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I always imagined Japan as a mystical, anime inspired fantasy land – a place so futuristic yet home to the likes of the samurai and geisha. But what it was really like being gay in Japan? I had no clue.
I feel that this type of fantasy world tends to attract a disproportionately high number of gay foreigners to live and travel, but the reality is that, like every other country, being gay in Japan can be a struggle.
In my head it was as far from home as I could possibly get, all the way on the other side of the globe; exotic, beyond anything I could have imagined in the west.
The LGBTQ scene exists but it has yet to find its place in the mainstream or be widely accepted. I can not speak for the whole country or what it is like to be gay in Japan for every person – these are just my observations.
That is why I encourage you to explore and discover Japanese gay culture with fresh eyes and an open mind.
Being Gay in Japan
After living in Kyoto for a year and studying Japanese at my university I have experienced both the dating scene as well as long-term relationships in Japan.
My longest and most serious experience was when I dated a Japanese guy for one and a half years. He was out to his family and I was fortunate enough to have a wonderful relationship with them, which is generally pretty rare.
Except for his sister, his family did not speak English, yet still managed to show me kindness and hospitality that I don’t think I found before, even in the US.
I was invited to stay at their house on the weekends, join on family outings and even spend new years, a holiday comparable to Christmas, with his extended family.
These are some Traditional Japanese “Christmas Cakes”
I don’t know if his parents were completely alright with the fact that their son was gay, but that in no way changed how they treated me. The kindness I was shown was truly remarkable.
There are really two main types of guys I met while living abroad. Those who spoke English well, had lived abroad and had international prospects. The other type had never lived outside of Japan and generally could only speak Japanese.
I was able to see both sides of the spectrum because I dated in both languages. The international ones tended to be much less paranoid and at least partially out. On the other hand, the typical “Japanese” guys seemed to mostly be looking to hookup or date very secretly.
The country as a whole has a very suppressed sexual culture so when it comes to the extra pressure of gay secrecy; most people are really paranoid of anything more than a fling. If you are looking for anything real and substantial it is definitely possible, but it can prove to be a challenge.
Two Countries – Two Sets of Expectations
One of the biggest hurdles I had to overcome while dating Japanese guys was the difference in expectations between American and Japanese relationships. There are so many cultural nuances that caused a lot of conflicts for me.
For example, in Japan there is an expectation to read the other persons thoughts and feelings. If you are unhappy or you want something, the other person must be able to infer your emotion.
Japanese Culture is to put others before you, and read what the other person wants before they ask. This is essential in Japanese hospitality, a commonality similar to the picture above.
This makes aspects like Japanese hospitality and service outstanding because restaurants and businesses seem to know what you want and tend to your needs before you even think to ask.
For relationships this is extremely hard because even if you ask if something is wrong, culturally, many guys respond in a way that doesn’t “disturb the peace” and therefore often doesn’t reveal their true feelings.
This made a lot of small problems that would build up over time and go unspoken of. Eventually, they would boil over because I never realized my partners true frustrations until our problems reached a breaking point.
Six months in I was able to get accustomed to this, but it took time for me to learn to read their “true” feelings.
“The idea of ever getting married to another man was completely foreign.”
Another big difference I noticed was how most guys saw dating in the long-term. For nearly everyone I met, the idea of ever getting married to another man was completely foreign.
Gay marriage itself seemed way outside of anything most had ever considered. Many guys didn’t even know that it was legal to get same-sex marriages in other parts of the world. The majority seemed to have accepted being alone in the long term and planned to hide their sexuality from their parents forever.
Another aspect that was shocking was the total lack of public displays of affection. I am not huge on PDA, but holding hands, even linking arms in public, does not happen. Kissing, even for straight people, is out of the question.
It was really difficult for me because even in situations where no one was around, most guys would not want to do anything at all. I adjusted in the end, but it was a very strange concept to get used to.
Japanese Gay Pop Culture
Recently Japanese media seems to be warming up to the idea of LGBTQ people, and being gay in Japan is slowly starting to be seen a bit more normal.
There are many examples of homosexuality in manga and anime, specifically Yaoi, Boy Love, Yuri and other gay genres that have been popular for a while, but I still consider that side of gay popular culture quite underground.
Television, on the other hand, has seen the rise of drag queens such as Matsuko Delux(マツコ デラックス) who is a popular spokesperson for variety talk shows and advertising campaigns.
She is absolutely everywhere, although I think the public sees her as more of a comedic character that a serious advocate. Regardless, it’s hard not to go one day without seeing her on TV.
