HOMOSEXUALITY IN JAPAN
Kiss me Japanese gays live quietly and are not very visible. They are tolerated more than in other Asian countries but are still occasionally the targets of discrimination and harassment. There is such pressure to conform in Japan that many gay men get married and live the gay life in secret, something that is not hard to do considering that men spend so little time at home.
Shinjuku is the home of Tokyo's main gay district. The first ever Gay and Lesbian Parade in Japan was held on Shinjuku Street in 1992. Estimates of the turnout ranged from 300 to 1,000 marchers. Gay organizations have small membership. This partly because most Japanese gays don’t want to draw attention to themselves.
As of the mid 2000s, only one politician---a lesbian member of the Osaka prefectural assembly---has some out and admitted he or she is gay.
Cross-dressing males are often guests on television talk shows. There are clubs with she-male reviews that end their shows by exposing themselves. Many heterosexual and homosexual male college students work in the sex trade just as young women do. They regard what they do as work and a way to make some spending money. Tokyo hosts a gay and lesbian film festival in mid July
Good Websites and Sources: Gay and Lesbian Japan japanvisitor.com ; Gay Love in Japan gay-art-history.org ; Book: Homosexuality and Masculinity in Postwar Japan routledge.com Books: Coming Out in Japan by Satoru Ito and Ryuta Yanase (Trans Pacific Press, 2001); Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan by Mark McLelland (Curzon, 2000); Queer in Japan, edited and translated by Barbara Summerhawk (New Victoria, 2001)
Links in this Website: SEX IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; PROSTITUTES, SEX CLUBS AND SEX INDUSTRY IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; HOSTESSES, HOSTS AND STRIPTEASE IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; SEX, CHILDREN, TEACHERS AND SUBWAYS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; SEX, DATING CLUBS AND SCHOOLGIRLS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan
History of Homosexuality in Japan
During the Edo Period (1603-1867) homosexuality was reportedly widely practiced and even encouraged among samurai. As was true in ancient Sparta, there was a belief that a warrior would fight harder if he was protecting the life of a lover fighting at his side.
Yoshiro Hatano, Ph.D. and Tsuguo Shimazaki wrote in the Encyclopedia of Sexuality:[Masculinity and virility were exalted in the ancient nature religions and in Shinto precepts and rituals that prepared the ground for the warrior culture. In the Shinto winter ritual of hadaka matsuri, males of all ages purified themselves with an icy dip in a mountain spring or waterfall, liberally consumed purifying saki, and then piled on top one another within the confines of the shrine in a seething mass exaltation of manhood. Masculinity was also exalted by the samurai and shoguns who kept legions of pretty young pages in attendance. Even among the Buddhist priesthood, where the injunction of chastity forbade all sexual contact of monks with women, homosexuality was considered an acceptable substitute, as it was elsewhere in Buddhist monasteries throughout the Far East. Each novice pledged himself to an older monk for a number of years. In exchange for tuition, the mentor provided his pupil with instruction in the sacred texts and the spiritual quest. The novice embraced the status of “sworn friend,” serving his master, body and soul. [Source: Yoshiro Hatano, Ph.D. and Tsuguo Shimazaki Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 1997 hu-berlin.de/sexology ++]
During the long civil wars, violence and the warrior ethic reigned supreme and women were nothing more than a necessary incubator for progeny. Homosexuality was the ne plus ultra of virility and masculinity. In the stoic way of the warrior and the code of the samurai, nanshoku (male passion) was not a perversion but a lofty ideal. Strict conventions limited the passive female role of recipient to youths and boys, while the older male played the active male role of insertor. ++
For centuries, the traditional Japanese theater, another male preserve, also had an established current of homosexuality flowing through it. As soon as the female precursors of kabuki were banished from the stage in the early 1600s, the overwhelming majority of their male replacements were beauteous catamites and followers of Shudo, “the way of the youth” (Bornoff 1991, 422-33). ++
Yanagihashi (1995) has identified four main characteristics evident in pre-modern Japanese homosexual traditions, namely: 1) The relationships are typically between an adult man and a minor; 2) The relationships tend to exist in contexts where contact with the other sex is limited; 3) Female homosexuality seems to be entirely non-existent; and 4) The relationships were formed exclusively among members of the privileged classes. According to Yanagihashi, homosexuality was understood as a substitute or supplement to heterosexuality in a fundamentally heterosexual and male-dominated society. (Kaji) ++
