It was February 3rd on a Friday night when, in Ehime prefecture, Niihama’s Akagane museum opened itself up to the gay community. A friend asked me to present about something I felt passionate about and LGBT rights was an obvious choice. The attendees slowly gathered. Niihama residents from various walks in life came to the underground café at Akagane—a retired elementary school teacher, a dentist assistant, a Japanese teacher, some members of Niihama’s guides club, two city hall employees, and one high schooler were in attendance for the LGBT presentation.
The presentation started with a basic explanation of the acronym “LGBT”. After explaining what each letter stands for I believe most people got the general gist of it. For about 70% of the audience, it was their first time seeing the acronym.
After a few minutes we started a “maru-batsu” quiz (true or false quiz). The first question was: “According to global statistics, in a class of 30 students, there are about 1 or 2 students who are LGBT.” This statement is true, and the majority of people guessed correctly. People were really shocked to learn that 7% of Japan’s population is LGBT. Or that the earliest some LGBT people realize their identity is before they enter elementary school — others realize as late as junior high school. One of the biggest shocks for people was hearing there was a gay bar in Niihama!
Another thing that shocked people was that in the next town over, Ehime, there is a support center for sexual minorities. After sharing these statistics about LGBT Japan, people had many questions. As a group we clarified each other’s questions. Some people who were knowledgeable about the LGBT community were able to answer questions better than I could in Japanese.
Following the maru-batsu section we broke into group discussions. The first question I asked everyone was: “If your child was a boy and said he liked boys, what would you do?” This was the high point of the lecture. People had very deep and intense conversations. I went in and out of several groups, listening to the conversations people shared. One man gave a superb example of explaining sexual identity: a woman tastes an apple, she likes it. She then tastes an orange. She doesn’t like the orange as much as the apple. Why does she prefer the apple over the orange? The answer: preferring an apple over an orange, a woman preferring a woman over a man, or preferring both, these are natural choices. Those choices are different for each person. It’s not wrong, it’s not right, it’s just different, and that’s perfectly fine. For example, how does a man who likes women explain why he likes women? Can he explain that? And why should he need to explain that? In Japan’s society, however, being different from the group is bad. In schools, children get bullied for being different from everyone else. Standing out makes things harder and “the nail which sticks out gets hammered down” 「出るくぎは打たれる」 is, unfortunately, still the mindset of most Japanese people.
Towards the end of the presentation, one older Japanese man stood up to give his opinion on our group discussion. He said, “This was the first time I heard about people who are LGBT. In Japan, this is an issue we don’t normally talk about. I think it’s important for everyone to understand what being LGBT means and to be accepting of sexual minorities.” The presentation that day ended well and I felt everyone was on board with understanding more about the LGBT community.
My name is Scott Tamaki, I’m an ALT from America. I’m not LGBT, but I have supported LGBT people/sexual minorities and their rights since high school. My uncle is gay and married to a nice English man. I have lived in Japan for three years and heard horrible stories of LGBT Japanese people committing suicide, being violently bullied, fired from work for being gay or lesbian, unable to visit their loved one in the hospital after an accident, or being denied adoption rights.
My simple request for people who read this article: Do your own research about LGBT people. Learn about the Japanese LGBT community, watch an LGBT movie, or learn more about the LGBT support organization: “Pride Ehime.”
The human rights violations against the LGBT+ community can end if more people become allies (people not LGBT but who support LGBT rights), and if more people understand the issue.
Stonewall Japan was ambitious this year! Unlike previous years where we only did a Sunday booth, Leadership decided that we would have a booth and a picnic for both Saturday and Sunday. We also had a fun bar crawl on Saturday night, as well as participated in the Pride Parade on Sunday.
In case you didn’t know, every year Tokyo Rainbow Pride (a.k.a. TRP) gets bigger and bigger. In 2017, TRP had over 108,000 people in attendance, beating last year’s record by about 30,000 more people. According to the TRP website, over 35,000 people came on May 6th, 65,000 on the 7th, along with 5,000 people in the parade, and 3,000 for other events.
