Gay Japan Overview

Gay and Lesbian Japan: The Japan Gay Experience ゲイ日本

Vagueness, blurring of lines, ambiguity, possibility: these are some of the clichés that tend to spring to the Western mind when addressing the topic of sexuality in Japan. How much of it is wishful and how much of it is cultivated by Japanese themselves is debatable.

Tokyo Gay Pride parade.
Revelers at a Tokyo Gay Pride parade

It is a fact that samurai were pederasts, that kabuki is a theater of cross dressing, that to Westerners many Japanese boys and men - physically and/or behaviorally - seem to exhibit typically 'feminine' traits: all leading to the common impression of outsiders that Japan must be a basically gay friendly society.

Unfortunately for gay Japanese men, it is not necessarily so. The issue on which gayness founders in Japan is marriage. Traditionally, getting married is seen not so much as the next step after falling in love, but more as a duty to maintain the family name. Any claim that sexual preference makes marriage impossible is seen as "selfish" and is to be sacrificed to the demands of duty. Like most of Asia, Japan is a highly conformist society, and refusing to marry is a mark of egregious nonconformity. Being openly gay in Japan only rubs the fact of this nonconformity in, making for an environment where gay Japanese men rarely venture out of the closet - at least before night falls.

Being 'out' is an idea that has yet to come of age in Japan, and at present is a luxury allowed those only who support themselves or are in positions where 'it doesn't matter.' Conversely, however, sodomy is not a crime. (It was legislated against briefly at the beginning of the country's Westernization process, but the law was quickly repealed). Also, as mentioned above, Japan has its own comparatively recent tradition of homosexual junior/senior relationships. One writer on the subject says: 'one of the fundamental aspects of samurai life was the emotional and sexual bond cultivated between an older warrior and a younger apprentice, a love for which the Japanese have many names, as many perhaps as the Eskimo have for snow.'

(The Beautiful Way of the Samurai: Native Tradition and Hellenic Echo,

Even today, a casual observation of Japanese males reveals a lot more touching, horseplay, bonding and open displays of male devotion and intimacy than are generally tolerated in English-speaking countries. While for men of equal status outright sex may nevertheless be taboo, tales abound of ritualized homosexual activity (often, admittedly on the knife edge of affection and abuse) between initiating older members of a group and receptive younger members - most notably in high school sports teams and the like.

Also, for all the lack of any concept of sin attached to sexuality, an uptight prudishness between men and women often prevails which makes homosexual relationships all the more likely. Furthermore, since the 1980s portrayals of sympathetic homosexual characters have been plentiful in popular entertainment - albeit for the sense of soppy, wistful 'loneliness' they are made to symbolize to an overwhelmingly female audience

All the same, expressions of distaste of homosexuality are by no means absent. It seems that asking the tradition of pederasty in Japan to stamp its approval of modern 'out' gayness is still asking a little too much. Making an open lifestyle of a till now strictly in-group phase of a certain form of male social bonding may well be too close to the bone (so to speak!)

It must be added, however, that any such distaste encountered does not go as deep as the morally tinged abhorrence often encountered in the West. The majority of Japanese are still fairly ignorant of things gay, and are probably more likely to respond to gayness with confusion, dismissal - or plain curiosity - than with blatant negativity. Generally, Japanese men do not feel constrained to prove their straightness in the kneejerk, homophobic way often encountered in other countries.

In the kind of environment where being gay is not considered 100% 'real,' it is natural that a very large number of gay people do get married. But in a country where marriage is as much a business relationship as it is a personal one, this does not pose an insurmountable problem. The more anonymous areas of the male gay scene, (cruising, sauna, and internet), are full of gay and bisexual men locked into straight marriage.

For the casual gay visitor to Japan, however, all he or she will see of the gay scene is its minute tip-of-the-iceberg 'out' manifestation, i.e. the world of gay clubs and bars. The Tokyo scene is the exception to the adjective 'minute,' but only because anything represented in a metropolis of such overwhelming size is, in absolute terms, bound to be big. Tokyo's gay center is Shinjuku 2-chome and Osaka's is Doyama-cho in the Umeda district. But even here the gay scene is probably not what the Western visitor will be used to.

The vast majority of gay bars are - given the price of land - tiny holes in the wall with regular clientele. While they may be curious about a foreigner and ply him with questions, the group mechanics are such that, with everyone knowing each other, it can be very difficult to pick up.

If you are looking to practice your Japanese and/or observe Japanese group behavior, you might try a small bar. Be advised, however, that even Japanese gay guys off the street are not usually welcome at hole-in-the-wall joints. With space at a premium they cater pretty much exclusively to the johren (i.e. 'regulars'). Anyone looking for a hook up is advised to go to a bar, club - or sauna - that welcomes foreigners and where the atmosphere is freer and more anonymous.

An aspect of the gay scene in Japan that sets it apart from most others is the level of specialization. Japanese in general are very focused in their preferences and desires, and on the gay scene (as well as the straight scene) this translates into the word sen, an abbreviation of the Japanese word for 'specialty' (senmon), used as a suffix.

For example, gaisen (into foreigners), debusen (into fat guys), garisen (into skinny guys), fukesen (into old guys), etc. Therefore it is possible that any bar you walk into will be devoted to a particular 'sen' ('preference' or 'kink'), possibly compromising your chances - not to mention the fact that you could well be taking up one of the few seats in the place better meant for someone else. Therefore, unless you speak Japanese and unless you are unusually adventurous, it is therefore a good idea to seek out the gaisen ('foreigner friendly') bars or dance clubs (see link below) if you're looking to enjoy some intimacy.

Tip: if you are cruising in public areas, and someone comes up and warns you of police being around, do not leave that public area until someone has assured you that it is safe to leave.

Click here for links to foreigner-friendly gay and lesbian bars and clubs in Japan, as well as useful Japan-related gay/lesbian web links.

Books on Gay Japan