Gay bars in Shinjuku, Tokyo
Male Homosexuality in Japan
Yoshiro Hatano, Ph.D. and Tsuguo Shimazaki wrote in the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Although Japanese culture has in its history a tradition of sexual love between men, and tolerates the expression of affection for the same sex at most levels of society, the contemporary Japanese attitude toward homosexuality is in general very negative. However, the issue has yet to be discussed as a social issue. For example, according to a nationwide survey of 188 university professors who are teaching subjects related to human sexuality, only 30 (15.8 percent) have ever addressed the issue of homosexuality in their curriculum (National Survey of Sexology and College Education, 1995). Though many lesbians and gay men are suffering from the prejudice and insensitivity of Japanese society, most heterosexual Japanese people may be unaware of the negative feelings that drive such prejudice and insensitivity. (Kaji). [Source: Yoshiro Hatano, Ph.D. and Tsuguo Shimazaki Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 1997 hu-berlin.de/sexology ++]
None of the larger urban entertainment districts in Japan is without its quota of gay bars and clubs. The laws against prostitution are fairly nebulous, but especially so when applied to homosexual prostitution. When a gay bar or club comes to grief from the law, it is usually because it employed boys under the legal age of consent or hired exotic youths from other lands who violate the provisions of their visa by working. ++
Until the specter of AIDS arose in the mid-1980s, many foreign homosexual men found Japan, with its very long, colorful, and venerable gay history, to be a paradise. The fear of AIDS and a touch of xenophobia have closed most gay facilities to foreigners. Exclusion of foreign gays from Japanese gay facilities provides the reassurance of freedom from the risk of AIDS if Japanese homosexuals associate only with other Japanese gays. ++
Japanese male homosexuals are called okama (august pots), a derogatory colloquial metaphor equating the common cooking pot with the human buttocks. Increasingly popular is the “Japlish” gei, or gay. In a 1981 survey, about 6 percent of male college students reported being active homosexuals; a third of high school boys surveyed reported latent homosexual inclinations. In a similar 1987 survey, both figures declined to 4.5 and 20 percent respectively, with a proportionate increase in heterosexual activity. ++
Apart from one gay support group with an overwhelming foreign membership, there are no gay activist groups uniting Japanese in coming out of the closet and political advocacy. Gay magazines, such as the famous Bara Zoku (The Rose Tribe) and gay comics are sold everywhere, but like the many heterosexual erotic publications, their emphasis is more on titillation than information, and certainly not on sociopolitical activism. Gay liberation parties on the political fringe do occasionally surface, especially at elections, but most Japanese gays would rather continue living their erotic lives contentedly in the closet, perusing their gay magazines, and attending gay bars or clubs when they can, rather than become involved in the risky business of political activism (Bornoff 1991). ++
This situation began to change in 1991 with the filing of the first court case pertaining to gay issues, The Association for Lesbian and Gay Movement vs. Tokyo Municipal Government. In this case, also known as the Fucyu Youth Activity Center Case, the Tokyo District Court reversed a decision by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Board of Education that refused to allow homosexual groups to use a youth activity center. Beginning in 1994, the Annual Lesbian and Gay Pride Parade has been held in Tokyo. In 1995, about two thousand people attended this event, which was co-sponsored by twenty-eight groups with predominantly Japanese membership. Also, in 1995, gay professional organizations, such as the Association of Gay Professionals in Counseling and Allied Medical Fields, were founded. ++
Lesbianism in Japan
