. Without getting too personal, my personal belief is that everybody falls somewhere between 0 and 100 on a gay-straight continuum, and I'd put myself somewhere around the middle. So, there I was, and with a pocketful of dreams and good intentions, I set out to research where Japan's lesbians hung out.

Searching in Japanese and in English, I hardly found anything beyond a list of bars in Tokyo's Ni-chome, but as if often the case, the male-oriented bars and events outnumbered the female ones. Some of Ni-chome’s locations were lesbian bars, but even those were reportedly small or not very welcoming to foreigners (there are reportedly around 10 male-oriented bars to every 1 female one). Searching on, I heard of a few gay nights at clubs in Osaka, Nagoya and Sapporo, but even those occured perhaps once a month. Wearily, I considered taking myself out to Ni-Chome, but going out with obvious intentions seemed strange to me and I couldn't muster the courage to do it alone. Alas, time went by and I never ventured into a gay bar.

My friend Taylor*, however, a lesbian who moved to Japan last year, seems to have had better luck.

"When I first came to Japan," she told me (this is slightly paraphrased), "it was really hard to find other people. Everything was hidden away... I kept searching and searching for these elusive lesbians... it was like a treasure hunt. Japanese women generally don't 'come out' to anybody but their close friends, so the only real way to find the social scene is to know somebody in it."

She went on to tell me that it was only after she made her sexuality known to as many people as possible that she started to break through to the lesbian "scene". In Tokyo's Ni-Chome (Shinjuku), she was lead to a girl bar called Kynswomen, which she describes as being hidden down multiple corridors and turns - the bar itself being tiny and mostly full of foreigners. Apart from that, she was repeatedly introduced to friends of friends before she managed to find an actual group of lesbians. They were all Japanese, she says, but some of them had a good level of English.

Later on, she was told about an iPhone application called Spindle; similar to the app Grinder for men. Users create profiles and register their location, so that they can search for like-minded people nearby. However, she said, it seems to be mostly other foreigners who know about it (or who use it, anyway). A while later she was introduced to the website BianBian, which is in Japanese, but a useful way to find other girls if you understand the language or use a translator.

Meanwhile, I met a British guy who was quite openly gay and living nearby. He started telling me about gay events in Hamamatsu - I was pretty surprised to find out that there were not only gay discos, but gay coffee evenings, karaoke and even a “gay beach”. These gay nights happen in Planet Cafe, Hamamatsu, once a month; a mixture of girls and boys. After a while, my slow mind put two and two together, and I introduced him to Taylor. Through him, she was able to meet other girls and find out NLGR – Nagoya’s Gay and Lesbian Revolution 2011. On a night out in Nagoya that weekend anyway - with my boyfriend – we found ourselves at the festival for a while. There, we witnessed bikini-clad girls wrestling in jelly. I have pictures, somewhere...

"If you want to find the social scene," Taylor told me, "you really have to work hard. Make sure everyone knows you're gay, and eventually somebody will introduce you to someone, who can introduce you to other people. It's not out in the open. After nearly a year here, I feel like I'm just starting to break into it."

There's also Stonewall Japan, a gay and lesbian group with a Facebook page. It's a good place to meet others, and a good source of information about gay events.

2) Rights, attitudes and history

What about attitudes towards homosexuality in Japan? Depending on where you're from, you might be used to keeping your sexual preferences private, or on the other hand you might have been out and proud back home with no problems.

Firstly, homosexuality is legal in Japan. There are no laws openly discriminating against homosexuality, but neither is there a legal recognition of same-sex relationships. While gay marriage has not been legalised, Japan recently gave its citizens permission to  marry their foreign partners in their own countries (if same-sex marriage is legal there). Great if your gay partner is Canadian, but not such great news if both partners are Japanese. Sadly, it seems that homosexuality is still seen as quite a taboo in Japan.