That’s why we wanted to try out doing more this year. With more people than ever coming to this event, we wanted to bring more people together into our community. Of course, we also wanted to have a lot of fun!
Before the Main Event
It was a bit intimidating at first trying to organize volunteers and schedules. Luckily I had a secret weapon: previous Stonewall President Louis. After we did a pre-meeting via Google Hangouts, we arranged nearly all the schedules and emails.
Two days before TRP, we both sent articles to All About Japan discussing Stonewall and the Stonewall events planned for those days. With more exposure, we hoped to bring more people to the booth and picnics, as well as just get our presence out there so that others could join our group.
Later, Kanto Leaders Kyle and Kayla were chosen to take charge of the picnic and I was chosen to lead the booth. Our volunteers were finalized, and everything just needed to come together.
Saturday – Booth
From morning to evening, TRP Festa was busy and bustling. When I and the morning volunteers arrived at 9:30, there was already a crowd forming around the drag queen crew at the front entrance for photos. This year TRP was sponsored by a record 190 companies and organizations, all of them set up in huge booths with bright signs, free drinks, and mascots on display. There were big names like NTT Corp., Sony Corp. and Google Inc., which had its annual photo booth for nice pride pics. Every stall this year was literally jam-packed with attendees.
All in all, it was a stark contrast to the first year of TRP, which was mostly a few NPOs and local Tokyo LGBT groups. TRP has come a long way from a small pride event and has transformed into a fully loaded movement.
Our booth was squeezed in between the “Fruits in Suits” booth and a corporation with an orange bear mascot. We received a lot of visitors, and the volunteers worked all day to give out face paints, as well as conduct surveys on the LGBTQIA+ community. Even though the day was hot and the work was hard, we had a great time meeting new people and chatting with everyone who came by!
Saturday – Picnic
At about 11, a group came together at Yoyogi Park for some fun snacks, beers, and good times!
For most of the day, people ate, drank, and made good memories with fellow Stonewall members and leaders. The picnic lasted until about 5, when everyone decided it was time to grab some food before the big bar crawl.
Saturday – Bar Crawl
At the annual bar crawl, a large group of Stonewall members headed out for a fun night in Shinjuku’s famous Nichome. Starting at 21:00, we gathered at Aiiro Cafe for a quick drink to get started.
We slowly met up with both Stonewallers and members of Tokyo’s LGBT Meetup group. We chatted and introduced ourselves to each other, and managed to take our group picture! From there, we wandered over at 22:00 to an already-crowded Eagle. Everyone found new friends to meet and chat with! In order to accommodate both men and women, at 23:30 we headed to the everyone-friendly Arty Farty around the corner. We all danced and sang to some of the best music available in Nichome. As time ticked closer to one in the morning, we made our way to Annex to finish the evening with lighter music, dancing, and lots of opportunities to chat and say our goodbyes as we parted ways. The bar crawl was a fantastic evening, with new friendships forged and old friendships rekindled. Join us at the bar crawl next year and help us make it an even bigger event!
Sunday – Booth and Parade!
Face paints were a non-stop event at the booth! Everyone was prepped and ready for the main event of the day: The Pride Parade!
Stonewall Japan gathered around 11:30 for the big group picture in front of a very beautiful flower dog at the center of the Festa. Then we headed off to regroup behind float 22. This year we got a DJ float so we could dance the whole way through!
A very special thanks to the volunteers who stayed at the booth for over two hours while we marched. They made sure to keep getting donations and painting faces!
Even though the parade took longer than originally thought, it was exciting to be a part of this massive solidarity experience. A big thanks to everyone who marched in the heat and sun to represent us and to walk for the rights of LGBTQIA+ people.
After all the hard work – over two days’ worth – we closed the booth early so the overworked volunteers could get a chance to be a part of the Festa and the picnic experiences.
Over those two days we made over 26,000 yen in donations. Ioana made some progress on surveys; I believe over fifty people participated. All in all, a success for Stonewall and its fabulous members!