In ancient times, the neglected ladies of the o-oku, the shogun’s harem, were well known for taking consolation in lesbian relationships. Unlike the celebration of male homosexuality among the warriors and their pages, however, Japanese culture has preferred to ignore - neither condemning nor celebrating - lesbian relations. Shunga with a lesbian theme are relatively rare. There are resubian sho (lesbian shows) which are a staple in the modern striptease parlor frequented by heterosexual males, but more as a foreign import than indigenous expression. For a brief time in the early 1980s, Tokyo had a single lesbian bar, but given the contentedness of gay men in the closet and the pervasiveness of female submissiveness, there are even fewer lesbians anxious to come out in public. While most gay bars exclude all women, some are known to cater to lesbians on certain days, and then only for a couple of hours. In modern Japan, lesbianism is shrouded in comparative obscurity (Bornoff 1991, 433-47). [Source: Yoshiro Hatano, Ph.D. and Tsuguo Shimazaki Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 1997 hu-berlin.de/sexology ++]
In Japan, as in most other cultures around the world, lesbians have been doubly stigmatized as homosexuals and as women. Lesbians have been typically viewed by Japanese society as a common element in the pornography targeted to men or as “gender-bending” and anti-social. A variety of colloquial terms are used for Japanese lesbians, all of them more or less derogatory. (Kaji)] Lesbians are sometimes known as onabe (stew-pot) in contrast with the male okama, or august pot, or more commonly by the “Japlish” resz. Rezubian (lesbian) is the most commonly used term. The otachi, or butch, the actress playing male roles, and the nenne or neko (cat), Çnue, or femme, mark the two ends of the lesbian spectrum. ++
One uniquely Japanese custom of gender bending is found in the joshi-puro (women professional wrestlers). Elsewhere in the world, women wrestlers are shapely Amazons in bikinis intently watched by males. In Japan, women wrestlers mimic their male sumo counterparts, with some interesting twists. Joshi-puro stars, such as Chigusa, with a boyish hairstyle and tacky, gaudy leotards, serenades her audience of teenage and preteen girls with popular songs before climbing into the ring to attack, gouge, pummel, and drag her mountainous opponent around the rings. Commenting on the adulation Japanese girls show for their heroes in the All-Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling Association, the director of AJWPWA has suggested that young girls see women pro wrestlers as very strong, ideal men, a substitute for boyfriends. They feel safe getting close to them because they are female. They provide vicarious thrills for the young girls, and models of aggressive champions of self-assertiveness (Bornoff 1991, 433-444). ++
Thousands March in Japan Gay Pride Parade
In April 2012, AFP reported: “Some 2,500 people marched in a gay pride parade in Tokyo, vowing to transform a low-profile campaign for the rights of sexual minorities into a major movement in Japan. The crowd, mainly from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, as well as their supporters and sex workers, paraded through the capital's entertainment and shopping district of Shibuya. [Source: AFP, April 29, 2012]
Waving rainbow-coloured flags and banners, foreign and Japanese campaigners marched in colourful carnival and samurai warrior outfits. It was the first parade organised by Tokyo Rainbow Pride, a private organisation formed in 2011 which aims to support the rights of sexual minorities. [Ibid]
“Compared with that of New York or London, Japan's awareness of sexual minorities is quite low," said Sayaka Kato, a spokeswoman for the organisation. "I'm afraid Japan has yet to have a culture of accepting diversity." The group hopes to stage a gay pride parade with 50,000 participants within the next five years by expanding its networks among not only Japanese but foreign residents. [Ibid]
“Wataru Ishizaka, 35, who as an openly gay politician in Japan is a rarity, noted that a number of sexual minorities in the country still hesitate to take part in events in support of LGBT rights for fear of discrimination. "Japanese sexual minorities are still concerned about their exposure to the public," said Ishizaka, a local Tokyo politician, after participating in the parade. [Ibid]
Discrimination Against Gays in Japan
Japan does not have any laws that ban homosexuality nor are there laws that protect homosexual’s rights. Many gays have to deal with the trials and tribulations that gays everywhere have to endure: explaining to their mothers they are gay, dealing with their father's disgust, being the butt en of jokes by schoolmates and coworkers.
In a society where conformity and social harmony are valued, homosexual are often looked upon as outcasts. Some gay men don’t come out until they are in their 30s and learn about gay life through pornography. Gay school teachers have been forced to quit their jobs because they were gay.
Japanese gays are not big on coming out in the work place or fighting discrimination. Even so homosexual groups such as OCCUR (Japan Association for the Lesbian and Gay Movement) have won a number of victories in anti-discrimination court cases.
