I come from Cardiff, a city in Wales, with a very lively and popular gay scene. It isn’t a large city, but there are numerous bars and clubs that have the rainbow flag flying above the door, and there’s a gay and lesbian Mardi Gras each year which is attended by thousands of people; both gay and straight.
Three of my closest friends are gay, so whenever I’m home, the gay clubs and bars are usually where we go for a night out. I would say on a typical night out at a gay club, there is a 70/30 split, 70% being gay and 30% straight, and although I remember one incident where I was made to feel unwelcome by a fat lesbian with a lightning bolt shaved into the side of her head, said bars and clubs normally have no problem with straight people being there.
So it came as a bit of a shock, even though I knew Japan to be a very conservative country, to discover that there were no such bars or clubs in Sendai, the largest city in the Tohoku region. I understand why the gay bars frequented by friends of mine here in Sendai have a strict "no straights" policy; why make it any harder than it already is for gay men (and I mention only gay men because, as far as I know, there aren’t any "official" bars for gay women in the city) to meet one another? But then I wonder, how do gay men who come to live in Japan, and especially the Tohoku region, find living in a society where being gay seems to be something you should consider keeping a secret? And what are the general differences?
I spoke to Alex, a friend of mine who lives near Sendai and often visits the gay bars there. He is from a town right next to the city I’m from in the UK, so he is used to a more open and accepting attitude. When I asked him what general differences between the UK and Japan he has experienced so far, the first thing he mentioned was the use of, what we in the West perceive to be quite offensive terms like "homo," and mentioned how "They (the Japanese) would have no problem calling someone a homo because as far as Japan is concerned that’s what a gay person is, even though in the West, people might find the term to be more hostile."
He found this hard to get used to, but soon realized that there are aspects to the general attitude toward gay men in Japan that are better than at home. "On the plus side, Japanese people don’t see certain jobs or actions as being 'gay.' Some of my students tell me how much they love boy bands, or how they want to be a hairdresser after school and no one makes a joke or assumes anything about the kid. It’s quite refreshing in comparison to back home. One of my students was telling me the other week about his dad having gay friends; I couldn’t see a boy of 16 in Wales doing the same thing without someone making jokes about the father or the kid. It just doesn’t occur to them to make fun about it."
Having previously worked at two senior high schools myself, I too have witnessed this seemingly more accepting nature. A lot of my male students would be very touchy-feely with one another and nobody ever harassed them for it, as would most definitely have been the case if it were a high school in the UK. So why then, is there such a secretive attitude? Is it because Japan is a few steps behind the West in noticing homosexuality as a perfectly acceptable way of life and not a problem, something that can be "solved?"
A bisexual Japanese friend of mine once worked in a mental hospital so has experienced such attitudes firsthand. "Japan is a very conservative country. Lots of people think same sex relationships are 'abnormal,'" he said. "Besides, I used to work for a mental hospital as an office worker, and I noticed being gay or lesbian was (seen as) a serious mental disorder. Some people were sent to the hospital by their actual parents only because they were gay. That was so horrible."
This disturbing insight gives a clearer picture as to the reasoning behind gay Japanese men not wanting to come out. My friend Patrick lives in a small town in Iwate Prefecture, also in the Tohoku region. He knows a man who is living "in the closet" due to the death of his parents. "About 5 months ago, I met a 40-year-old Japanese guy living in a neighboring small town. He found me on one of the dating sites and we met up for coffee. He’s been gay since he can remember, but was only out of the closet when he was living and working in Sendai for 10 years. He also spent some time living in California to study English. His normal gay lifestyle was halted by the death of his parents, after which he moved back to live in his childhood home as is the custom for the oldest child in Japan.
"Since then, he has reverted back to living a closeted lifestyle. He doesn’t feel like there’s any way out of his situation. He’s bound by the traditions of Japanese culture and genuinely feels like the only way to cope is to be in the closet and maybe marry a woman in a 'friendship marriage.' So yeah, I do think that things are way way behind in Japan, especially out here in the country, but I can see limited progress in the bigger cities."
So, it seems that the strong sense of tradition ingrained within most Japanese, plays a huge part in the somewhat out of date general attitude toward gay men and women. I know that there is progression in the more accepting and open-minded cities of Tokyo, Osaka etc, with Tokyo even putting on an annual Tokyo Gay Pride event. But I think such progression will travel north to the Tohoku region at a snail’s pace; these things don’t happen overnight.
It’ll be interesting to see if there has been a significant change in say, 5 or so years. I’ll be sticking around, so I’ll hopefully see a difference. Maybe before my time here is through, I’ll be accosted in a gay bar in Sendai on a Saturday night, by a Japanese lesbian with a lightning bolt shaved into the side of her head. I hope she’s not as fat as the other one was; then maybe I’ll have a fighting chance.© Japan Today