Expat and Gay in Japan: An Introduction

Updated 2018/06/04

This is the first in what I hope will become many articles giving some insight into what it is like to be a gay expat in Japan. While reading, please keep in mind that this is written reflecting my personal knowledge and experiences as a gay expat male in my twenties.

Some Background

Let me begin with a very rudimentary overview of the Japanese societal structure. Modern Japanese society is built around the “salaryman family”, where everyone’s roles are firmly defined, leaving little wiggle room. Dad goes to work as a public servant or company worker. He puts in long hours, usually consisting of overtime, which could be anywhere from a few hours to overnight, through the weekend, and taking priority over national holidays.

Mom is a housewife who takes care of everything else, her primary purpose being to take care of the kids. The kids are in school during the day and busy with either club activities or cram school until late in the evening. There are alternatives of course, such as mom and dad running a family business, a mom who also works a part-time job to help make ends meet, single parents, and so on. But by and large, the dad at work, mom at home, and kids in school structure is seen as the definitive model for a successful, happy, and most importantly, productive family.

However, there are challenges to this structure now, as there have been for several decades. Some men don’t want to become subservient to a company under the stress of supporting their families. Some women are becoming career oriented and working into their late twenties and early thirties, refusing to marry because they don’t want to become dependent on their husbands or be expected to stay home all day. There are even cases of children refusing to go to school and shutting themselves away due to the stress of the Japanese schooling system or because the salaryman family’s standardized life isn’t as attractive or lucrative as it was in the past.

At any rate, Japanese society prizes obedience, so despite one’s personal feelings, many choose to bear with their situation and follow the path prescribed to them by society. Anyone who knows anything about Japanese culture has probably heard the proverb “the stake that sticks out gets hammered down”. Those who do not choose the standard life of the salaryman family may become ostracized for not contributing to society by working and raising a family. Choosing one’s own life over benefitting the greater society doesn’t fulfill one’s duty as a Japanese citizen. Why should Mr. Tanaka be working twenty-hour days while Mrs. Tanaka takes care of the house all day, and little Tanaka is at his cram school until 10:00 pm to try to become a proud member of society, while you’re just dillydallying at your job for your own sake, never worrying about dependents? Make a family and work hard like the rest of us! Not picking the standardized life can be seen as being selfish. Not only that, but you also have your reputation and your family’s reputation to upkeep. No one wants a kid who “grew up to be nothing”.

Japanese society is not built to sustain people who live outside of the standard. Men are supposed to work long hours, so because they have stressful jobs and no free time, they may want to marry quickly just to have someone to take care of household tasks. Women who want to focus on their careers may end up wedding due to the pressure to bear children and also due to the exceptionally low hanging glass ceiling, which makes it hard for them to make a living on their own. The cycle continues.

Now that you’re armed with this knowledge, let’s talk about where this leaves Japan’s gay men.

Japanese gay men typically remain deep in the closet, in most cases never coming out, even to their closest friends. Some live as heterosexuals, probably awkwardly dodging questions about why they aren’t married yet. Though it would be difficult to get any concise statistics, it can be assumed that many are so hidden that they marry a woman and have a family.

“Japan doesn’t have gay people.”

Despite the peppering of queer performers, talents ( タレント/Tarento- television entertainers who appear on Japanese variety shows), and even open politicians, many Japanese people are not aware of the gay people in their immediate world. This has pros and cons.

This is just in my own experience, but in contrast to America, what I haven’t seen in Japan is the amount of gay paranoia that I remember from home. In Japan, you won’t hear simple compliments between guys start with “I’m not gay but…” or a term like metrosexual being used to describe the “peculiarity” of men who coordinate outfits rather than just wearing jeans and graphic tee, or who spend more than ten minutes on personal hygiene.

Take a look at Johnny Entertainment’s boy groups, or androgynous “Visual Kei” bands. This may set an American’s “gaydar” crazy. Flip through a Japanese male fashion magazine. Mr. Average Straight American might immediately call “gay!”

However, in Japan, it’s not really a topic on most people’s minds. Gaydar, at least in the sense of straight people claiming that they can identify a gay male due to some nuance or another isn’t really a thing here. That’s not to say that homophobia and bullying don’t exist, or that Japanese people don’t have their own stereotypes about gay people. If someone arouses suspicion regarding their sexuality they may face harassment and homophobic remarks.

While many cultures around the world are beginning to understand that gay people, like all people, come in all shapes and sizes and with varying personalities, the average Japanese person has not knowingly been in contact with a gay person. Their closest idea of gay people is most likely from the tv personalities they see on TV, who are often cross-dressing males who act flamboyantly for a laugh or occasionally, MtF transgender people. Therefore, there are still broad generalizations that gay people mostly speak and act feminine and flamboyantly, like to wear women’s clothing, or just want to become women.

Due to these misconceptions, many gay men in Japan can live hidden, but this comes at the cost of low public awareness of gay issues and a lack of strong LGBT anti-discrimination laws.