Sunday – Picnic
The Sunday picnic was an amazing success!
We were close to the same spot as Saturday’s picnic, in Yoyogi park. Everything was set up and arranged around 11 a.m. and came to a close at 5 p.m.
The day was full of people coming and going from our little picnic, and of fun, friendly, thoughtful conversations.
Everyone was polite and, when the event was coming to a close, the small group who remained was kind enough to help clean up our picnic area and dispose of trash.
Cheers for more wonderful picnics for Stonewall and let’s hope next year’s Stonewall Japan experience at Tokyo Pride is just as lovely.
Without all of the volunteers the event couldn’t have happened at all, so thank all of you so much! Also, all the leaders for those days and activities are also recognized: Kyle, Kayla, Jon, and George you are all amazing. May so much rainbow love go your way!
See you all at Tokyo Rainbow Pride 2018!
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.
“Closeted –Adjective / klɒzɪtɪd / Keeping something secret, especially the fact of being homosexual.”
If you have ever been (or indeed still are) closeted, you can agree it is no bed of roses. Having to conceal your sexuality and a part of your identity from family, friends, colleagues, and peers can leave you feeling isolated, confined, and frustrated.
There is a reason why the term “closeted” is used with regard to those who are keeping their sexuality a secret from those around them. It is dark. It is restrictive. It is suffocating.
My time spent in the closet was awash with confusion and anguish, on both a mental and emotional level, as I tried my best to circumnavigate across the spectrum of my own sexuality. Even now when I reflect on my experiences being in the closet, I cannot help but grimace.
Flashback to my high school days. I am sitting with my female friends in the canteen, engrossed in enjoyable conversation. “Mate, are you, like, a faggot or something?” one of the popular, athletic types suddenly probes. Silence. Those around stare. Silence is soon replaced with sniggers and slurs. My words fail me as I desperately try to salvage a fragment of my crumbling heterosexual façade. Deeper into my closet I withdraw.
This was just one of the day-to-day experiences that I encountered during my youth which made me feel like I would never be able to escape the dark solitude of my closet.
Fortunately, however, my closet was only a temporary abode. I was able to step out of the darkness into a warm and accepting welcome from all of my family and friends, to which I am extremely grateful. The positive reaction from those around me left me wondering what it was that had made me so fearful to come out during my younger years. The world outside the closet was bright. Liberating. I could breathe, finally; I had cast off my shackles and bid adieu to the isolation of my closet for once and for all. Or so I had thought.
Before leaving for Japan on the JET Programme, my sexuality was the last thing on my mind. During Pre-Departure Orientation, lecturers kindly gave speeches discussing the difficulties that incoming JETs can face after arriving in Japan — mainly culture shock. Given the geographical distance between Britain and Japan, I tried to mentally prepare myself as best as possible for the impending culture shock which awaited me in the land of the rising sun.
Much time was spent considering the challenges that await foreigners in Japan. However, topics which were never discussed were the challenges which lay in wait for me as a homosexual male.
With Tokyo Orientation over all too soon, I suddenly found myself behind my desk at work on the first day of my new job. An uncomfortable mixture of nerves and jet lag, matched with the stifling heat of the Japanese summer, meant my once freshly-cleaned shirt was drenched in perspiration as I began to make my rounds greeting different people within city hall. After many introductions and an excessive amount of bowing, one particular gentlemen mentions my biggaijinnose and compliments my physical attributes. This was met with laughter from my new supervisor. “Relax! He’s not a homo. Don’t worry!”
My throat ran dry.
My words failed me.
I decided to smile graciously and let the comment slide as playful office banter.
After a long first day at work, I was quickly ushered to a local izakayawhich was filled with the faces of my new work colleagues. It’s my welcome party. The smell of cigarette smoke and sake filled my nostrils as I took my seat within the venue. After a few words of greeting, a couple cans of Kirin Ichiban, the conversation turned to relationships.
“Nick, do you have a girlfriend?”