Transsexuals and Gender Conflicted Persons in Japan
In October 2009, 37-year-old Japanese television personality Ai Haruna won the “Miss International Queen 2009" transsexual beauty contest in Pattaya, Thailand. In January 2010 it was revealed that Filipino transsexuals were passing themselves off as women and marrying Japanese men and living in Japan with passports that listed them as women. There was even a broker that helped arrange the “marriages” that worked with an agent in the Phillippines that provided the transsexuals with women’s passports, onto which they placed their pictures. The transsexuals entered Japan with those passports and received residence cards after registering their marriages to Japanese men at local government offices. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun]
Yoshiro Hatano, Ph.D. and Tsuguo Shimazaki wrote in the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Except for the practices of certain ethnic groups in the world, cross-dressing, transvestism, gender-crossing, and transsexualism were, until about fifty years ago, generally considered “diseases” that either required medical treatment or were simply not practiced out in the open. [Source: Yoshiro Hatano, Ph.D. and Tsuguo Shimazaki Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 1997 hu-berlin.de/sexology ++]
Reaction in Japan was similar, although there were some exceptions. Kabuki, Japan’s traditional theatrical art, is one. All parts in a Kabuki play are played by male actors. Thus, cross-dressing and transvestism, at least in the theater, has long existed in Kabuki roles. One can easily imagine that the actor’s psychological state, or mental makeup, walks a fine line between masculinity and femininity, as the actor tries to immerse himself in his role. Actors responsible for female roles were, from their early childhood, compelled to experience first-hand the everyday life, customs, and etiquette of the women they played. Although this extreme practice is not seen in the modern Kabuki world, it cannot be denied that an aesthetic sensibility exists in the mental makeup of Japanese in which importance is placed on the beauty of men acting in female roles. As a counterpart to Kabuki, Takarazuka Young Girls Opera, which began in 1914, has provided a stage for only female actors and continues to enchant many women today. ++
These phenomena may provide a clue when considering gender-crossing, transvestism, and cross-dressing in Japan. That is, the roles in both Kabuki and Takarazuka Opera have come to be viewed as a performance, something one sees only on the stage. Accordingly, occurrences in these fictitious worlds are not always so easily tolerated in the real world. A “drag queen” appearing on television, for example, lives in “television land,” a world from which most people feel detached. ++
Gender-crossers and transsexuals have not yet been accepted into Japanese society. This is because the majority of people have a dualistic gender bias, believing that a man’s role is to impregnate a woman and a woman’s role is to bear children, while only a minority advocate a society where people are free to choose their gender. ++
In recent years, gatherings and study meetings on transsexualism and transvestism as a human issue rather than a moral issue have been provided in Japan, as well. Saitama Medical School created a stir in July 1996, when its ethics committee approved female-to-male sex-change operations. There is no legal precedent for this in Japanese law and many problems remain concerning how society will accept those people who undergo a sex-change operation. ++
Sex Change Operations in Japan
Sailor Moon The first legal sex change operations in Japan were conducted in 1998. According to medical guides, sex change operations have to be approved by one of two medical school ethics committees and patients are supposed to receive psychiatric counseling and hormone therapy before undergoing the operation.
Transsexuals face a number of problems after the operation, including being identified by their former genders on their passports, health and employment insurance documents and pension papers. People who have has sex change operations can not change their sex on official registries unless they have been married and have children.
Transgender people have traditionally worked in the entertainment industry.
A child born to a couple who husband was a former woman who had a sex change operation to become a male was declared illegitimate by city officials in Hyogo Prefecture.
Japanese TV Personality with Gender Identity Disorder
Masanori Tonegawa wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Japanese transsexual TV personality Ai Haruna, 39, suffered from and overcame gender identity disorder. Born anatomically male, Haruna wanted clothes and toys for girls as a child. When playing house, she always played the role of the mother. "I believed that I would naturally be able to become a woman when I grew up," she said. [Source: Masanori Tonegawa, Yomiuri Shimbun, April 15, 2012]
“But upon entering primary school, things quickly changed. Students were separated by sex for physical examinations. She wanted to wear bloomers for female students in gym class, but had to wear shorts for male students. "I despaired and wondered whether I would gradually become different from the other friendly female students. I felt my identity was threatened," she said. "Why can't I become a woman?" Haruna thought this to herself all day long and was unable to concentrate on studying. [Ibid]
“During reading time, Haruna always chose the Hans Christian Andersen tale "The Little Mermaid" because she could identify with the main character, who could not become a perfect woman unless she gave up something important. During that time, Haruna covered her face with the book to hide a flood of tears. [Ibid]