Being a gay expat in Japan

Expats in Japan come from various societies, each with varying levels of tolerance for LGBT people. In your home country, you may be loud, proud and open about your sexuality, but doing so in Japan may cause yourself difficulty.

We (non-Japanese) are already afflicted with the fact that we are different, and thus will always be treated differently in Japan. We already have a pile of “foreigner” stereotypes stacked upon on us. Now imagine having all those gay stereotypes you may have finally shaken back home suddenly being dropped on you again, along with the possible anxiety of culture shock and homesickness. It would cause a very uncomfortable transition into Japanese society. I don’t want to scare anyone, but it’s just a reality of living in a conservative country.

Japanese society is slowly progressing towards accepting sexual minorities, so my advice is to be cautious about who you come out to, and be aware of how it could have a severe impact on your work and social life.

For more information, check out my other post, Expat and Gay in Japan: Living in the Closet.


Making Friends, Finding Dates

The gay “scene” (for lack of a better word) in Japan runs parallel to but seemingly separate from the mainstream. If one wants to meet other gay people, it is necessary to find access to the gay social spheres. The number one impediment to this is the same thing that limits all expats looking to make Japanese friends of any variety: The language barrier. The ease of entering the gay spaces varies depending on one’s Japanese language ability, so I’ll explain the means of meeting gay Japanese people with that notion in mind.

Bars

I’m going to state this right from the beginning. Gay bars are only going to be interesting if you have some proficiency in speaking Japanese. Don’t expect to stroll into your local establishment expecting to find even one English speaker. That is going to be extremely rare.

In Japan, gay bars are supported by repeat clientele, usually with a bottle keep, who come week after week to relax with their friends. When one enters a gay bar for the first time, as the newbie and the non-Japanese, the owner or server will start a conversation with you, and that conversation has two purposes: To establish yourself as part of the “community” (I use that term really loosely here), and also to see how well you can speak Japanese.

If you find yourself fumbling through questions about when you realized that you were queer, your past or present relationships, and preferred sex position because your Japanese is limited to the phrase “Draft beer, please”(or because you rightfully believe those questions are absurd but you don’t know how to politely or sarcastically work around them in Japanese), you’re retiring yourself to a silent evening of nibbling on bar snacks on your lonesome. Everyone in the bar was listening, and you’ve failed the preliminary test.

For a non-Japanese whose Japanese language ability is high, go ahead and have a good time! After icebreaking with the bartender, ask for the karaoke remote and put in a few well-known songs. You’ll be singing and chatting away with the other clientele in no time. If you’re curious to see whats in your area, check out our guide for finding gay bars in Japan.

“Bars sound intimidating!”, you might be thinking. Well, I’m here to tell you they can be. You’ll also have a lot of explaining to do if you’re still in the closet and your friend or coworker happens to see you stumbling out of the gay district one evening. Besides, if you remember what I mentioned before about jobs, Japanese men are usually extremely busy. How many really have time to kill at a gay bar? Well, make way for gay ‘scene’ 2.0.

The other option for finding gay friends and potential mates, and the option that will yield the most success, is using a smartphone app.

When I visited my first gay bar in Japan, the bartender told me all about meeting guys on the app “Jack’d”. I had had no experience with those types of apps, but I had gotten wind of Grindr while I lived in America, so I had a general concept of how they worked. Due to the negative public opinion and my lack of knowledge, I had doubts about safety and the intentions of its users. Therefore, I decided that apps were not for me. What I didn’t realize at the time was that in Japan, dating apps are seen as a legitimate way to find friends as well as potential romantic interests. Several months later, I decided I had nothing to lose and downloaded Jack’d, in turn putting the gay scene into the palm of my hand.

In Japan, I think that gay SNS apps are considered just that…a social network. Therefore, it first and foremost functions like a “gay Facebook” of sorts. Those who are serious about making contacts are the ones with fully fleshed out profiles and clear pictures of themselves enjoying everyday activities. Of course, there are also plenty of headless torsos, mirror selfies in underwear, and offers to unlock private photos, insinuating that yes, some Japanese men also use it for quick hookups.

Now, let’s see how the Japanese language works into this. Once again, if you speak it on a high level, you’re pretty much golden, but you may need to familiarize yourself with gay lingo and symbolism the textbooks don’t cover. When I first logged in, I saw many profiles with the kanji for convex「凸」and concave「凹」, and upon closer reading deduced that these kanji were meant to convey their preferred sexual position. (Edit 06/2018: It doesn’t look like this slang is used as often anymore)

For those with little Japanese ability, one good point is that Japanese men who are comfortable speaking English tend to either write a part (or all) of their profile in English, express their desire to meet foreigners in English, or at the minimum, include the phrase “English ok” in their profile. Some English speakers may also take the first step and contact you.

And as always, no matter where you choose to make friends, be safe and use your best judgment.

There’s plenty more that can be said about gay lifestyles in Japan, but as this is meant to serve as an introduction, I’ll end here for now. Feel free to leave a comment and share this website with others if you found it interesting. Also, follow or check back for more articles about life in Japan coming in the future!


