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LGBTQ in Japan: Avoiding the Closet, Revisited

Do people come out of the closet at work in Japan and if so — how?

By 5 min read

Happy New Queer! I mean, uh… Happy New Year! For any queer folk working and living in Japan (and, yes, that includes Japanese people) the new year usually inspires change and growth. But, one of the biggest obstacles to growth for the LGBTQ+ community is silence and secrecy: the dreaded closet.

I wrote an article a year ago about my own experiences in and out of the closet in Japan. As I no longer live and work in Japan, but am still in a relationship with a Japanese citizen, I reached out to LGBT folks in Japan to continue to consider the question: how do you “come out” in Japan?

LGBT+ Expats

Japanese Gay Gouple

An important point to remember is that coming out is not the same for every individual. Some of us are gay or lesbian, but we aren’t in a relationship. Some of us are bisexual, but still dating a member of the opposite sex. Some of us are transgender and wish to express our gender through clothing, appearance and behavior, for example. It’s not exactly something you can stand on a shoe box and announce to your entire office in one go.

To better understand this plurality, I reached out to a Facebook LGBT community in Japan: Stonewall Japan (a private group that you must request to join). Seven of the eight expat commenters described ways their colleagues made them feel comfortable with being out in Japan, whether or not they were fully out at work to all of their coworkers.

One Facebook user praised her straight coworkers for the little things, like the school nurse wearing a rainbow pin. She also mentioned that a superior comforted a female coworker at a nomikai (drinking party with coworkers), saying “there are plenty of other guys and girls out there.” While the comment seems benign, acknowledging that his employee might not be straight was a perfect way to show support to her and any LGBT people present.

The good (and bad) news is heterocentrism often comes from a lack of knowledge rather than hatred.

I, too, experienced many subtle signs that my coworkers were supportive of queer people — seemingly passing comments like “not all girls want to wear skirts” or “we need to make sure LGBT students aren’t being bullied in this school.” For those in the closet, these comments are encouraging to anyone overhearing them — someone actually thinks we exist!

Feeling “erased” is the most common issue LGBT people faced: one user — in response to “constant heterocentric questions” about her supposed opposite-sex partner — bravely decided to confront her coworkers and came out completely. Heterocentrism is essentially the belief that everyone is straight. While different from outright homophobia, it can still make a work environment feel unbearably hostile.

The good (and bad) news is heterocentrism often comes from a lack of knowledge rather than hatred. Only 5 percent of Japanese people confess to knowing any LGBT people, according to a recent online survey by global research company Ipsos. The actual bad news is the only way to improve this situation is for more people to (you guessed it) — come out.

LGBT+ Japanese

Participants in the Tokyo Rainbow Pride parade in Shibuya.

For Japanese queer folk, things aren’t great, but they aren’t especially bad either, a situation Japanese professor Masami Tamagawa cites as the reason for low rates of coming out in Japan. In his article “Coming Out of the Closet in Japan,” he describes the ambivalence Japanese people feel toward coming out at work or to their parents.

Having a Japanese partner, and several Japanese friends, I especially wanted to talk about their relationship with coming out.

First, neither I nor my partner knows more than one or two Japanese LGBT individuals who are out at work. My partner himself is not out to most coworkers or his family (as well as at least half of his friends).

I frequently ask gay men I meet or have met about how “out” they are, and an overwhelming majority are in the closet — even involved in heterosexual relationships. The subtext is fraught, to say the least.

… most Japanese queer folk still feel unrepresented in the mainstream and reluctant to expose themselves.

“Why don’t you come out?” I ask my partner for the thousandth time.

“There’s no need. Coming out at work doesn’t come with any benefits.” For my partner, and many of his contemporaries, the potential downsides of coming out at work outweigh the benefits. Moreover, he describes a strong, albeit misleading, portrayal of LGBT people in Japanese popular media, which Professor Tamagawa also noted.

Generally, LGBT are represented through okama, a somewhat-derogatory conflation of gay men and male-to-female transgender women. One shining example of mainstream LGBT personae is Matsuko Deluxe. However, most Japanese queer folk still feel unrepresented in the mainstream and reluctant to expose themselves.

When it comes down to it, gaikokujin and Japanese queer folk just don’t seem to have the same overall experiences at their places of work.

The bigger picture

The 2019 Tokyo Rainbow Pride celebration.

While many choose not to come out at work — and that’s OK — being out is a right that LGBT people should be able to enjoy. No workplace is asexual. Heterosexual coworkers are able to talk about their love lives, especially when it concerns a spouse, even introducing that spouse to their coworkers, or keeping a picture of their families on their desk. Moreover, deceptively benign “heterocentric questions” force LGBT to actively closet themselves or risk possible professional consequences.

Attitudes in Japan surrounding queer people seem to be improving. However, recent anti-gay comments from the ruling LDP party’s Katsuei Hirasawa  — who said that “if everyone became like LGBT, then the nation would collapse…” — show the fight for acceptance is far from over.

Anything that makes someone realize that queer people exist is a win.

Japanese folk in particular need support. If you are uncomfortable outing yourself (or simply don’t identify as queer), you can offer support by publicly acknowledging the existence of the LGBT community. Talk about a gay cousin’s recent marriage or discuss gender and transgender issues in a conversation class. Anything that makes someone realize that queer people exist is a win.

The queer community is vast and diverse. If you have thoughts, insights or tips concerning coming out in Japan, leave a comment below. Let’s consider multiple perspectives — and spread the message that LGBT rights are human rights.

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