“Nick, what is your type?”
“Nick, what do you think of Japanese girls?”
The barrage of questions was quick and relentless. In that moment, I was offered two choices: tell the truth or lie.
I regrettably chose the latter.
Like a repeat offender, I find myself being frog-marched back into my closet once again. Though many years have passed, my closet remains unchanged and the familiar darkness greets me like an old friend. Only this time, my closet feels smaller and more cramped than I remember. I awkwardly contort my body, trying to squeeze into the same space which my 14-year-old self would have had no problem fitting into. My brief spell outside of the closet had enabled me to grow in many more ways than I could have imagined.
I had once naïvely thought that stepping out of the closet would be one of the hardest challenges I would face in my life. However, admittedly, stepping out of the closet, enjoying the taste of liberation, and then being forced back into the same closet is undeniably even more challenging.
However, this is of course not just limited to myself. I imagine that many members from the LGBTQIA living in Japan are faced with similar situations on a regular basis. Living in Japan for any minority can be a stressful and at times frustrating experience. However, members of the queer community are statistically more likely to be faced with additional anguish and strife. Unfortunately, this mental and emotional burden can often lead to low self-esteem, alcohol/drug abuse, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
Finding solace and refuge within a queer space can be an excellent way to reduce the stress and anguish of everyday life. From an outside perspective, the bars, clubs, discotheques, and other queer spaces as found in Shinjuku Ni-chome and Kita-ku might appear to be nothing more than a place where gay men drink vodka and twerk to the likes of Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj on a superficial level. However, these queer spaces are much more than this. These queer spaces offer sanctuary. Safety. Family. Home. It is a place to step out of the proverbial closet and present the most authentic and honest version of yourself.
Unfortunately, for those who do not reside in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, queer spaces and communities are seldom found. From my experience, this can heighten one’s sense of isolation and solitude while living in the inaka of Japan. Though you can surround yourself with many close friends within the local community and among fellow JETs and alumni, the lack of a queer space to retreat to can leave you with an unshakeable feeling of loneliness. My incarceration within the closet seems perpetual.
However, the worst was yet to come.
On June 12, 2016, an assailant walked into Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, armed with an SIG Sauer MCX semi-automatic rifle and a 9mm Glock 17 semi-automatic pistol. Opening fire, the gunman killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in a heinous hate crime. This was both the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman and the worst attack against the LGBTQIA in United States history.
Pulse was a gay nightclub. It was a queer space. A place which people retreat to in search of acceptance, unity, and love, had in that instance been desecrated into somewhere of discrimination, stigma, and hate.
The LGBTQIA community worldwide was in mourning.
My alarm sounds at 7 a.m. on a seemingly ordinary dreaded Monday. I stir. I yawn. I stretch. I reach for my iPhone and begin scrolling through Facebook as I steal a couple of extra minutes in bed. Expecting the usual stream of selfies and memes, I pause. Stunned. I frantically read through article after article feeling a surge of different emotions, even a world away.
My clock now reads 07:32 a.m. Work beckons me. It is in that instant that I realize that similar to my sexuality, my emotions too must be left firmly sealed within my closet.
As with any other Monday, I routinely pull out my trousers, shirt, tie, and jacket from my closet and begin to get dressed. I apply cologne, style my hair, and put on my watch. My last accessory to apply is the most important — my mask of heterosexuality. With a heavy heart, I cower behind this mask.
Wanting to grieve but not being permitted to because of societal values and norms has been my toughest challenge to date. Forcing a smile, I try to feign normality. It was in this instance that I felt my closet was at its darkest. However, to quote a well-known proverb, “the darkest hour comes just before the dawn.”
As I sit pondering my desolation inside my closet, a faint voice calls out from the darkness: “You are not alone.”
Like music to my ears, my heart leaps as my eyes scan my closet trying to distinguish who had called out to me from the shadows. My search is in vain as I see nothing but darkness: “It gets better.”
A different voice calls out from another corner of my closet, only louder: “We are here for you.”
