While there are no laws against homosexuality in Japan, there are few openly gay celebrities and politicians. There is little political support for gay rights.
Aya Kamikawa, a transgender assemblywoman in the Setagaya District of Tokyo, has heard from many gay people that they feel discriminated against in Japan.
And yet, she says, “It’s a non-issue here. A government survey on minority groups showed that fewer than one percent of Japanese were interested in gay issues.”
Q: Do you believe Ms. Kamikawa is correct in her perspective that gay rights are not an issue in Japan?
Hideki Sunagawa, 40, cultural anthropologist and president of Tokyo Gay Pride: Gay and lesbian matters are a non-issue because Japanese believe it’s a private matter.
The concept of human rights is different here than in Western countries. Gay people themselves don’t regard sexual orientation issues matters of human rights. If someone were to die or be killed as a result of discrimination, then it would be a human rights issue.
Q: Do you think it’s an issue?
Sunagawa: Some people, myself included, think it’s a social issue. I organized the Tokyo Pride Parade to move the issue more into the mainstream and show Japanese people that being gay is all right.
Miki Hamano, executive in Tokyo: But gay people are generally well integrated into society, and most people are uninterested in others’ sexual orientation. It has little or no impact on their relationships with others. In Japanese society, homosexuality is similar to being left-handed: It is not an issue.
Charles Ayres, 33, media personality and openly gay American in Tokyo: Hamano-san is wearing rose-colored glasses. It is a huge issue in Japan. Most people go to great lengths to hide their sexuality from their families and co-workers.
At an executive level — especially at older, more conservative companies — it is definitely an issue. Sorry, but openly gay men cannot easily join the “good ol’ boy’s club” that spends money at golf courses or hostess clubs in Ginza.
Professor, 30, a university professor who requested to remain anonymous: That’s true. My partner, who works in the travel business, got married because he wanted to climb the ladder and get promoted. He felt he had to protect himself. He had to cover up who he really was or they would block him at the higher levels.
Ayres: There’s also discrimination in housing. If you go to some real estate offices as a gay couple, they will subtly let you know ‘we don’t like your kind.’ That is why most gays move to hubs like Akabane or Nakano in Tokyo.
I’ve heard straight men in Tokyo who, not knowing that I understand Japanese, have talked about how they feel that gay men are disgusting. I’ve known American gay men who have committed marriage fraud (marrying Japanese female friends) to obtain a spousal visa and stay in Japan with their male Japanese partners.
Kenji Sasaki, 31, IT engineer: The bottom line is that there aren’t any merits in coming out to family or the workplace because of prejudice.
Q: Have you come out?
Sasaki: Like most gays, only to my good friends. I’m afraid to tell my father. He’s always asking me if I have a girlfriend and when I’m getting married. He would be so disappointed if he knew the truth.
Q: Is it different in Western countries?
Sasaki: Yes. There’s more solidarity and support groups, and they can vote for political candidates who support them. Of course, there’s also a powerful group that is against them. Japan is about 20 years behind the United States. We need confidence to be gay here.
In a 2008 online survey by Kyoto University of more than 5,500 homosexuals, more than 42 percent said they were depressed. More than 86 percent of those depressed were younger than 39 year old.
Sunagawa: I came out because I don’t like avoiding questions about my partners. I can’t keep pretending to be heterosexual.
I did it in graduate school during an interview test. One of my teachers always made gay jokes. It was painfully embarrassing, especially when the students laughed. However, students outside the classroom ignored the fact that I was gay.
Professor: That’s because Japanese people don’t want to touch this topic. They regard sexual orientation as private and it makes them uncomfortable. It’s polite to avoid talking about it.
Hamano: I’m skeptical about all this. Judging from what goes on with entertainment personalities (see Part One of this series), we are not uncomfortable with it and really don’t worry about the issue at all.
Japan does not share Western perspectives. In the United States, homosexuality and abortion are particular red-button issues, which is not the case in Japan.
Mariya Goya, 22, hairdresser in Tokyo: I disagree. There is a social taboo, and in reality, Western countries have more understanding of this than we have. In fact, my friends and I thought that gays were strange and that men who loved men were weird. My perception changed when I started working with gays and my best friend came out.
I wish the media would handle the subject more sensitively and show that gay people are normal.
Hamano: Why should people have to go out of their way to be sensitive to gay people when there is no visible discrimination or social contempt?
Q: If what Hamano-san says is correct, Professor and Mochizuki-san, why don’t you come out?
Professor: If I came out about half my colleagues would be shocked, and about half of them wouldn’t say anything but would still feel uncomfortable.
Q: Was it hard for you to admit you were gay to yourself as well?
Professor: I knew I was gay in kindergarten; I liked the pretty boys and felt more comfortable being around girls. I had crushes on male singers and actors. I lived in my own world. I didn’t want to talk to my father. I was bored listening to the other boys talk about girls and I eventually became scared to be with other people.
I wanted to reach out to gay men. I was curious about it, but the only ones I knew in school were really feminine and I didn’t want to contact them. It was lonely and I lived in the country side. I’m sure life would have been less complicated had I been born straight.
Sasaki: Today it’s not as lonely because there is a lot more information available to gays. You have the Internet, where you can find a girlfriend or boyfriend, talk to people and go to gay events.
Professor: That’s true. I wasn’t with anyone until I was in my mid 20s. I was in a park in Tokyo and this foreign man — I think he was American — came up to me and said, ‘I’m an English teacher, are you interested in me?’ After that, people said I changed and became more outgoing.
Sasaki: I gradually started realizing I was gay when I was 16 years old and felt isolated. It took a long time and the Internet wasn’t like it is now.
Q: Would you say there is less discrimination?
Sunagawa: There is rarely physical and verbal violence against gays, and many gay people enjoy gay bars and events. There are gay groups interested in music or sports in the urban cities of Japan, so they say they are not oppressed in their daily lives.
But we need to ask why most gay people can’t come out to their colleagues or family members.
Many gay people (especially gay men) say that they are not discriminated nor oppressed in their daily lives. However, oppression against gay people is so strong that many of them don’t even realize it. There aren’t any laws or social systems that protect or recognize gay couples, and that’s discrimination.
Q: Is it true that some gay people get around this by legally adopting their partner?
Ayres: Yes, but the lack of a sizeable movement to change this to a more official bond confirms that they have accepted their status as second-class citizens.
Sunagawa: For example, when a partner passes away, they can participate in the funeral only as a friend. Some say the deceased insist that gay friends not take part in the funeral, as parents and relatives may realize the departed person was gay.
Ayres: Let me also add that I have seen somewhat of an exodus of gay Japanese out of Japan — something of a ‘gay drain’ rather than a ‘brain drain’ — moving to Australia, Canada, France or anywhere the laws protect them to a greater measure. Unless the laws change, I think gays will continue to leave Japan.
Sunagawa: I believe that global solidarity will empower and help us solve the problems we are facing in our culture.
The link to Part One is http://www.majiroxnews.com/2010/12/29/the-gay-debate-japans-comfy-closet/
The link to Charles Ayres’ Web site, called Impossibly Glamourous, is http://www.impossiblyglamorous.com