With some parts of Japan recently allowing some gay couples to receive partnership certificates entitling them to some of the same rights that male-female married couples enjoy, awareness of LGBTQ issues is becoming an increasingly important part of the public discourse. As a result, there is an increasing need for learners to be familiar with the words that the community itself uses and, more importantly, doesn’t use.
Gay/lesbian/bisexual and the problems with abbreviations
One of the first terms that most learners encounter when they put the word homosexual into an electronic dictionary is the term 同性愛者. This word is made up of the words同性 (same-sex) and 愛者 (lover).
So far, so easy, right?
Not really! While 同性愛者 is an accepted word, it, unfortunately, has a very formal sound, so isn’t appropriate for all conversations. As a result, the word ホモセクシャル (taken from the English word homosexual) is becoming increasingly common. This has been joined with other English-origin words including ゲイ (gay), レズビアン (lesbian) and カミングアウト (to come out as homosexual to other people).
Of course, wherever there is a word in Japanese, someone will soon suggest an abbreviation. Unlike most abbreviated words, however, the ones associated with the LGBTQ community run a risk of losing their essence when abbreviated, thus seeming to diminish their meaning. So while ホモセクシャル and バイセクシャル have the short forms ホモ and バイ respectively, many in the community frown on the use of these abbreviations and even consider them discriminatory.
A further problem comes with abbreviating the word レズビアン as it is capable of becoming either レズ or ビアン depending on which part of the word is abbreviated. According to our sources, most lesbians feel that レズ has been stolen from them and is more likely to be seen on the cover of a pornographic magazine than an LGBTQ-friendly publication. Instead, most lesbians tend to favor the abbreviation ビアン instead.
… most LGBTQ words in Japan are still very much a matter of balancing talking respectfully with getting rid of the discrimination and intolerance…
A similar story exists with transsexual nomenclature. Japan actually has a long history of transsexual behavior with men such as the wakashu in the Edo period often dressing as women and practicing traditionally feminine arts. Of course, as with any generalization of the sexual behavior that was practiced in the pre-European era of Japan, it is highly debatable whether these people were genuinely transsexual or simply another example of how flexible the Japanese attitude to sexuality was in those days.
What isn’t debatable is that many of the words left over from that era have, due to the arrival of Europeans and their stricter ideas of sexual morality, become tainted. Leftovers from those times such as おかま (MtF) and おなべ (FtM) are almost universally frowned upon by the modern transsexual community.
While you would likely guess that the modern world would be more tolerant until recently the word 性同一性障害者 was the common word for a transsexual. Because of the limited understanding of the community even a short time ago, this word includes the kanji compound 障害, a kanji pairing that is often associated with an impairment or a disability. Therefore, 性同一性障害者 could be understood to mean “a person with a gender identity disorder/illness.”
Unsurprisingly, there has been a big backlash against the term 性同一性障害者 and instead, a new word made from 性別 (sexuality), 越境 (entering into a new realm) and 者 (person) have become more accepted within the community — 性別越境者.
As a result of the lack of any truly suitable word in Japanese, many transsexuals have started embracing the English-origin word トランスジェンダー (transgender person). Even the abbreviation トランス, unlike other abbreviations, is generally accepted.
Entering the discussion
Overall, most LGBTQ words in Japan are still very much a matter of balancing talking respectfully with getting rid of the discrimination and intolerance that unfortunately the community still suffers from. As a result, Japanese society is slowly coming around to the idea of LGBTQ issues being discussed in ever more public spheres. However you define yourself sexually and your own feelings about LGBTQ issues, by using these words, you too can join in the discussion.
The writer would like to thank LGBT Youth Japan and Tokyo Rainbow Pride for their assistance with researching the correct terms. Please note, that the opinions here represent the people interviewed and should not be considered representative of the entire diverse community.