A chorus of encouragement erupts from within my closet. Suddenly, a light switches on and I see that I am not alone. Faces smile at me and I recognize these people as my comrades of the LGBTQIA cause. These are of course the faces of Stonewall Japan and other allies. Comment after comment fills the page from people offering support and love for those in need. My anger is replaced with determination. My loneliness replaced with togetherness. My sorrow replaced with pride.
I realise as I sit in my apartment amongst the Japanese rice fields, that to escape the darkness of my closet, all I had to do was remember to turn on the light.
Nick Lavin is a 3rd year CIR and the AJET Vice Chair located in Takaoka City, Toyama Prefecture. He majored in Japanese Studies at the University of Manchester, and has an interest in linguistics and queer culture. He wrote his thesis regarding queer identity through the medium of the Japanese language. Nick likes to spend his weekends drinking good coffee, hanging out with friends, and endlessly watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. Also, food. Lots of it.
It’s that time of the year when Stonewall Japan needs volunteers! If you want to get more involved in the LGBTQIA+ scene here in Japan, do some voluntary work, be part of a dynamic team, then this is the opportunity. Stonewall is growing each year, so the need for regular volunteers is only increasing. Unless specified below, all that we ask for is that you live in Japan, and are willing to learn and help-out!
All positions detailed below are open for application. Positions start on April 1st, and we ask that you fulfil the role for at least a year. To run for a position, answer the 10 questions below and send them to us at email@example.com before 11:59PM of Friday 3rd March! If you have any questions, want more information, or hesitant and want some encouragement…we’d love to hear from you, so please message Louis at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Unlike previous years, Block Leader and Prefecture Rep positions will NOT have to go through an election process. Only Leadership positions will go through a voting process and election.
1. What is your name/pronouns?
2. Tell us a bit about yourself.
3. What is the position you’re applying for?
4. How long have you been in Japan?
5. How long have you been a part of Stonewall Japan?
6. What are you doing in Japan?
7. Where do you currently live?
8. How’s your Japanese?
9. Why are you the best person for this position?
10. What do you hope to accomplish by the end of your term?
The president is responsible for:
1. Acting as lead executive toward both the efficacy and efficiency of administration for the good of the membership of Stonewall Japan.
2. Acting as the external liaison and representative of Stonewall Japan to other organizations including but not limited to non-profit organizations, non-governmental organizations, and public and private service providers.
3. Facilitating all internal meetings with Leadership.
4. Coordinating communications.
5. Keeping contact with National AJET, other chapters of AJET and Special Interest Groups (SIGs).
6. Executive decisions and settling disputes.
7. The treasury.
8. Creating agendas for the meetings.
The Vice President is responsible for:
1. Working with the President toward both the efficacy and efficiency of administration for the good of the membership of Stonewall Japan.
2. Facilitating all internal meetings with Block Leaders.
3. Acting as liaison between Block Leaders and the Leadership.
4. Assisting the president in various duties, including treasury issues.
5. Communicate with the secretary regarding clerical records (mailing list, contacts, etc.) and membership.
The Treasurer is responsible for:
1. Accessing the ‘Stonewall Japan’ bank account.
2. Maintaining records of all revenue and expenditures and ensuring that generally accepted accounting practices and controls are in place.
3. Providing the Stonewall Japan Leadership with a monthly financial report.
4. Creating an annual budget.
5. Transferring access of the aforementioned bank account to the succeeding Treasurer as a final duty.
*The Treasurer will not withdraw money without permission from either the President or Vice-President.
