Expat and Gay in Japan: Living in the Closet

Over the past two weeks, the dialogue regarding the legal recognition of same-sex partners reached national news status and became so conspicuous that Prime Minister Abe chose to publicly address it, doubling down on his conservative party’s position that the Constitution of Japan forbids same-sex marriage.

Article 24 of the Constitution states that “Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife as a basis.”

Despite this, the local governments of two wards in Tokyo, Shibuya and Setagaya Ward, have expressed their desire to extend some equal rights and alleviate discrimination by creating their own “Partnership Certificates”, non-legally-binding certificates that state that a couple is dedicated to each other, and will encourage the businesses, realtors and hospitals in the area to treat the couples as if they are legally married, allowing them to do things such as rent an apartment together and visit each other in the hospital. The mayor of Yokohama City has also expressed her desire to introduce a similar motion in her city, stating that she “instructed officials (in charge of sexual minority issues) to make clear the challenges (facing same-sex couples) to figure out what form of support is desirable for the couples.”

It is encouraging, to say the least, to see local governments working closely with LGBT citizens to decide what is the best way to recognize and protect them in modern society.

While the average Japanese person probably has familiarity with Gender Identity Disorder and transgender individuals, it seems that they are less aware of and much more wary of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. From what I’ve gathered, the idea in Japan is that since individuals with GID are “sick”, it makes sense for them to be treated for their condition. However, the rest of the spectrum is much more scrutinized.

The idea that queer people could be anywhere, that one could be interacting with a queer person without even knowing it, seems to arouse suspicion and uneasiness in some people here in Japan. I think that some Japanese people would go as far as to feel betrayed if someone who they regularly interacted with were to come out to them.

This is regrettable, because the negative attitude towards queer people in Japan places an incredible burden on them and makes the idea of coming out seem like a complete non-option. However, I think that to make the average Japanese person feel comfortable with the idea of equal rights, queer Japanese people must be strong and fight for their rights, lest they continue to live in a society where their sexuality can impede their ability to live a happy life.

The Day to Day Stress of Living in the Closet

I mentioned the rigidity of Japanese society in my previous post “Gay and Expat in Japan: An Introduction”.

In general, it’s expected that if you’re a man, you’ll graduate from university with a well paying job, work endless hours at your job, forcing you to find a wife right away in order to take care of the home, which you simply won’t have time to do. As a female, you can work for a little while after college, but you are expected to eventually find a husband and quit your job to become a housewife. Indeed, there are challenges to this standard, but by and large, this is how Japanese society runs.

If you are in your mid to upper twenties, or god forbid early thirties, and you’re not married, engaged, or at the very least dating someone, the people around you might start to talk.

“She must be so strange that she can’t get a date!”

“◯◯-san has never mentioned a girlfriend, has he?”

Checking “marriage” off of your list of life goals is so important that there’s actually a culture of “matchmaking parties” (合コン, goukon), where a group comprised of an equal number of men and women go out drinking with the sole purpose of finding someone to marry (though these events occasionally reek of sexual harassment towards women.)

Let’s imagine for instance that you’re a gay or lesbian person, and your friend or coworker believes that they are doing you a favor by trying to introduce you to someone of the opposite sex. Or maybe you’re in a wonderful same-sex relationship, but because you’re deep in the closet, no one’s aware of this fact, and you have to spend day after day rebuffing invitations to matchmaking parties, introductions to eligible bachelors or bachelorettes, or even just prying questions from curious friends, family and coworkers about who you are spending your free time with.

These are daily stressors that queer people in Japan must deal with. As they don’t want to appear particularly frustrated or alienate themselves from the people the around them, they may even feel pressured to accept the invitations or just lie repeatedly, if just to get their coworkers, family or friends off their backs for a little while or to deter suspicion.

On the other hand, coming out is no piece of cake either, as there are still prejudices ingrained in Japanese society.

Experiences in my Japanese Workplace

I currently teach English at a Japanese public high school, and I am not out to any of the staff or students.

Relationship status is fair game for conversation in the office or at a work party. To the average Japanese person, it’s just playful banter, but for queer individuals, answering these kinds of questions is like navigating a minefield. For example, as a guy, if I were to say that I don’t have a girlfriend, I can expect to be asked: “Do you like Japanese women?” “What’s your type?” “What actress resembles your ideal girlfriend?” And so on.

Imagine if I were to awkwardly try to maneuver around the questions. It would surely sour the mood of the conversation, and everyone would think “why is he getting so uncomfortable?” In my early days in Japan, when I was getting to know my coworkers, I just played along with the questions. I’m safe for now, but I will likely have the play the same game when I switch workplaces later this year.