Taylor tells me about how her company warned her not to tell any of her work colleagues about her sexuality. When she did feel comfortable bringing it up to one female teacher, who she thought was a good friend, she was soon to discover that their friendship had not been as solid as she’d hoped. More extremely, my British friend was actually fired from his first job in Tokyo after his boss discovered that he was gay.
"She asked me if I had AIDS," I remember him telling me one evening, to my shock, "and if I touched kids."

Such severe reactions might not be commonplace, but evidently they do exist. Generally, homosexuality has not been seen as a "sin" as it is in some religions or cultures, but rather a private matter. Historically,  Samurai would often take young boys as lovers, which may be partly why my friend's employer so crudely connected homosexuality and paedophilia. During my internet travels I found the blog History of Japanese Homosexuality, which contains a lot of information about homosexuality in Samurai times - although the author doesn't seem to think too positively about homosexuality, his/her research is extensive and insightful. A lot of information exists about male love, although not so much about lesbianism - it seems that "girl-love" is a concept only recently considered.

How about the beacon of all modern knowledge, Wikipedia? Well, "while homosexuality had never been viewed as a sin in Japanese society and religion, sodomy was restricted by legal prohibition in 1873, but the provision was repealed only seven years later by the Penal Code of 1880 in accordance with the Napoleonic Code.[1] Exposure to Western thought and societal changes during the Meiji period have influenced the way that homosexuality is viewed by both the Japanese government and by the population at large since the end of the 19th century." Homosexuality in Japan, Wikipedia.

Some good ol' homoerotic manga
Reading that article, it seems to me that sexuality is always a lot more fluid and free when it isn't forced into a box and labelled as "gay" or "straight". Even now, I'll often sit in a class of 14-year-olds and see two boys sitting on each other's knees, holding hands, and think about how such behaviour would be treated in the U.K. Here, it is normal, just the way that friends behave, while large sections of comic stores are dedicated to teenage same-sex love/sex stories. In Roppingi, I visited a “boy love café”, where the waiters flirt with each other and giggly young girls spend a fortune on drinks. But is "yuri" and "yaoi" something that people only want in their erotic literature? Are "girl love" and “boy love”, like tentacle monsters, merely animated fantasies that nobody wants bursting through into real life?

"Recently, people are becoming more open-minded," my Japanese friend, Kimi*, claims, "some appear a lot on TV and become popular, especially among girls. I hear a lot of Japanese girls say they want a gay friend. But I don't know if they really would."

A commentor on Yahoo Questions gave a similar response; "For Japanese people, I think they don't know many gay people. Japanese women have said, "I'd like to meet a gay" when the topic comes up. It's kind of like a novelty, but a lot of people suddenly dislike it when they see that it's more than an eccentric man who likes to shop (aka: same-sex relationships)."

Hideki Sunagawa, president of Tokyo Gay Pride, is quoted as saying "It’s true that gay men are portrayed mainly as transgendered people. Even if they are not dressed like women, those who are on TV are very feminine in their behavior and in the way they talk. Many Japanese people think that gay men are basically the same as transgender people and transvestites. They are extreme and there’s always one who plays a female role in gay couples." Read the full article here.

Unfortunately, it does seem that a lot of "famous" gay men in Japanese media are the eccentric, cross-dressing kind. Like the idea that all foreigners are big, blonde and blue eyed, do people feel more comfortable when things fit neatly into an easy-to-identify category?

Mariya Goya from Tokyo, in The Gay Debate, says; "My friends and I thought that gays were strange and that men who loved men were weird. My perception changed when I started working with gays and my best friend came out. I wish the media would handle the subject more sensitively and show that gay people are normal."

Still, times may be a'changin' - a few hours ago, an article was posted on The Japan Times' website discussing Asia's gay film festival and its two-weekend showing in Tokyo.

What about lesbians, and their portrayal in the media? It seems that the balance is skewed, as often seems to be the case. Still, in 2007 lesbian politican Kanako Otsuji publically married her partner in Nagoya, reportedly receiving many congratulations and hosting around 1000 guests.

Of the wedding, Otsuji said; "Gays and lesbians are hiding themselves in society to protect themselves. I want people to know that gays and lesbians exist in society by looking at us."

