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What’s Life Like for LGBT Gaijin in Japan?

Being a gaijin can be tough. The same holds true for being an LGBT individual. So what's life really like for LGBT gaijin in Japan?

By 5 min read

While the future does seem bright, there are plenty of hang-ups that make life as a queer person in Japan anything but easy.

Apathy is a double-edged sword

Japan is embracing LGBT rights at a pace much quicker than that of most other Asian countries. A recent survey reported by The Japan Times found that almost 90 percent of Japanese parents would accept their child as LGBT. When it comes to discussing LGBT topics, many Japanese respond simply with a proverbial “live and let live” shrug.

However, this apathy can be a double-edged sword. While LGBT people feel mostly safe in Japan from physical harm, they remain largely invisible — both in society and politically. As of now, there are very few legal protections against discrimination for LGBT people, while same-sex marriage (and all the benefits that come with it) is still not recognized for Japanese citizens.

A state of limbo

The tensions of being invisible is a daily occurrence for queer people. One must find how to best navigate spaces between being seen and unseen. While many are out to people they are close to, other aspects of life are trickier to manage, often putting people in a state of limbo. For many, being out at work proves difficult. This is the case for Sam*, an American English teacher in Kyushu. “I use subtle language like ‘partner’ if I’m dating a woman and kids are interested in my personal life. I don’t explicitly cover it up, but I don’t draw attention to it either.”

I use subtle language like ‘partner’ if I’m dating a woman and kids are interested in my personal life. I don’t explicitly cover it up, but I don’t draw attention to it either.

Selina from Europe has a different experience working for the head office of a Japanese eikaiwa (English conversation school). “When I came out as trans over a year ago, I was very matter of fact about it. I told my manager, set up a meeting with HR, provided a letter from a Japanese psychiatrist, and explained my transition to them. As a result, the company amended their policies to include anti-discrimination clauses for anyone who is LGBT.”

Life in Tokyo

Where you live in Japan also greatly influences your experience. If you’re in Tokyo, you’re better off than most in terms of finding a community. Shinjuku Ni-chome is one of the largest gay districts in the world. The block is home to some 300 LGBT bars, clubs, restaurants, and shops. Most of them cater to gay men, but there is a place for everyone.

If nightlife is not your cup of tea, there are many other outlets in the city to find queer people. There are several organizations and groups for LGBT gaijin and Japanese people to join. A popular one that is very active is the Meetup group Tokyo LGBTQIAP+ and Supporters. Activities include picnics, bowling, going to restaurants, trips to the beach, hiking, and many others. With almost one thousand members, there is always something fun to do and new people to meet. Tokyo also hosts several major events throughout the year such as the annual Tokyo Rainbow Pride as well as Rainbow Reel Tokyo, the country’s largest LGBT film festival, showcasing films from all around the world.

Life outside of Tokyo

But for those in other areas of Japan, being a queer gaijin can oftentimes be an isolating experience. Eduardo* is a Latin American gay man living in Nagoya. He is out to friends, but finds it difficult to get to know Japanese men. He thinks, “it is very unusual to find openly gay people in Japan. Many Japanese men don’t accept their sexuality and think it can be a phase.” While he says there are a few gay bars, they are “more welcoming to a certain type of patron, if you don’t fit in the type people won’t talk to you.”

It is very unusual to find openly gay people in Japan. Many Japanese men don’t accept their sexuality and think it can be a phase.

With little to no safe places to go, many people throughout rural and small towns in Japan turn to online means to meet people and find support. There is no shortage of apps people use to find one another, each one offering something slightly different; Grindr, Jack’d, Fem, Spindle, Tinder – take your pick. These are great for chatting with and meeting people one-on-one, but if you’re looking for a community, it can be quite the challenge.

Finding support

One group that is actively supporting LGBT people both online and in person is Stonewall Japan. Originally, the group began as a space for queer JET teachers to come together. Now membership is open to anyone residing in Japan who is LGBT or an ally. With almost two thousand members nationwide, Stonewall Japan is the largest foreign LGBT organization in the country. Members encourage each other in the group’s very active Facebook community. Appointed regional leaders also help support members in their areas and organize events.

With the 2020 Olympics coming to Tokyo, Japan is likely to see positive strides in LGBT efforts. The eyes of the world will be watching and the country is already putting in the ground work to look its very best. Part of the planning for the Olympics includes a push to promote diversity at the games, and earlier this year, the government set up a committee to assess the treatment of the LGBT community in Japan.

So it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for queer people living in Japan, but it’s not the worst place either. Many LGBT gaijin are committed to staying in Japan and hope things start to change for the better.

*Names have been changed.

Are you an LGBT gaijin living in Japan? Do you agree with the article? What’s your experience like? 

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