Foreign English teachers always give self-introduction lessons when they first meet a class, and during these lessons, the first thing that every Japanese student wants to know is ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ if you’re female, and ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ if you’re male. My first year, I played along and said something funny like ‘No, I don’t, but I wish I did!’ just to get a laugh out of the kids.

However, when the next school year started, I changed my answer completely to teach them a lesson in politeness. From the next year onward, my standard answer to my students became “That’s a private question, and you shouldn’t ask such things when you meet someone for the first time.”

Even if I were straight, that question would still bother me. Even if it’s just meant to be small talk, I feel like the other party is trying to assess my worth simply by my ability to attract someone of the opposite sex, and that’s just not okay in my opinion. Second is that it obviously assumes that everyone is hetero-normative.

My third year, I was even more prepared for such questions from my students. At my introduction lesson in one class, the question and answer time came up, and I could see the students giggling and talking amongst themselves, so I knew the question was coming up. “Do you have a girlfriend?” one girl asked, looking embarrassed even to be uttering the word. I replied with a smile, “That’s a secret”, and the students had a laugh. Next, a cheeky baseball club boy (if you’ve taught in Japan you know the type), raises his hand, and I call on him. “Do you have a boyfriend?” he asks. “That’s also a secret”, I reply, and the students go wild.

Last year, a young teacher (maybe a little older than me, I’ve never asked him directly) transferred to the school I work at. That same month, I was shocked that one of the office workers whom I’m pretty close to actually brought him up and tried to initiate gossipy conversation with me.

“Have you met ◯◯-sensei? I heard he’s probably onee

Onee (オネエ) is a broad term that specifically refers to drag queens as well as transgender women, but is often times used to refer to any queer man. (You can tell by the language that many people have trouble understanding the concept of “masculine” homosexuals.)

Before that day, if I were to come out to anyone in the office, I probably would have told her first, but after hearing her participate in the gossip, I realized that it wasn’t a great idea. It has been about a year since that teacher transferred to my workplace, and he seems to be well-liked overall, and I haven’t heard any more gossip about him. However, it was still weird to hear those kinds of rumors floating around. I wondered if anyone had said the same about me at some point.

Those are only a fraction of the different experiences that I’ve had that have confirmed to me that the climate at my workplace is not welcoming to queer individuals. As I’m only working at this school for five more months, I don’t think I will ever come out here. There’s a part of me that wishes I could be open with both the teachers and students, mostly because I wish that I could be a role model or a mentor for any queer students that I might have… But sadly, that doesn’t seem possible considering the evidence.

I can only hope that the local governments will continue to raise their voices and create awareness, and eventually acceptance and equality, for LGBT individuals in Japan, in order for them to live freely and have pride in their identity.

13 Responses

  1. I wanted to thank you for the blog. I’m moving back to Japan next year. I wasn’t out the first time I lived in Japan so I’m a bit giddy and nervous. Its good to hear that things are not apocalyptic in the Japanese gay community and a personal anecdote I wanted to share is that my Japanese friends, here overseas, are surprisingly non-judgmental. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised but when I kinda outed myself to them pretty much nothing changed except for maybe the questions on my preferences… I think the problem in japan today is a lack of exposure, which is a lot easier to deal with then ingrained intolerance that you deal with with other countries

    • I’m glad that you could find some non-judgemental Japanese friends, and it’s great that you’re coming back to Japan.

      I think coming out is a mixed bag. With Japanese friends I am open, but with work, it’s a bit more tricky.

      Some people might already understand the situation or have another out friend or family member, so it will be no big deal. Some people might just say “oh” and change the topic because they are uncomfortable. Some may ask questions because they are genuinely curious.

      I guess what I’m trying to say is, it’s hard to judge how much experience or knowledge someone has with/about gay people, so I choose to assume that they don’t have any, because more often than not, that is the case. However, I think that with some people, I might be pleasantly surprised by their reactions if I were to come out, but in order to just keep things running smoothly, I choose not to.

      However, with my change of workplace and return to school later this year, maybe I’ll choose to be more open and actually start to casually correct people rather than play along with the straight banter. I think I’ll start building up my courage.

      The problem is certainly lack of exposure, so if Japanese gay people aren’t going to come out, I think I might as well do what I can to help to educate people and improve the situation.

  1. Pingback: Expat and Gay in Japan: An Introduction | フク・リコ

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