When I first came to Japan in the 1990s, the gay community seemed invisible. There isn’t an annual gay rights march like in many parts of Europe. There are no openly gay state legislators or sports figures. Few seem to be fighting for the rights of sexual minorities. On TV, stereotypes and discrimination against homosexuality are common: the word “okama” is still widely used in a derogatory way.
So, when I was later commissioned to write a feature article on 2-Chome in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, I was surprised to find one of the densest and most diverse gay bars and clubs in the world: around 300 Businesses crowded a few blocks, including sex shops and watering holes for every taste – known as kei (professional). It is largely unknown in the immediate world beyond its boundaries.
Bars with overweight men, transvestites, spanks, hairy men, men over 70, older men who want to be with younger men. One agency that specializes in people who look like hot icons; another caters to clients from the countryside. “I’ve even heard of a place that’s busaiku-kei” (Ugly Man), Taq Otsuka, author of several books on gays in Japan, tells me with a laugh. “There’s nothing here that you can’t find.”
I visited a bland hotel tucked away in a side street nearby and saw a steady stream of customers, dressed in dark salaryman suits, well-fitted shoes and coats, quietly crowding out their innocuous doors. Only they walked through the halls, cheerfully decorated with scenes from a porn movie depicting a fat company president being diligently served by a young apprentice, and basically it was all over.
Guests from all over Japan come to soak in the sauna/bath, and then walk half-naked across the seven floors, where porn flickers 24 hours a day in dimly lit communal sleeping areas with futons.
I later wrote that 2-Chome was very Japanese in some ways: discreet, compartmentalized; meticulous about orders and details. Just keep things the way they are, and live. “This is a country that lives happily in contradiction,” Otsuka said. “It has a way of doing things that people sometimes don’t understand.”
While 2-Chome became a gay haven in a former red light district, British police are still arresting gay men in toilets and parks. Unlike many other countries, Japan has no anti-sodomy laws (since the implementation of the old penal code in 1882), nor much of what Mark McClelland, author of “Homosexuality in Modern Japan: Cultural Myths and Social Realities,” says The “anti-gay frenzy” is a deadly fuel for homophobia and homophobia.
Despite the usual pain of personal identity and the need for secrecy, gay men and lesbians in Japan did not suffer the same outright repression as the rest of the world (the UK’s anti-sodomy laws were not repealed until 1967).
However, while Japan is relatively liberal when it comes to sexual preferences, it also lacks the political and social movements that would help change the lives of gays and lesbians elsewhere. Homosexuality was and is still largely seen as a personal lifestyle choice, not something to be shown off or debated on the streets and in parliament. I think that’s one of the reasons for Tokyo’s relatively low-key gay rights march.
I’ve heard people say that Japan’s social transformation is happening quietly, without the fireworks or violence that undermines Western movements. Indeed, the lives of members of the LGBT community in Japan are transforming. In June, Tokyo became the latest city to issue a “partner certificate” to same-sex couples. Eight other prefectures have already introduced the system. There were four openly LGBT candidates in the last general election.
However, many gay people still face hardship, bullying and discrimination. In 2019, Taiwan, not Japan, became the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage. Japan is the only G-7 country that does not allow same-sex unions. As in Christian America, there is still some resistance to this legal change, especially among conservatives who want to preserve traditional families.
Many Daily News readers will read a 90-page pamphlet circulating among LDP MPs describing sexual minorities as suffering from “psychological disorders”. It’s unclear how much support there is within Japan’s ruling party for the bizarre and disgraced cliché that homosexuality can be “cured.” But even its existence is shameful, a sign that Japan’s battle for gender equality is far from over.
David McNeill was born in England in 1965 and holds Irish nationality. He received his PhD from Napier University in Edinburgh, Scotland. He taught at Liverpool John Moores University before moving to Japan in 2000. He was a visiting researcher at the University of Tokyo and was a Tokyo correspondent for publications such as The Independent and The Economist. He is a professor at the Department of English Language, Communication and Culture at Sacred Heart University in Tokyo in April 2020. He is the co-author of Strong in the Rain: Surviving Japan’s Earthquake, Tsunami, and Tsunami. The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster” (co-authored with Lucy Birmingham), published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2012. The Japanese version was published by Enishi Shobo in 2016. He enjoys cycling and sometimes travels around the Miura Peninsula and Shiga in Kanagawa Prefecture Lake Biwa in the prefecture.