LGBTQ in Japan: Avoiding the Closet
By Alex Rickert
Japanese oshire (closets) are large, spacious and — like their Western counterparts — share more than their fair share of unmentionables. But if films like Ju-on: The Grudge have taught us anything, it is that closets are dangerous. To avoid the horror of winding up back in the closet after coming to Japan, here are some things to consider.
Don’t mistake silence for intolerance
Japanese people tend to value the separation of their private and public lives. As a consequence, many Japanese LGBT folks feel it is “oversharing” to talk about their experiences with acquaintances, colleagues and even friends. This leads many to believe that they do not know a queer person, despite hearing about them on TV and knowing there are movements for LGBT rights elsewhere.
Keeping this in mind, there are few sources of hate towards LGBT people in Japanese society. Homosexuality can be found in literature here dating back hundreds of years and was formally legalized in 1880. Moreover, Buddhism and Shintoism, Japan’s primary religions, do not explicitly condemn being lesbian or gay. Japanese people may choose to remain silent about their private lives, but that doesn’t mean that you have to.
Weave a safety net and set boundaries
There will probably be moments during your time abroad when the closet door swings open like that scene from Poltergeist, and all you can do is hang on to your bed frame for dear life as a demonic tentacle reaches out to suck you in. This tentacle can take the form of a comment like “Do you have a girlfriend/boyfriend?” (if you are a gay man/lesbian) or misgendering (if you are trans).
Remember what I said about different standards? This means some Japanese people and acquaintances may also pry further into your personal life more than you feel is fair. You will probably be faced with the moment of truth: Do you fess up, lie or avoid the question?
You will probably be faced with the moment of truth: Do you fess up, lie, or avoid the question?
This is where you need to think about your boundaries. If it’s a coworker you won’t need to interact with on a regular basis, my advice is to give an answer that neither lies nor reveals anything, such as a simple “no.” Don’t be hard on yourself: not everyone deserves to know your life.
The best salve for those moments is to find LGBT folk and allies. Facebook groups like Stonewall Japan, as well as several dating apps, are a huge boon to establishing a healthy life that can also include Japanese people. Check out another GaijinPot article “Meeting LGBT People in Japan” for some more tips on where to start.
Coming out: my experience
When all else fails, when the comments don’t stop, when the situation becomes too awkward or if someone asks you frankly, “Are you gay?” then it may be time to come out. I have had “the talk” with two people during my two years here in Japan (with most other people I was able to just talk about my love life and avoid formally “coming out” altogether). Both of them went well, so I’ll share them with you for some encouragement.
The first coming out happened near the beginning of my time in Japan. Another ALT and I were spending some time at a teacher’s apartment, drinking and having a good time. We were discussing our love lives and, finally, the teacher turned to me and asked, “So, have you ever had a girlfriend?” I somewhat shyly told her outright that I was gay and had just ended a year-long relationship with a man. In return, she revealed some of her own secrets to me. She has been one of my greatest friends ever since.
I took a deep breath and told her the truth.
Another coworker, after nearly two years of working together, also began making comments about the dreaded “girlfriend.” This was during a ski trip with several other teachers, and I felt too nervous to directly respond to her in front of so many people. But, as we rode the cable car just the two of us to the top of the summit, I took a deep breath and told her the truth.
Her reaction was mainly embarrassment for having made me so uncomfortable over the last few days. She apologized sincerely, and we had a pleasant afternoon together talking about our lives more openly than we ever had before.
Of course, I am not “out” to all of my co-workers yet, but that doesn’t mean I am “in” the closet. I have found a balance for myself in the complex social network of a Japanese office and I am slowly but surely asserting myself as queer to my colleagues. Several other co-workers have begun to guess and make comments, so who knows what will happen in the future?
Remember to stay calm, confident and sincere — the respect will follow. Good luck “out” there, guys!
Has your LGBTQ experience in Japan been a positive one? What problems have you or your friends come across? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.