“Before attending kindergarten, Haruna had dreams of becoming an idol singer, aching to be like pop music duo Pink Lady. Beginning in primary school, Haruna frequently appeared on amateur impersonation TV programs. "As I hid my feminine side at school, I felt liberated [on the programs]," she said. Without confiding in anyone, she graduated from primary school and advanced to middle school. [Ibid]
“Since childhood, Haruna had worried about the incompatibility between her mental and physical genders. When entering middle school, she wore a male school uniform with a stand-up collar and tried to act manly. "I had a tough time not being true to myself, but I had decided to present a fictitious self at school," she said. On the impersonation TV programs, Haruna appeared in women's costumes even after becoming a middle school student. As a result, she was bullied at school. She even thought of suicide. [Ibid]
“When she was a second-year middle school student, Haruna had a life-changing event. A customer at her mother's restaurant took her to a club where "newhalfs" (transsexuals and male transvestites) entertained customers. It was the first time she learned there were many people just like her. Haruna asked the club manager for a job and started the next day, living a double life as a male middle school student by day, and a newhalf at night. [Ibid]
“As she had found a place where she could be her true self, Haruna had no problems acting like a man both at home and at school. "I used to hold a grudge against my parents for not making me a baby girl. But when I was considering suicide, pleasant memories of my family dissuaded me from doing so. So I'm really grateful to my family," she said. Just three months after entering high school, Haruna dropped out. She confessed to her parents that she was suffering from gender identity disorder and was determined to live as a newhalf. [Ibid]
Japanese TV Personality Talks About Gender Identity Disorder
Masanori Tonegawa wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “While working at a club, Haruna sang and danced on stage to entertain customers, becoming a show business professional. One day, a TV crew came to the club to cover Haruna. "I felt like I was closer to my dream. I wanted to become cute so I could look like a young woman in every way, and that way, more TV stations would come to run stories about me," she said. [Ibid]
“Haruna then underwent a sex-change operation. "I couldn't tell my parents about the operation. But right before the surgery, I called my mother to hear her voice. Then I went into the operation room shedding tears," she said. Once she became a woman in body, Haruna felt as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders. The happiest thing was that she could now wear clothes and swimsuits for women, as well as enter female bathhouses. [Ibid]
“Nevertheless, those around her sometimes do not acknowledge Haruna as a woman. At the time, she was in a steady relationship with a man, but his family pressed her to break up with him on the grounds that Haruna is a newhalf. "I understood that after I had the operation, I wouldn't be able to have a period or become pregnant. It was a tough operation, but I noticed that only one of my many worries was resolved," she said. [Ibid]
“After the operation, Haruna continued to work at the "newhalfs" (transsexuals and male transvestites) club. When she turned 20, opportunities to appear on impersonation TV programs suddenly increased. One day, she was scouted by a Tokyo entertainment agency. She then left her hometown in Osaka Prefecture for Tokyo. However, there wasn't as much work in Tokyo as Haruna expected, and she quit the agency about one year later. After that, she worked at various places, including a restaurant in Tokyo, and opened her own small bar about 10 years ago. [Source: Masanori Tonegawa, Yomiuri Shimbun, April 22, 2012]
“Soon after, Haruna developed a polyp on her throat and could not speak. In the bar, she began lip-syncing and shadowing TV performances of singers Aya Matsuura and Seiko Matsuda, which was a hit with the bar's patrons. "At first, I didn't know whether my impersonation would be something people laughed at, but I dared to try anyway. In the end, it became my trademark," she said. Her voice returned about six months later, and she polished her techniques for lip-syncing and mimicking Matsuura's performances. When she demonstrated her technique at a party, she caught the eye of a man working in the entertainment industry. Since then, she has received an increasing amount of work and fulfilled a dream in 2008 when she released her first single as a singer. [Ibid]
“Haruna didn't want to admit that she was a man. But now, she's come to think it's her individual character to combine feminine and masculine attributes. "I became a woman physically, but sometimes I want to speak in a deep voice. I won't change my sex to female on my family register either," she said. In 2010, Haruna tried to run a 24-hour ultramarathon for charity on a TV program for the NTV network. She received encouragement and support from people along the marathon route and in faxes sent to the program. [Ibid]
“In 2009, she won the "Miss International Queen" transsexual beauty pageant held in Thailand. "If I can make an impression on people, I don't care if they think I'm an odd person. If people are interested in me, I don't care if it's just for fun," Haruna said. "I'd like to make myself known to other people and take on activities to encourage people with gender identity disorder or people struggling with diseases.” [Ibid]
Image Sources: 1) Wikicommons 2) and 3) Japan Visitors 4) Japan Zone
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated August 2012