This article was originally published in the February 2017 issue of the Connect magazine. For more information about Connect and their engaging articles written by and for the ex-pat community in Japan, please visit their website.
LGBT Beyond Tokyo: Doing Your Best With Less
Every time I read an interesting, informative LGBT-themed manga, one thing sticks out: Tokyo. It seems like everything happens in Tokyo. All the best stories, all the TV shows, the biggest pride events, the hottest bars, it’s all about Tokyo. Sure, there are LGBT communities in places like Osaka, Yokohama, Fukuoka, Nagoya, and Sapporo. But they aren’t Tokyo. They don’t get the same publicity, draw the same crowds, or have the most resources. For example, in 2016 the Kyushu Rainbow Pride (1) and the Kansai Rainbow Festa! (2) had a turnout of 5,000-6,000 people, while the Tokyo Rainbow Pride attracted over 70,000 and was reported on in worldwide news services like the UK Daily Mail. (3)
And then there’s me. You see, I live in what people would call the inaka. Of course an area with around 300,000 people isn’t exactly a shack in the woods, but if that area is two hours from Tokyo… it might as well be nowhere. “But!” you may say, “I hear there’s lots of great apps you can use to meet people!” This is where the differences between my reality and other parts of LGBT reality collide head-on.
I guess a little information about me is needed to make sense. My name is Michelle, and I am a transwoman who identifies strongly as a lesbian. This is where the initial conflict arises. I think “LGBT” as a concept in Japan is much more fractured and compartmentalized than it is in some other countries. You could blame it on any number of potential reasons: the small LGBT population numbers, the patriarchy, a lack of education in LGBT issues, or plain old prejudice if you want. However, the truth is that each letter in LGBT (as well as the left out letters, like Queer, Intersex, and Asexual) are really their own individual fiefdoms in Japan, and they can be very exclusive.
Take for example, Shinjuku Ni-chome, known as a popular hub for the LGBT community — in Tokyo, again. Most of the bars are segregated by gender or sexuality, and sometimes anything that blurs those lines can be challenging. I’ve been to lesbian bars where I, as a fully out and transitioning transwoman, could only get in if I was accompanied by other cisgender lesbians. Meanwhile, the same bar allowed several transmen in, which I still don’t understand.
On one of my rare visits to Ni-chome, I met a very friendly bisexual woman who spent the evening taking me and another foreign lesbian that she met to different bars. She talked at length about how stifled she felt in the social climate of Japan, even among the small LGBT community. She said that sometimes, especially if she mentioned having recently gotten out of a relationship with a male, women would say she was a “fake” or just ignore her completely afterwards.
A similar thing happened to me, too. At one of the bars, I was talking with the patrons and the bartenders about being transgender, and they were all praising me for being out and representing LGBT issues in rural Japan. They asked questions about my lifestyle, hardships, and the whole process of transition. It felt like they had an urgent desire to understand, and that was a positive thing that I was happy to oblige.
However, when it came to relationships and sex, the conversation shifted. What struck me the most was that it seemed none of the women in the bar that night (as well as other Japanese lesbians I’ve talked to) had ever considered transwomen as capable of being lesbians. There was a compartmentalized view, as if to say “lesbians are this” and “transwomen are that.” There was no intersectionality, no concept that the two weren’t mutually exclusive ideas. There was a disconnect between accepting trans people as an aspect of the sexual minority community and accepting them as a valid component of the lesbian community.
When the bartender was asked by her friends if she would date a transwoman, she paused for a bit to think about it. After some consideration, she said (roughly translated): “I respect them and all, but I couldn’t ever date one. That’s not my thing.” I get that. Everyone has their own feelings and preferences, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Some people are really open to a variety of experiences, while others can’t quite move beyond simple biology. Attraction is what it is, and I don’t judge anyone for that. Still, it hurts sometimes to hear it. More important than my feelings, though, the fact that the concept of a transwoman identifying as a lesbian had never crossed their radar highlights how much more education Japan needs on trans issues, even among the larger LGBT community.
And it’s not that these were bad places, because they certainly weren’t. Once inside, I felt the same friendliness as anyone else would, though inwardly I also felt sort of isolated. It was like being a very welcomed guest, but not a full-fledged member of the community. However, three-and-a-half years ago, I visited a women’s only bar in Fukuoka where I felt right at home, fully welcomed by the women there, and even hit on by a few. I went again to Tokyo’s Ni-chome, during the 2016 Tokyo Rainbow Pride, as a guest speaker for a panel discussion on overcoming difficulties in LGBT life. This time I certainly felt more connected, but it was other foreigners in the community who were paying me attention.
Meanwhile, out here in the “countryside,” one’s relationship potential seems to depend on whether or not you’re a gay male. Many of my gay friends talk about how they have decent options, going on dates from time to time, and in some cases having serious, long-term relationships. But whenever I talk with my few lesbian friends, all I hear is “Yeah, I haven’t been on any dates in a while.”
I asked a gay male friend of mine about this recently, and his response was that it’s the same everywhere. He said that essentially, men have most of the freedoms in the world, while women have most of the responsibilities. Of course, this isn’t completely true, but on some level, it persists as a social construct. After all, women are expected to bear children, take care of the house, get coffee with their girlfriends, and gossip about men. That pressure to bow to domestic social rules tends to bear more of its weight on women than on men. That means that, on some level, society devalues women who aren’t getting married and having children.
