LGBTQ in Japan: Finding Community and Getting Out There
By Alex Rickert
The LGBTQ presence in Japan has started to make itself known recently (beyond the various gay manga and anime of varying sexual explicitness that we all know and love). Civil unions have been legalized in cities across the country, and LGBT couples are slowly winning the right to adopt in places like Osaka. Saitama, the prefecture I live in just north of Tokyo, has even elected its first transgender official. As is the case in many developed countries, the climate for us queer folk is generally improving.
But, if you’re hoping to spend your time in Japan enjoying your freedom as an LGBTQ individual as richly as possible, you’ll still face plenty of difficulties. I’m here to show you that it’s very easy to get out there in a country where, for several reasons, you may choose not to be entirely “out.”
Resources for making friends
Social media, though time-devouring, is a godsend for us shy queers in Japan. If you’re looking for community, I recommend Facebook pages such as Stonewall Japan. There, you can introduce yourself to people around Japan and find out about nearby events. They even made an appearance at my Tokyo orientation when I arrived in Japan as an ALT (assistant language teacher) and guided a group of us to the gay district, where I spent an incredible first night in Japan.
Speaking of ALTs, if you’re coming to Japan to teach, you might also have a look at resources targeting teachers. For example, the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme has associations of language teachers for each region in the country. The benefit of this system is that you often have a community of (usually) LGBTQ-friendly foreigners nearby. Whether or not you are in certain programs, AJET (Association for Japan Exchange and Teaching) has Facebook groups open to anyone, and sometimes even has online information about queer life in your area (such as Hokkaido, where JETs created an entire PDF about their gay community).
More than friends?
If you’re looking for a little bit more than just a friend, then it’s time to bite the bullet and download a dating application — especially if you’re shy, awkward, live in a rural area or some unfortunate combination of the three.
The best universal dating app in Japan I’ve found is Tinder. I, along with several of my friends, have found Japanese partners through it. If you’re not familiar, it’s an app that shows you pictures of people in your area (and their profile descriptions – but who reads those?!).
Based on whether or not you’re “interested,” you can swipe their photo to the right to show that you would talk to them or swipe their photo to the left to damn them eternally to the abyss. If both of you have “swiped right,” then Tinder notifies you both and you can begin chatting.
Since it has been gaining popularity as a means of international exchange in Japan (despite its reputation as a hookup app in other parts of the world) you may even run across a match only to find out that (s)he is straight and just wanted to be friends. But, that’s ok. After all, we’re looking for relationships not just one night stands, right?
I also recommend 9monsters, a gay dating app that originated in Japan and is popular across Asia. It has an English interface and an adorable level-up system in which you can evolve your “monster” through chatting with people and “breeding” (ignore the terrible innuendo). Also, it’s indispensable for meeting gay people in your area, as it has the largest Japanese user base. Since many people on the app won’t speak English, you might even practice your Japanese.
As a matter of fact, I became literate while chatting with singles in my area (if I wanted to communicate enough with them to get them to meet.) I’m sure I traumatized one of my work colleagues with all of the messages I showed her.
Me: Does 遊びたい (asobitai; ‘I want to play’) mean he wants to have sex with me or just hang out?
Co-worker: Could we not do this during work?
Getting out there
But, let’s say you want to put yourself out there. Maybe you want to try your hand at picking up cuties in real life, rather than chatting up babes on the internet. Well, then, it’s time to discover the rich variety of Japanese gay bars.
Depending on your level of Japanese, your best bet will be traveling to a nearby city to visit the real gayborhoods, such as Shinjuku Ni-chome in Tokyo or Doyama-cho in Osaka. There, you’ll find a slew of establishments that appeal to foreigners and Japanese alike, and are generally English friendly. They also tend to have a few establishments targeting women, such as my favorite bar Goldfinger… again with the innuendo!
If you live in a more rural area, and you have a dependable kanji app with a working knowledge of Japanese, you could try your luck searching for bars in your area on Gclick. The word is that even rural areas have some kind of gay establishment within an hour radius. Take care though, as not all of them are open to foreigners or even women, and you might find out it’s just a glorified karaoke bar full of closeted, middle-aged salarymen.
Japan, a country which has an annual penis festival, must surely be filled with daily celebrations of homosexuality during pride season, right? Alas, no. It seems that pride events are conducted rather inconsistently in major cities like Sapporo and Kobe, and the only pride festival I was able to confirm for 2017 was Tokyo Pride on May 7. So, at least there’s that. You could still try going to the penis festival (every year in early April), if anything.
You might also find other social events that appeal to you on the social media platforms mentioned above, especially Stonewall and 9monsters, which frequently promote parties being held across the country and not just in Tokyo. Again, 9monsters events usually tend to be more male-centered (we really need to destroy that patriarchy), so you might want to monitor Stonewall or even create an event yourself and promote it there if you don’t feel like going to a sausage fest. I’ve frequently seen posts about meetings at parks, drinking parties, nighttime events and even game nights.
If you’re worried about your gay journey abroad, don’t be. The more I travel, the more I realize how many allies are out there. Make challenges to meet new people every day and you will slowly familiarize others with queer people from around the world. Let the internet help you as it has so many others. Most importantly — try to have fun and enjoy new cultures no matter how tough it can be.
Be safe out there!