For many LGBT travelers, a primary concern is the reception they’ll receive in a country whose culture and customs are unfamiliar to them, and Japan is no exception. Like most countries, a combination of history and religion shapes Japan’s unique relationship with gender and sexuality, but times are changing. In modern Japan, the focus is falling on the future rather than the past and – as in many countries – it is becoming increasingly open to members of the LGBT community.
With its upper house elections on the way, Japan’s political landscape is undergoing a shift in attitudes towards the country’s LGBT community. Almost every party makes mention of equal rights in some way, including those historically most conservative. In the latest Liberal Democratic Party’s manifesto, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe includes references to promoting understanding of sexual diversity, and while it’s not quite the legalization of same-sex marriage, it is noteworthy, and many hope this shift marks the beginning of real change in Japan.
Legally speaking, Japan is relatively liberal (by many international standards) and while there are no anti-discrimination laws, homosexual sex has been legal since 1880. It’s more a societal issue that makes things difficult for the LGBT community, whose lifestyle is seen, by some, as a threat to traditional family values. However, these “traditions” are arguably a relatively new addition to Japanese culture, since historically, the country has accepted and even celebrated same-sex couples. In ancient Shinto-ism, the general message was that “all sexual love is unconditional good,” and while there is no explicit mention of homosexual congress in Japan’s original religion, it also has none of the damnation of Judeo-Christian doctrines. In Buddhism, which took root more than 1,000 years later, monks traditionally took a vow of celibacy, as they still do today, but hetereosexual sex was considered much greater an indiscretion than same-sex sex. While generally Buddhism promotes abstinence as a way to attain enlightenment, some branches of Buddhism argue that sex could actually lead to enlightenment – a standpoint that places less emphasis on it as a means only for procreation, and therefore it becomes less important who you do it with. In particular, in Buddhist orders confined to mountain temples, homosexual relationships historically became accepted and even codified into master-apprentice relationships. This tradition then trickled down into the way of the Samurai, whose enforced billeting in fortress cities cultivated a thriving gay environment. In times past then, Japanese society was fully aware and accepting of diverse sexuality.
It wasn’t until the Meiji restoration, in the latter part of the 19th century, that things began to change, and for the purpose of progress, Japan began to try to emulate the west – whose visiting missionaries were shocked at the open acceptance of (especially male) homosexuality. Gay culture was swept to the sidelines of society and outwardly condemned; though it remained acceptable for men of power, but only in addition to their legitimate heterosexual marriages. It follows that as attitudes in the west now begin to change in favor of more inclusive policies, Japan will too – and naturally, all changes face their own unique obstacles.
For Japan, it is less about fighting discrimination and hostility – there’s no truly ingrained cultural or religious precedent to condemn it, as we have seen – and more about exposure and education. Solvi Arnold is a Dutch PhD student in Japan who describes herself as “bi with a habit of mixing and matching men’s and women’s clothing, in a relationship with a Japanese lesbian.” She says, in terms of random discrimination on the street: “I haven’t seen any. Straight guys here often dress or act in ways that could easily get them gay-bashed in certain areas of the US and Europe [...] As for my own experience, I can count the number of times I’ve personally felt discriminated against for being queer on the fingers of zero hands.” While the young and educated are pretty tolerant, she notes that the problem is the gaping generation gap and that any lack of acceptance comes more from ignorance than animosity. “That rift seems to be very common,” she explains, “many of the parents of the current generation of 20- and 30-somethings just don’t seem to have a concept of [homosexuality]. Harsh ‘get-out-of-my-house’ style rejection is uncommon, but so is understanding. You can openly have a serious lesbian relationship without your parents ‘getting’ that that means you don’t intend to marry a guy.”
The education process that will lead to the gradual fading out of traditional conservative attitudes naturally takes time, but improvements are being made. Some say the new political focus on equal rights is just a sign of the changing times, while others see it as a keeping-up exercise – as countries like the US legalizes same-sex marriage. Other cited factors include Japan winning the bid for the summer 2020 Olympics, which brings with it pressures from the International Olympic Committee, whose charter demands equal rights. Meanwhile, Japan’s LGBT community is getting increasing media exposure and airtime, with cross-dressing idol groups, openly-out celebrities and homosexual Japanese people getting married abroad, and talking about it on television. According to Solvi, Japan’s main broadcasting organization does a lot of good: “I regularly see them do items on LGBT topics, clearly from a pro-LGBT standpoint.” She also notes that many of the tangible changes that have already been made, such as the rudimentary partnership systems recently adopted in Shibuya and Setagaya, came from homegrown LGBT activism. “We have EMA (Equal Marriage Alliance) Japan doing great work for same-sex marriage here.” In some cases, Buddhism is progressing too – or, arguably, maintaining its long-held stance of acceptance; Reverend Taka Zenryu Kawakami, deputy head priest at Shunkoin temple in Hanazono, Kyoto has been performing same-sex marriage ceremonies since 2010. Hopefully, as all these factors combine, it will lead to more of the necessary changes – from more companies extending insurance and family phone plans to same-sex couples, to more regions adopting the partnership system until same-sex marriage gains traction on a national level.
Whether the political parties are motivated to include references to LGBT rights in their manifestos for genuine reasons or because of outside pressures, the reality is the effect is the same, and Japan is becoming an increasingly tolerant place for its own LGBT community, as well as for visitors.
“For travelers, I think the LGBT situation is pretty good here,” says Solvi, “there’s good queer times to be had in the big cities.” While there isn’t much going on in rural areas (“as you’d expect”), she describes Nagoya’s queer district – around Ikeda Koen – as “kind and cozy”, and notes that Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ni-chōme district supposedly has the highest density of gay bars in the world. She has one final, yet essential tip for LGBT travelers: “in Tokyo you might be able to get around with just English, but elsewhere you probably want to bring some Japanese language skills if you hope to get romantic.”