Let me give you an example. I work in a high school, and for the past two years I have had my third-year students write an essay on any one of four social issues. Out of the 129 students who choose to talk about the same-sex marriage issue, only 6 said they were against it. First, let’s take a step back and recognize that 123 out of 129 students (of voting age in a few months) said they were for same-sex marriage! However, one thing that persisted throughout most of the essays was that many students thought allowing same-sex marriage would hurt Japan’s drastically declining birthrate. (4)
It was apparent that many of the students viewed overarching social obligations as equally or more important than personal happiness. What was interesting was that very few of these students considered the possibility of surrogacy or in-vitro fertilization. A recent article from Advocate.com (5) relates the difficulties that LGBT couples face in getting IVF or legal recognition in surrogacy cases. Same-sex couples are barred from receiving IVF by Japanese doctors, and they cannot adopt children under 6 years old.
The article also says that a child born to a Japanese couple via a surrogate mother in the US would still likely be legally considered the surrogate’s child in Japan. Despite not having any part in the relationship, and not even being a legal mother in the US, Japan would place the responsibility on the woman, taking it away from the child’s legal parent. This highly traditional viewpoint promoted by the government brings home this idea that the woman’s job is to have children, and that’s that. When you think about the social pressures on women, it’s no wonder many Japanese lesbians are secretive about their sexuality.
A year ago, I was determined to overcome this problem and meet a girl online. I did some research, downloaded some apps, and dove into it. First of these was Tinder, which might as well be called “Dwindle” since there seems to be little fire ready to burn. Put in “Girl looking for Girl” and countless profiles pop-up, of which maybe one in 40 is an actual lesbian/bisexual girl. The other 39 profiles are straight girls just looking for a “bestie” to teach them English, for free of course. Many of these women actually state in their profiles that they are not interested in relationships/hookups, and anyone looking for that should “swipe left” to pass on them.
I then tried Spindle+, advertised as an app specifically for lesbians. What I found was a few people in my area, less than 10 within a 30 km radius. Of course all of them spoke Japanese only, and the whole app was very confusing and difficult to navigate. I couldn’t figure out how to message or connect with anyone, and nobody has paid any attention to me in the year I’ve been on it. I gave up on that.
What’s next, then? OkCupid, of course! This was a different app; this one was full of real lesbian/bi/pan women seeking other women! In Tokyo. Nearly everyone I’ve seen on the app who pops up as “in my area” is in Tokyo, and furthermore, it’s almost all foreigners. And that’s not really a problem, love is love after all. But it doesn’t move you forward when your goal is to find and connect with the Japanese LGBT community.
I guess it comes down to the question of “What do I really want?” A part of me still can’t decide if I want to be part of a community, or if I just want a girlfriend. It feels as if the community is the part of those manga which interested me the most, and pulled me towards Japan in the first place. What I’ve seen of the LGBT community in Japan, both from manga written by lesbians and from my own experiences, is a small, tight-knit realm where people are generally compassionate and friendly. Perhaps that contradicts some of my earlier stories on some level, but I’m optimistic enough to believe that these are either exceptions to the rule or social misunderstandings. The reality is probably somewhere in the middle.
But once again, that all happens only when I visit Tokyo. Back here in my little burg of 300,000 people, I find myself feeling alone and isolated. I have plenty of friends among the English-speaking community here, but none of that really connects back into the LGBT community I long for. I find myself searching for expression and for a place where I feel like I can have an impact.
In fact, I long for those things so much that last year I joined Stonewall Japan (6), a national LGBT organization, as the leader of my area. In the end, though, I found the same problems. As much as I tried to connect locally, create events, and cultivate a community, the base just wasn’t there. The biggest cities had all the members, all the events, and all the focus. This wasn’t the organization’s fault, as a lot of work was put into trying to solve this issue. Even now that I’m no longer a leader, I intend to help my successor continue building up the small community in my area. Still, under my leadership, that community just didn’t quite coalesce.
Maybe I didn’t try hard enough. However, it feels sometimes like it’s impossible to push back against the force of a world-class city bearing down on you, like an ant avoiding footsteps. As an ant, you really only have two options: either run to the side and climb onto the foot, or get crushed. But as much as I talk about how nice it would be to live in Tokyo and be a part of that community, the truth is I don’t really want to leave my nice little area. I have a good job, a less stressful daily life, and a drastically lower cost of living. There are plenty of anime and game shops to attract my attention away from my sorrows, and I can still go down to the local bookstore and buy used lesbian manga for 100 yen.
But it isn’t the same, and perhaps it never will be. There’s only one Tokyo.
Michelle Belmont is the first openly transgender teacher in Shizuoka. Hailing from the controversially anti-trans North Carolina, USA, she enjoys her slightly too peaceful life in rural, yet suburban Japan. Her pet hamster Camille, named after a lesbian in the movie When Night Is Falling, has been a constant friend for two years. She is currently assisting her successor in Stonewall Japan as a Prefecture Rep. for Shizuoka.
Interested in some LGBT-friendly manga? Here are some of Michelle’s favorites!
Love My Life – Yamaji Ebine (2001)
Indigo Blue – Yamaji Ebine (2002)
Honey & Honey – Takeuchi Sachiko (2006)
‘Ohana Holoholo – Torino Shino (2010)
レズビアン的結婚生活 (Rezubian-teki Kekkon Seikatsu) – Higashi Koyuki, Masuhara Hiroko, and Sugiyama Emiko (2014)
僕が私になるために (Boku ga Watashi ni Naru Tame ni) – Hirasawa Yuuna (2016)
さびしすぎてレズ風俗に行きましたレポ (Sabishisugite Rezu Fuuzoku ni Ikimashita Repo) – Nagata Gabi (2016)
一人交換日記 (Hitori Koukan Nikki) – Nagata Gabi (2016)