So, perhaps public awareness is growing, and over time more and more people will feel comfortable coming out of their hiding closets. Then again, with an aging population, the pressure on young Japanese people to pop out babies may become stronger, pushing people deeper into the closet in an attempt to please their elders. With all this, I must wonder, what is it like to be one of these gay people in Japan?

3) Being Gay in Japan, or Being Gay and Japanese

"A lot of gay Japanese guys marry women to hide their true sexual preference," Kimi says, "because to be different from others means to be an outsider in Japan, and we Japanese have a strong wish to adapt to society."

Walking down the street with my British gay friend last month, we spotted a man and woman, holding hands. My friend motioned his head toward them, subtly, and said "he's gay". This wasn't just his Gaydar talking - he knew because he'd slept with him a few weeks previously. I wondered, then, if the guy's poor girlfriend had any inkling that her boyfriend was hooking up with English blokes on the side.
Tokyo Gay Pride 2010

Similarly, Taylor tells me that the lesbian community is always losing "members" - most Japanese lesbians will eventually marry a man, and either bottle up their true desires or continue to see women on the side - but they will very rarely let anyone but their closest friends know the truth. As for gay men, what they get up to away from home is anybody's guess.

"A lot of it is 'don't ask, don't tell'," Taylor suggests; "The wife won't ask what the husband has been up to, and he won't tell her."

So, I wondered, would the wife live a lie, believing that her husband was heterosexual and faithful, or would she simply not want to know what he was up to? How about if she were a lesbian herself, and under secret agreement, the couple married to protect themselves from the harsh judgements of families and society, while allowing each other to freely explore their prefered gender? I imagine that such things happen in many societies, but that might be down to my watching too many episodes of Glee.
One commentor in the Majirox News article states; " is a huge issue in Japan. Most people go to great lengths to hide their sexuality from their families and co-workers."

Another commenter, a gay male, says "Like most gays, only to my good friends. I’m afraid to tell my father. He’s always asking me if I have a girlfriend and when I’m getting married. He would be so disappointed if he knew the truth."

Still, not everyone hides in the closet. There are some out-and-proud individuals, even if they are scarce and seem to be drawn out of their closets by more confident foreigners. There is an annual Gay Pride parade in Tokyo, although it has been known to get cancelled due to lack of interest. I guess nobody wants to be the first name on that sign-up sheet. Still, why not take a look at these pictures from Tokyo Gay Pride 2010?

Of course, going to great lengths to hide one's sexuality and marching in a gay pride parade are two extreme ends of a spectrum. Could it also be that people don't place as much importance on sexuality in Japan as they do in the west, that they simply see sexuality as being as unimportant as any other factor?

"...Gay people are generally well integrated into society, and most people are uninterested in others’ sexual orientation," says another commentator in The Gay Debate (athough how much I agree with his sentiments, I can't say); "It has little or no impact on their relationships with others. In Japanese society, homosexuality is similar to being left-handed: It is not an issue."

If it is not an issue, then one has to wonder why a man can be fired for his sexuality, why people would go to such "great lengths" to hide it. Then again, perhaps he has a point - that people here do not carve their entire identity out of their sexual preferences, as some people I've met seem to do. In Japanese culture, it is generally seen as very egocentric to make a big deal out of yourself, to draw attention to your differences.

It certainly seems that people have wildly differing opinions on just how much discrimination gay people face here, and what people think of when they hear the word “gay”; but such is life in many countries. While perhaps not the most gay-friendly place on earth - employers and co-workers can be less than understanding - homosexuality is legal in Japan, and there are gay bars and social circles that you can find.  All it takes is a little perseverance, networking, and utilisation of resources. I'll put what I know up here... and remember, I can put you in touch with my friends, so be sure to drop me an email ( if you need some contacts!

iPhone applications -

Grinder, G2, (men), Qrusher, Spindle (girls)

Websites -

BianBian (girls)

Mixi-men (men)

