Opening the Conversation on LGBTQ+ in Japan
Image by Sarah Saucedo
As awareness and rights for the LGBTQ+ community grows overseas, Japan is slowly but surely entering the queer scene. In a survey conducted by Dentsu Inc., 10.2 percent of people identified as queer, compared to 8.9 percent in 2015; albeit 65.1 percent are still not open about their identity1. Although same sex marriage is not legal throughout Japan, since 2015, Shibuya-ku and Setagaya-ku have been offering partnership certificates. Unfortunately, these certificates are only available to those residing in Shibuya-ku and Setagaya-ku and are not legally binding. However, they still request businesses, such as hospitals and real estate agencies, to treat those with certificates with the same respect as married heterosexual couples2.
In comparison to other countries, Japan shows a reluctance to openly embracing the queer community. But is there a part of Japanese culture that keeps it from normalizing gender and sexual minorities, or is Japan simply underinformed? In the same study conducted by Dentsu Inc., of the 60,000 people surveyed, almost 80 percent of respondents said that they wanted to understand more than just the LGBTQ+ acronym, and learn more about the community that it encompasses1.
For this article, I talked to Didrik Tordhol, a Norway native who has been living in Japan for 6 years. He expressed worry about the lack of education Japan has on queer culture. “I asked a girl about LGBTQ+...and if she knew what it stands for, and she was like ‘the B and G stand for boy and girl right’” Tordhol explained to me. When asking him about his experiences of being openly gay in Japan, he noted that a common issue he faces is that “people [assume] that I must want to become a woman...because I like guys, and do wear make up.” On the topic of coming out, he mentioned that he “[doesn’t] really like to ‘come out’ because that makes it more of a thing than it really is,” and added that being queer “really is a normal thing and should be treated as such.”
As Tordhol mentioned, there does seem to be confusion in the distinction of gay versus trans, throughout Japan. When thinking of Japanese LGBTQ+ public icons, people like Matsuko Deluxe and Ikko come to mind, who, despite being openly gay, are respectively known for cross dressing and being trans. With the queer community already being a minority and the main representation coming from TV personalities like Matsuko and Ikko, it’s easy for the different spectrums of LGBTQ+ to be lumped together. Even though Matsuko and Ikko may not be hiding their sexual identity, until more of the queer community comes out, a deeper discussion on LGBTQ+ is not possible.
However, coming out in Japan is a lot easier said than done. In interviewing Japanese people between Osaka and Tokyo, there seemed to be a general consensus that people aren’t against the queer community, but rather that Japanese culture isn’t that malleable. From a young age, Japanese culture promotes conformity and uniformity, ranging from school and work uniforms, to everyone following the same fashion trends. Although fashion trends allow some room for self expression, you’re still expected to stay within the framework of these trends. Hiroki Senou, a sociology major at Doshisha University, says that “Japanese government hardly accepts immigrants and our culture is pretty pure. We just don’t get used to agreeing to [new ideas]...People just try to be normal here.” Normal, in this case means traditional families of a husband, wife, and kids.
Members of the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan have expressed similar sentiments. Representatives like Tomu Tanigawa and Mio Sugita made remarks against same sex marriage, saying that same sex couples are “unproductive” to society for not producing children, which “humans have been doing from antiquity [to fend off] decline and ruin”3.
Takayuki Tanaka, a landscaper in his early 50s, expanded on this idea, including that most Japanese people aren’t against the LGBTQ+ community, but instead have had minimal interaction with people from this community, leading them to be under informed and not advocating for LGBTQ+ rights, merely because any legislative change wouldn’t impact them or anyone they know.
With almost 1 in 11 Japanese people identifying somewhere under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, it’s not like queer people don’t exist in Japan. There just hasn’t been as big of a discussion on the queer movement as there could be.
Once this discussion grows, misconceptions can be corrected, more queer people can feel comfortable being open with their identity, and the LGBTQ+ lifestyle can slowly but surely become normalized as part of Japanese culture. Whether it be joining a group like TUJ’s Pride Club, or attending Tokyo’s Rainbow Pride (on April 28th and 29th), any step taken that advocates for the LGBTQ+ community is a step forward.