Being Gay (and Fabulous) in Tokyo

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I recently came out, and it was far less painful and emotional a process than I thought it would be – largely because I have awesome family and friends and I am in love with an absolutely wonderful man. I’m very lucky and grateful for all the luck I continue to have.

Most of my friends and family didn’t even have any questions for me, save for one: What’s it like to be gay in Japan?

And I guess that’s a good question! We don’t really hear a lot about gay rights in Japan in western news, so I assume it would be pretty much a mystery for anyone who doesn’t live here and experience it everyday.

So, what is it like to be openly gay in Japan?

It’s weird. But damn near everything in Japan is weird so I guess that shouldn’t be too much of a shock.

I suppose I should elaborate a bit, but before I do that I want to issue a disclaimer of sorts. Everything that follows is based on my own personal experiences in Tokyo as an openly gay American man. I do not claim my experience to be typical of any other GLBT person in this country, and I don’t expect it to be. What I’m basically saying is that no matter what I say, don’t take it to be gospel for every other gay person’s experience in Tokyo. I’m just sharing what I have experienced in my year plus here, nothing more, nothing less.

To be honest, being gay has mostly been a non-issue. Just like my friends and family back home, my friends and co-workers here are an open-minded bunch and when I told them I was gay it was like telling them I was left-handed or a Yes fan – a slight surprise but not a big deal. That being said, most of my co-workers are fellow gaijin (foreigners) or Japanese people who are accustomed to working with foreigners from a wide variety of backgrounds, so I don’t think that they’re an accurate a snapshot of Japan.

I think a far better barometer of the general feelings towards gays in Japan come from my students. A quick note about my job – I’m an English instructor, but I don’t teach classes; instead I teach one-on-one private lessons. As you can imagine, this can create a much more personal relationship between my students and myself, especially if they end up exclusively booking me every few days, or if they’re just highly personable people who like to chat about personal topics.

Me being gay doesn’t always come up, but when it does, the responses have run the gamut from a complete non-reaction to quiet but noticeable repulsion (with the latter only happening twice). Reactions from younger people (30 and under) are almost always positive, and women are almost always not only okay with it, but enthusiastic. (I suspect many want the stereotypical “gay friend.”) Twice I’ve told women students that I was gay and was greeted with a high five in response. Odd, but I’ll take it. I just don’t hope they were expecting me to be Will from Will & Grace or that gay kid in Glee.

Even with the supportive clients though, there are some…interesting responses. “Do you have a lover?” or “Which one of you is the man and which is the woman?” are questions I’m frequently hit with. I’ve also encountered students who conflate sexuality with gender and ask me if I want to be a woman, or if I enjoy dressing as a woman. I’ve even come across the rare student (usually an older housewife of salaryman) who wonders aloud how I’m going to find a man to date here because “Japan doesn’t have gay people.”

Shit. No one tell my Japanese boyfriend!

If you’re wondering how the hell people could have such outdated views of gays in this day and age, well, I think it largely has to do with how the media in Japan represents the GLBT community. Mainly – they don’t. I can’t speak Japanese, so I don’t watch much Japanese TV or movies, but from what I’ve heard from my friends and seen for myself, there are very few openly gay characters on Japanese television shows. The ones who are, such as the famous crossdressing media personality Matsuko Deluxe (I don’t believe he is transgender, but if I’m mistaken please someone tell me and I’ll update this), are larger than life and exaggerated stereotypes that play up the “camp” factor of their personalities. If you want to be a gay man (or transwoman) on Japanese TV, you best flame on. Meanwhile, gay women, and bisexuals as a whole, are mostly ignored by the Japanese media.

This complete lack of representation might also explain why so many people in Japan lack any sort of “gaydar” whatsoever. Myself, I can “straighten up” quite well. I’m a big guy, got a deep voice, I can talk about sports, action movies and dudely things that dudes do. But just as quickly I can go on about Madonna, musicals and overall topics of a fabulous nature, all while flipping my wrist and wearing a pink tie with matching pink socks (and a hot pink pen) and the next question they’ll ask me is “oh do you like Madonna because she’s so hot?”

The simple thought of “this person might be gay” seems to be an alien one, like people have blinders for the very concept of homosexuality. Just last week I was in a bar with my boyfriend, my arm around him tight, when a man started chatting with us. He seemed amused by our demeanor and asked “Are you two colleagues? You seem very close.” He was not asking us a leading question, or making any accusation. He just saw two men holding hands and hugging in a bar and thought “wow, they must be really good friends.” In fact, when I told the man, in plain and easy-to-understand English that the man I was with was my boyfriend, he replied by saying “you’re very close to your boss!” His brain replaced the word “boyfriend” with “boss” because he just didn’t expect to hear it. After he figured it out though he was still very friendly, just confused.

Actually, I think “friendly, but confused” could easily sum up most of the reactions I’ve had in coming out in Japan. The haters are the outliers, and even when faced with the rare negative reactions, I’ve never felt my life to be in danger. I don’t think that gay bashing is something I have to worry much about here. As a whole, Japan may not have the best reputation for being gay-friendly and open-minded, but I imagine that will change within this generation. Pushes for gay marriage to be legalized are picking up steam, and I’ve even talked to straight people who were adamant in their support for it. If you’re a gay foreigner and you’re thinking about coming to Tokyo to work, don’t worry, you’ll be safe and most likely have no problems fitting in and making friends.

Now…dating, that’s another issue.

I’m going to keep this rather brief because A: my mom reads this and B: I’ve never been good at dating anyone of any gender ever in any country, but dating as a gay man in Tokyo is rough. In my experience, most gay men in Japan are simply not interested in gaijin. At all. It’s a bummer. And many who are simply don’t speak enough English to make any kind of serious relationship a possibility. As you can probably imagine “gay men who can speak English and want to be in a committed relationship with foreigners” is a pretty small group of people. I tried the gay bars for a while and even some dating sites and services, but any man I met at either was only ever interested in a one night stand. If you’re gay and looking for something serious here, I recommend going the old-fashioned route and talking to friends who might know someone you might be interested in.

You could also learn Japanese, but yo that shit is hard.

As I said at the start of this though, all I know is my experience. And my experience is limited strictly to Tokyo. I imagine things may be widely different in other cities, and especially different in small towns and rural areas. Your results may vary. And if you do have any stories to share about being out in Japan, or if you want to (politely) address any misconceptions I might have, please leave a comment! I really want to hear what others have experienced here!

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