Bar Listings and Resources - Japan Visitor **

Stonewall Japan

Tokyo Gay Bars and Clubs - Utopia-Asia

Other articles

*New: LGBT Resources in Japan: Something for Everyone - Being a Broad

Gay Japan Overview - JapanVisitor

The ever-so-slightly hidden history of Japan's gay samurai - Seek Japan

The History of Japanese Homosexuality (Blog)

Japan allows its citizens same-sex marriage abroad - Google News Article

The Gay Debate: Japan's Comfy Closet - Majirox News

Lesbian Politican in Japan Gets Hitched

Asia's gay film scene opens Tokyo up to brave new experiences

(Please feel free to share any other resources below. By the way - if you leave any homophobic comments, or anything that I consider "hate" speech, then it will be deleted (and perhaps reported). This is NOT a place to discuss your feelings about how disgusting/immoral homosexuality is, and if that is your feeling then I'm sure there are plenty of places that you can express it... although I would ask yourself to look within, and ask yourself why it makes you so angry what goes on between two consenting adults.)


  1. Tochigi Whitney8 July 2011 at 16:29

    Thank you for this post! I often watch my students and think about things like this.

  2. I was wondering about this a couple weeks ago. A group of my students motioned me over to talk to them (all girls) and they were asking me what my plans for the weekend were. Then one student told me she was going on a date with a boy from another school. I gave her pat on the shoulder and wished her luck.

    I asked the other girls if they had boyfriends, they said no, and I told them I was surprised because they were all very nice, smart and funny. One girl told me "I don't have a boy friend because I like girls." I was surprised to hear that out loud in a very busy hall. It caught me off gaurd because when I was in HS and taught back in the states, nobody would ever say that in busy halls even if it was public knowledge that a person was gay.

    Great post as always Gwyn! Sorry you and Jeff are gone :(.

  3. Awesome article! Tons of information, I love it :) Just curious, if one is interested in teaching English in Japan through JET and they are gay, what happens if they are situated far from the large, urban areas where it's more open/the gay scene is found? I heard some people can be sent to very isolated areas, even disregarding the whole gay scene as opposed to just things to do in general :/

  4. Hey! As for being in rural areas, it would definitely be harder. Socialising in general is tricky when you don't speak Japanese, so I'd get studying ASAP! I guess you'd just have to be subtle about it and ask people who you think would be open minded and informative... or save up your money and make trips to the nearest big cities every few weekends!

  5. This article is great. Insightful and pretty straight-forward. I am a gay JET, lived in Ibaraki and I think it's really about who you surround yourself with and the way you advocate for yourself. I do know the experience is also different based on where you're placed in Japan. For me I don't believe in "coming out" but due to the language/cultural barriers I have sat most of close Japanese friends down early on and explained to them, I am gay and exactly that means and how it does not change our friendship. As most Japanese are, many of my friends have been very straight-forward in the questions they ask me and we have some laughs as this breaks the ice a little bit. Yes I have had some back off a bit when they figured out I was gay but that's not someone you want in your circle anyways, who doesn't try to accept you. From now I would say there is just such a joy in seeing my close friends here become more open-minded and outgoing because of their care for me and I think that's what matters the most. As a foreigner and gay here we really are the diversity so it's finding ways to promote acceptance and connect with people in a way that eliminates the "differences" between you and them is the way to clear a nice path for yourself here.

  6. Yaoi and Yuri are not good examples of homosexuality. These manga genres have nothing to do with homosexuality. These genres are the representation of heterosexual fetiches/fantasies portrayed on same sex couples. For example, in yaoi there is always a man and a woman (male character who behaves like a little delicate girl). Real male homosexual couples don't follow heteronormativity, this means, there is not a man and a woman in the relationship; both are the man. The same happens with lesbian couples, they both are the woman.

    Homosexual men are men who feel like men, think like men, etc. Same with lesbians, they are women who feel like women, think like women, etc.

    In order to understand this you need to stop seeing homosexuals and homosexuality through the eyes of heteronirmativity. Heteronormativity doesn't work with homosexuality.