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Incident in Tokyo’s Gay District Reignites Debate About Trans Rights in Japan

A trans lesbian was refused entry from a women-only bar in Shinjuku Ni-chome. The result? A positive step forward for trans rights in Tokyo's LGBTQ+ community.

By 5 min read

Japan’s largest gay community in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ni-chome was forced to continue the debate over trans rights after a trans woman was refused entry to a bar.

A few days ago, we saw the finale to this incident that involved Ni-chome’s most popular lesbian bar, Gold Finger. And by the end of May, international media had covered the story after Tokyo’s LGBTQ+ community, Japanese and foreign alike, began questioning trans inclusivity in Ni-chome’s long-standing system of gender-exclusive bars and events.

In Japan, trans individuals may legally change their gender, but must be unmarried and without children, and also must undergo full sexual reassignment — which made international news this year because many view it as forced sterilization. While trans people can lead legally recognized heterosexual lives, things become far more complicated for trans gay men and lesbians, as the Gold Finger incident reveals.

What happened at Gold Finger

While not the only incident of trans exclusion in Ni-chome, this is the first to gain such a high level of publicity. The bar’s owner eventually issued an apology after many spoke out about the incident. Yet, it took almost two months to get there. Here’s what went down.

American transgender lesbian woman Elin McCready was denied entry to one of Tokyo’s most popular lesbian bars, Gold Finger, on April 20, according to a tweet she posted the next day.

McCready, a university professor who lives in Tokyo with her wife of nearly 20 years, was not initially sure she would be allowed to get in but was put “on the list” by her friend, Dora, who was DJing at the event, according to a Twitter post from McCready.

British news outlet Pink News reported in a May 31 article that although McCready is listed as “female” on her ID, she was stopped by the bouncer. After the refusal, a female staff member was summoned to the scene and decided to uphold the decision to turn McCready away. McCready tried to speak to Gold Finger bar owner Chiga Ogawa, who denied telling DJ Dora that McCready would be let into the event, the article said.

On May 5, McCready published an open letter to Ogawa on her Twitter where she questioned the choice to exclude trans women. She wrote that the bar had no official policy regarding trans customers and should be clearer about what they mean by “women” when they hold women-only events.

McCready published a photo of Gold Finger’s new sign on May 25 that specified the meaning of woman as “cisgender” (female-at-birth) and explicitly excluding trans women from future women-only events.

Also, in an advertisement for an upcoming women-only event, the subtext read “women (cisgender) only,” stating in Japanese that the decision was “based on a recent ‘incident’ and the current social climate in Japan.”

While the wording was later silently removed, it was enough to incite backlash from Japanese and foreign Ni-chome-goers alike.

Debate continues over trans rights in Ni-chome

What followed was international debate over trans rights in Ni-chome.

On June 1, actress and famed lesbian traveler, Ellen Page, condemned Gold Finger, stating “trans rights are human rights.”

Within the Japanese community, Junko Mitsuhashi, a well-known trans woman scholar, took to Twitter to bring other facts to light related to the situation in Ni-chome rather than outright lambast Ogawa.

In one tweet, she said that Chiga Ogawa should not be categorized as a TERF lesbian (a trans-exclusionary radical feminist). For example, Ogawa regularly hosts events for trans men every Monday known as “FTM Bois Bar.”

In the same tweet, she commented on a vlog that criticized Gold Finger. Wearing a “Tokyo Rainbow Pride” T-shirt, the vlogger reminded her followers that the Tokyo Rainbow Pride (TRP) committee had not yet publicly commented on the situation and urged TRP to do so before allowing others to speak on their behalf. TRP is held yearly and the organizing committee plays a de facto leadership role in Japan’s LGBTQ+ community.

Junko Mitsuhashi,a trans activist and scholar in Japan.

Ogawa did not make a public statement on the event until June 6 in an interview with Shingetsu News. While she apologized for the sign that explicitly excluded trans women, she maintained the importance of excluding certain customers, including trans women, if they risked “disturb[ing] the other patrons.”

She also pointed out that she turned away McCready because she did not “have an entirely feminine presence in her dress and demeanor.”

McCready, among others, said this comment was subjective and “extremely rude” to say to any woman, trans or cis.

Bar owner issues an apology

Yet, on June 7, Ogawa apologized to McCready and pledged never again to ban trans women from women-only events. Mitsuhashi had spoken to Ogawa directly and then published Gold Finger’s apology to McCready, as well as a and new transgender inclusion policy on her personal blog last Friday. (You can read Gold Finger’s self-published apology and translation here).

TRP also published a trans solidarity statement in response to the Gold Finger incident, which Mitsuhashi posted on Twitter also on June 7.

The same day, McCready accepted a personal apology from Ogawa, saying on Twitter that she hopes it “will lead to change and good things going forward.”

What had been a firestorm of disagreement became a moment of unity in Japan’s LGBTQ+ community.

Future of Tokyo’s LGBTQ+ community

While the apology from Ogawa was hard won, I believe it was largely thanks to Mitsuhashi, who was able to take the various criticisms ringing out across Twitter and work to resolve the situation.

Moreover, there are many bars in Shinjuku that have relaxed gender policies, like Vox, Kamari, Shinjuku Dialogues, and Rainbow Burritos, to name a few. We spoke with some of the staff at these bars about the incident at Gold Finger, and the consensus is that gender exclusion is becoming rarer and rarer in Ni-chome.

But if Mitsuhashi has taught us anything, it’s that Japan’s LGBTQ+ community is and must continue playing an active role in the progression of LGBTQ+ rights in Japan.

Have any thoughts or reactions to trans issues within Japan’s LGBTQ+ community? Let us know.

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