Akihiro Miwa (美輪明宏) is also a very popular entertainer who has actively tried to bring LGBTQ issues to the forefront. He is now 78 but is very active on Japanese TV often dressing as a drag queen and voicing his opinions about politics and current events.
Matsuko Delux in an advertisement for Mr. Donuts – A popular donut shop in Japan.
Some dramas such as Hanazakari no Kimitachi e（花ざかりの君たちへ) and Last Friends also have positive portrayals of gay characters, but to be honest, it is not very substantial. Homosexuality in the media does exist, which I think does say something about the progress society is making, but it is nothing compared to the west.
Gay Japanese Social Scene
If you are going out in Japan with the same expectations as American or European nightlife, you may be in for a bit of a surprise. The gay social scene exists, but not in the same loud and proud way that I was used back in the states. I lived in Kyoto, a generally quiet and low-key city with not much in terms of clubs or gay bars at all.
Gay Life in Osaka
I instead spent most of my weekends over in Osaka, Japan’s second-largest city to Tokyo. Osaka has its own gay town called Doyama-Cho（堂山町）near Umeda and Osaka Station with about 10 small bars and one night club.
If you do not speak Japanese then your options are pretty limited. Osaka and Tokyo have also passed no dancing laws for small venues, which in the Osaka gay scene is nearly everywhere. Sadly this makes things pretty dull.
Explosion is the liveliest of the locations, and has about 40 people a night. On international nights there is a mixed crowd, with moderate dancing and a good amount of fun. Sadly, on regular Friday or Saturday nights things are quite awkward.
Even in the security of a gay club surrounded by other gays, people were very shy and even uncomfortable talking about anything gay as if it were taboo. The club could be filled with a sizable crowd yet most people stand on the edges and stare into an empty dance floor.
Gay Life in Tokyo
Tokyo’s gay district Nichyome (二丁目)was a much different experience. I only got to visit there twice, but clubs are much more fun, people are more open, and generally I had a much better time. I think this is partly due to the more international and mixed crowd plus the energy of a bigger city. That’s not to say it’s perfect or better than western clubs, but it is a good scene.
Outside of the nightlife scene, there are also some LGBTQ oriented social groups. Many universities including my own had queer societies with regular outings and monthly cooperative meetings.
Osaka city also has a queer space for youth named Dista. They organized events, had weekly meetings and were open 5 days a week for anyone to drop in. I found resources on how to find these social groups to be limited at first, but the gay scene does exist; it just requires some extra digging in order to find information.
Most of my experiences with people’s perceptions about gay people were largely based on my relationships with my Japanese friends – all of which were college aged between 20 to 30 years old.
Most were aware of what “gay” was, but nearly all of them had never actually met an openly gay person before. In fact, most of the time my Japanese friends didn’t believe that there were gay Japanese people at all.
Regardless, I had a very positive experience with every person came out to, guy or girl. Most tended to be shocked for about 10 minutes and then it would blow over like I had never said anything.
Their reactions were not typical of my friends back home – being scared or angry, but curious more than anything. I would get asked questions about my life in America, who I was dating, how many gay Japanese guys I knew etc.
I didn’t out anyone, but after hearing about how common gay people were on campus and in the rest of the city my friends’ perspectives seemed to shift drastically, in a good way.
Life as an Exchange Student
My classmates and me at my Japanese university.
I was also open with all of my teachers and classmates, which I never once had an awkward moment.
People overall tended to absorb my sexuality naturally and not let it affect their treatment of judgment of me as a person, which in many ways I prefer to the alternative in America where coming out nearly always reshapes your identity in the other person’s eyes.
My experiences of what its like being gay in Japan may be rare and I might have been lucky, but it was nice way to live. That was the aspect that I liked most.
“People overall tended to absorb my sexuality naturally and not let it affect their treatment of judgment of me as a person.”
Keep in mind that my experiences are as a Gaikokujin (外国人) or foreigner is one where people tend to forgive nearly any breakage of social rules, simply because of the fact that you are not Japanese.
In almost any aspect of my life in Japan, my whiteness was like a “get out of jail free” card. My advice is to proceed with caution, but give the people you meet the benefit of the doubt.
I really did enjoy my time in Japan and I met a wonderful amount of people while I was there. My experience of being gay in Japan is only one of many and I want to hear what other places are like around the country.
I know I haven’t covered everything so let me know anything you are still curious about. If you have any of your personal stories or experiences, please share them in the comments below.