Diversity & Awareness Officer
[2 positions are available to share responsibilities]
The Diversity & Awareness Officers are responsible for:
1. Moderating the Stonewall Japan Facebook group using the Safe Space Guidelines and protocol.
2. Conducting outreach activities in-person or online making Stonewall Japan a more inclusive and safe space.
3. Attending monthly leadership meetings.
4. Checking the Stonewall Japan Facebook Group(s)/page and email account on a regular basis.
5. Participating in group discussions.
6. Assisting in succession planning.
[2+ positions are available to share responsibilities]
The Web Coordinators are responsible for:
1. Updating and editing Stonewall Japan’s official site using WordPress.
2. Tweeting from the official Stonewall Japan twitter account.
3. Writing, accepting and editing contributions for the website.
4. The start-up and development of any other web-related projects that would enhance Stonewall Japan’s web presence.
5. As the position tenure nears its end, the Web Coordinator is expected to assist in succession planning.
Requirements: An understanding or committed willing to learn about wordpress, HTML, CSS and Bootstrap. A level of Japanese would be helpful, but not necessary.
Stonewall Block Leader
The Block Leaders are responsible for:
1. Checking the block e-mail account and the Stonewall Japan Facebook group.
2. Attending Google Hangouts meetings.
3. Sending out a monthly ‘Block Newsletters’ detailing upcoming events/information.
4. Helping promote and assist in Stonewall member’s events
5. Looking out for queer-friendly places and assisting in updating online resources
6. Being open to signpost members to sources of further support.
7. Assist in succession planning.
[Unlimited positions available]
Prefecture Reps are responsible for:
1. Help the Block Leader in gathering information about the prefecture.
2. Be a general helping hand.
3. Help out, or organise local Stonewall events.
Being on the leadership for Stonewall this year has been rewarding and enjoyable for all of us, and I would certainly recommend it. So come and join the team! We’re looking forward to hearing from you.
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 lesbiancommunity.
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.
Thank you so much to everyone who joined us on January 14, 2017 for our first-ever Chubu New Year’s Party! The event began as a cozy dinner of 8 people at Queer+s in Nagoya, Aichi, and things got pretty spicy with kimchi nabe, appetizers, and delicious drinks! [http://queer-s.info/] Our beautiful Chu-boos and guests enjoyed talking about LGBTQ outreach in more local communities, sharing dating news, and even playing multilingual rounds of “Never Have I Ever!” If this makes you think, “Wow, that sounds like a hot time; sure beats making a human burrito out of myself and my bed like I did instead of going,” then be sure to join us for the next event! Or, don’t be afraid to take the initiative and create your own assembly of Chubu members for an even more unbelievably amazing get-together!
To continue reminiscing about this past event, the revelry only snowballed (literally) into more fun. For the partiers who decided to stay in Nagoya all night (including our very own Stonewall Japan President, Louis Williams), our event next made its way to the Nagoya METRO Club for its monthly throwdown! [https://www.facebook.com/events/693725234122801/] There we were able to bond with each other by no-shame dancing to classics like Toxic by Britney Spears and also to two performances by drag queen Miku Divine!
Last weekend, a group of 10 Stonewallers met up for a weekend break in the scenic Atami, Shizuoka. For some it was the first time to come to such an event, and for others, they had particpated in many ‘queer’ events across Japan. Trepidations are understandable when you have planned to share a room and weekend with strangers, but the ‘Stonewall LGBT+ Atami Weekend’ brought like-minded strangers together, and much fun was had.
Participants were mainly from the surrounding area of Tokyo, but people as far as Miyagi and Mie came too. We met at Atami station, exchanged names and started on the first sight of our short tour around the city. Our first stop was Kinomiya Shrine which boasts to have the largest tree in Honshu. Despite a stand taking photos, there we met a kind man who was adamant to help us take our group photo.
Next we went down to the harbor to watch the sun set, and dip our toes into the ocean. As we walked down the hill, zig-zagging through lanes and streets, we were able to see the right out to sea. Arriving at the beach, it was obvious why Atami is a hub for tourists alike; the shore, the sea air, the surfers…
After what felt like a short hike up, and train ride to Atami station, we bought some refreshments and took a shuttle bus to the hotel. After checking-in and discovering a free ‘janken-tournament’ [じゃんけん大会] we revised our evening plans and headed to our rooms. Atami is famous for its onsen and it was first on the list for some of us. By this time the first-time-meeting nerves had melted away, and I personally enjoyed relaxing in the many warm baths the hotel had to offer.
