I recently browsed an “It Gets Better” video filmed at last year’s Tokyo Pride Festival. With pride coming up again so soon, it really got me thinking about the importance of these messages for people living in Japan. Although “It Gets Better” has been around for years, it still remains as a reminder for the LGBTQ community and other victims of bullying and isolation to reflect not only on obstacles but also on triumphs. After writing several articles about what it’s like to be a queer person living in Japan, I want to do my part to remind all the LGBTQ folk coming here that it really does get better.
I live in rural Saitama, which is an hour from Tokyo but feels like a completely different world from Japan’s lively capital. Among the vast rice fields and miles of highways, I began to miss my gaggle of gay friends from university. Suddenly, the only gay people I knew were miles away, I was freshly single after my move abroad and feeling a little vulnerable. I was going to have to start over completely from scratch, and I was afraid. Taking a deep breath and swallowing my pride, I downloaded Grindr and made an account.
The closest person was three cities away and didn’t even have a face pic.
First of all, I got savvier with the dating apps, as you might have guessed from another article I wrote. I went on a lot of “dates” that didn’t lead to anything. But, I slowly built a network of friends — foreign and Japanese alike. These were real friends who I could actually be myself around. Despite my fears, being queer just wasn’t a big deal to most of the people I was meeting.
And, after a year, I met my man.
And, after a year, I met my man. He’s Japanese and lives in Tokyo, so I have to travel to see him. But he has taught me so much and has shown me immense love. I depend on him, but I’ve also learned to depend more on other people around Saitama, and most importantly, to depend more on myself. It is by far my healthiest relationship to date.
Being an assistant language teacher (ALT) in Japan can hit you with a double whammy. First of all, it’s inappropriate to discuss your personal life with your students, despite the fact that heterosexual teachers and ALTs can and do all the time. This rule only really applies to the queer.
I felt like I was being erased, and I didn’t want to risk my workplace relationships, or even my job, to stop it from happening.
Second, in spite of my various personality traits that most Americans see as clues to my sexuality, my Japanese co-workers were either being politely unassuming or just plain oblivious. I felt like I was being erased, and I didn’t want to risk my workplace relationships, or even my job, to stop it from happening.
It only took having scary, direct coming out experiences with a few of my colleagues (in private settings) before I realized that most people did indeed suspect that I was gay, but that they didn’t know how to bridge the topic. Now, I talk openly about my boyfriend to coworkers in the office and have even told some ex-students who come back to visit.
Even more encouraging is my first-year class this year. Together with my “best friend” teacher, the person who I came out to first in Japan, I haven’t been shy planning LGBT-friendly activities and discussions for her class. We traditionally have a school speech contest, and this year, four of my students (out of 19 speakers) wrote speeches about LGBT topics. One boy even had the courage to stand at the front and come out as bisexual to a room of his peers. While I feared awkward silence and stares, he placed first in the contest to a standing ovation.
One boy even had the courage to stand at the front and come out as bisexual to a room of his peers.
His courage and the courage of his classmates reminds me that things really are getting better here because there are good people with strong voices. The laws regarding marriage equality, protections for the LGBT against discrimination at work and other parts of their lives still need to catch up with public opinion, but even in more rural areas of Japan, more and more people are ready to accept the LGBTQ community. As a member of that community, I want to shout that I live a fulfilled life as a queer person, and I am cheering for the rest of us.
Share your “It Gets Better” stories below. You never know who you might inspire!