Back when I taught English in Japan, I once led a discussion on coming out. No, this wasn’t some sneaky initiative to promote the gay agenda—the topic was actually in the book! As I went around the room eliciting stories, every single one of my eight fully-grown adult students admitted they’d never met a queer person. Ever! Of course, what they really meant was they’d never met someone who was out.
In Japan, it isn’t a crime to be homosexual, but it’s not exactly accepted either. From my experience, the general narrative accepted by mainstream society is that LGBT+ individuals simply do not exist. Hate crimes and public displays of discrimination are rare, but this may be because queerness is rarely flaunted and violent crimes often go unreported.
Though a significant portion of the population allegedly falls on the LGBT+ spectrum, many queer people are closeted, which makes meeting them a challenge. Traditional ways of finding a partner might not work for someone whose identity or orientation is a secret. I dabbled but had little luck—as a lazy bisexual, I mainly stuck to dating men and being a cis femme (someone who was born female, identifies as female, and dresses like a stereotypical female) so people always assumed I was straight anyway.
In order to get a better look into Japan’s queer dating scene, I enlisted the help of more experienced expats who identified as female. The result: insight into life as an LGBT+ living in Japan. As outsiders, expats simultaneously have an easier time coming out (in general, we aren’t held to the same standards as native Japanese) and a more difficult one (we may not fully comprehend local norms and social cues).
LGBT+ and Japan’s society
Japan is already a safe place for queers and is steadily improving its stance on gay rights. Queerness is also getting more representation in the media—a "Terrace House" cast member came out on national television, a Japanese lesbian couple who traveled the world spreading awareness about LGBT+ issues received international coverage, and Buzzfeed Japan now hosts a heartwarming and intimate new series interviewing queer folks.
et, there remains a feeling among many that queer people are an “unproductive” burden to society. At least, those were the scathing words of politician Mio Sugita just last year. There’s also a recent case of an Osaka man who wasn’t allowed to attend his same-sex partner’s cremation. These may sound like isolated incidents, but discrimination runs deep among the older and more conservative generations who hold most of the political power. According to global data from the Pew Research Center, 61% of Japanese people over 50 believe homosexuality is unacceptable.
So, it’s no surprise the ladies I interviewed tend to get mixed responses from those they come out to.
Cultural norms and traditions make acceptance difficult
Socorro Dominguez Vidana, a cis-female lesbian from Mexico City, entered Japan’s LGBT+ scene about 12 years ago. “Dating in Japan can be challenging if you do not understand the language and, most importantly, the culture. Tradition, especially for people living in the inaka (countryside), is very embedded and people need to respect that.”
“Being out of the norm, I feel as if in their eyes, I was not fulfilling my duty as a woman,” she told me. However, she pointed out Japanese people tend to be respectful enough not to say such things out loud.
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