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.
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.
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!
arrow (mark or symbol); directional marker or indicator