Related Articles:

Expat and Gay in Japan: Dating a Japanese Guy

Expat and Gay in Japan: Living in the Closet

Expat and Gay in Japan: How to Find Gay Bars (and More!)

25 Responses

  1. I’m glad to see a post like this! I was going to write a similar one, actually. I think that the blogosphere is saturated with heterosexual viewpoints on Japan but the queer voice is a bit harder to find.

    Also, it took my forever to figure out what ‘凸’ and ‘凹’ meant! But when I did, I laughed too because it’s kind of cute. And I completely agree with you about being wary of the Gaijin Hunters.

    1. Thanks for reading, I’m happy to hear that you enjoyed the post!
      Feel free to write a similar post if you like to, or even refer to mind if you’d like. It’d be great to have more insight written by those with first hand information and experiences.

  2. I will be coming to Osaka in August–and I was quite worried about this! So I am glad to see what you wrote–of course I have a boyfriend coming–so I don’t know if that would make life even more difficult for us or not….but I appreciate all that you have said here!

  3. Thanks for sharing, what a pity that I didn’t read this before arrive in Japan. However, next time I won’t miss 🙂 thanks

  4. Thanks for this, was a good read!
    I’m going to be in Nagoya for a year from September. Studying Japanese at uni, so by the time I go to Japan I’ll be around intermediate/maybe lower advanced level?

    One thing I find interesting is the part about keeping the fact you’re gay to yourself with straight friends. Something that at the moment, I’m strongly against in terms of myself. I have the mindset that if someone is going to be an idiot when it comes to my sexuality which has zero effect on them, they aren’t worth knowing. I understand that it might be harder to find meaningful friendships with this mindset, but I’d rather have friends who accept me for who I am.

    I’m in my early 20’s, being “out” since I was 16, and never faced any issues. I’m not the type of person to wave the gay flag and shout about gay rights, which is generally pretty damn annoying (hey, something I have in common with many Japanese 😛 )

    I can understand more the part about it affecting your work life and why you’d keep it to yourself. But I suppose I just feel different when it comes to social life. I’m curious, have you had quite a few bad experiences that make you feel like this?

    Hope you’re able to reply, would appreciate it, and thanks again for the informative post 😀

    1. Congratulation on being able to come to Japan! It’s sure to be a good time.

      As for myself, in my personal life, I am out to all of my friends, Japanese or not. I agree that Im not going to spend my time with bigoted people. The thing is, I work in Japan, so I am among people I choose to be around, unlike at work and school where you cannot choose the people around you.

      At work and school, I think the dynamic is a little different because coming out to a group of people is a a mixed bag. You don’t want to make the atmosphere uncomfortable, so coming out in your class or club activity could be accepted among a few people but others may feel weird, and in Japan, it’s always important to think of how your decisions affect the whole group. I have heard stories of both acceptance and discomfort among those who have come out in college. I think if anything, it might be best to just come out among those who you are really close to.

      I really don’t advise coming out at work. The generation gap in thinking is pretty stark, especially when looking at some recent polls regarding recognizing same sex couples, where it seems that the opinion gets worse and worse among those over 30 years old.

      I think in 95% of the cases (completely arbitrary percentage) it’s not maliciousness, but just a misunderstanding and lack of knowledge that makes them feel weird.

      My clear answer is to be cautious, but your personal life is your personal life, so feel free to live it as you please. Just be aware of how the group dynamics work and could affect you here.

      Check out my other post for some more details. It’s aimed at adults working in Japan but some of the points could still apply in general.

      Expat and Gay in Japan: living in the Closet

  5. Thank you for writing this post ! After one year in Fukuoka, a lot of what you have wrote I have learnt the hard way… I am currently writing an academic article about (among other things) being a gay foreigner in Japan, so if you don’t mind I’d like to quote you in this article.
    Thank you again for the good read !

    1. You’re welcome!

      Feel free to quote the article, and if you have any questions or need any info, go ahead and ask me.

  6. Hi there !
    It is really funny (and sometimes, not in the teehee kind of funny) to read your blog that I have just discovered, for our lives are oddly similar. Had I found it before, I would have spared myself a lot of misdemeanours that I have went through along this first year in Fukuoka.
    I am currently writing an article about, among other things, being a gay foreigner in Japan. Should you be ok with it I’d love to quote you in my article.
    Thank you for the good read !

  7. I hope that you were able to get through the tough times and your life in Japan is more stable now. It takes everyone a little while to adjust to a new place.

    Feel free to quote me! I’m also interested in seeing the end results of your article, so if you could, please forward a copy to me when you are finished!

    Thanks in advance.

  8. Pingback: Expat and Gay in Japan: An Introduction | フク・リコ
  9. Do you think my Japanese boyfriend’s continued use of jack’d for making friends only is true? Since you say it’s like a gay Facebook, should I worry that he’s still using it? 🙂

  10. I’m loving your blog. Finding it very helpful having found so few other websites about being a gay expat in japan. I will be moving there soon and appreciate all of your insight!

    1. I’m glad that you enjoyed the posts! Good luck with your preparations to move to Japan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Top