The buffet dinner seemed to accommodate everyone in the group, so pescetarians and vegans were able to eat. A favorite of mine was the seafood rice dish and plates of sliced steak. The food was pretty darn tasty in general. Straight after dinner we all entered the janken tournament. Despite losing the practice match, out of 60+ hotel guests, I won the game! I do feel a little sorry for the four elderly women I beat though… After that moment, many a hotel guest congratulated me throughout the evening.
After janken we headed for an hour of karaoke, played some games and chatted in our rooms, and attempted to have a table tennis tournament. I didn’t see any potential Olympic competitors between us, but some of us could play a mean game of billiards and air hockey! As the evening drew to a close, people started to head to beds to sleep.
The next morning, some of the group headed off early to visit Atami castle, others went back for another dip in the onsen whilst I was locked outside the room on the balcony. Only for a few minutes though! We had breakfast, walked to a viewing spot near the hotel and then headed off back towards Atami station. I came from afar and decided to leave early, but the majority stayed to browse for souvenirs, eat lunch and breathe in the coastal air before they return to their various hometowns. [That may have been stretching the truth a little].
Overall, it went better than expected. As one half of the organisers, and someone quite active with Stonewall, I honestly did enjoy spending time with other like-minded people from various parts of Japan. I’ve been to many Stonewall events, and I still enjoy meeting new people, meeting people I’ve spoken to through the Facebook group and or reuniting with those that I haven’t seen in months and years. I hope to see you at the next one, and for those who came, thanks for coming. Last but not least, a big shout-out to Yuki for being the main organiser and instigator of this fab weekend. When’s the next one?
As a gay Caucasian man living in rural Mie, the double minority status can feel quite isolating. This is why the first ever Mie Rainbow Festa (みえレインボーフェスタ), held in Ise last month, was such a joyous day out! Stonewall Japan organised an opportunity for LGBT+ people and their allies to interact with other like-minded people. We watched numerous musical and dance acts, grabbed some local Ise food, and enjoyed meeting some of the most prominent LGBT activists currently working in Japan.
Organisers Shoichi Yamaguchi(山口颯一), Ichikawa Takeshi(市川武史) and Ota Yuuya(太田有矢)successfully planned and executed it, and as it was in my home prefecture, I had to attend. A group of Stonewallers met in front of the station, and managed to get to the event just in time for its opening remarks. The prefectural governor, mayor of Ise, and the mayor of Iga said some words along with the organisers. Iga was the first city in the Kansai/Tokai region to recognise same-sex couples, so maybe Ise may get some ideas…
Held in the Ise City Plaza, in the centre of Ise, Mie, the venue was full of attendees. The hall was decorated with love-filled messages from local elementary school children, rainbow painted bamboo candle holders and the smiles of supportive friends and family.
We’d seen the event officially start, and then decided to grab some lunch at a nearby restaurant. Whilst we were eating, a panel of distinguished LGBT+ activists had a talk about the current status of LGBT+ equality in Japan. Some stayed behind to watch the discussion. For others, we had a nice catch up with old friends and met some new faces over some delicious food.
After our meal, we returned to the event. The city had really shown its support by decorating the main street that leads from the train station to Ise Shrine (Gekū) with rainbow flags too. We made it just in time to watch some performances from some local musicians and further afield dance groups. Emceed by the drag artist Raira(ライラ), the array of acts was well received with applause. Some special guests included Nijigumi Fight (虹組ファイツ), Rowan, X-ways, NSM = (LIVE) to mention a few. Some emotional words were expressed from the organisers, and the event closed with a group photo. We even managed to speak to Mr. Yamaguchi and grab a photo with him.
Afterwards, a few of us stayed behind to watch the sun set and get to know each other better. I was exhausted by the end of the day, and slept the whole train ride home. But, I can’t wait till next year! In a country that still has no unambiguous, constitutional protections against homophobic or transphobic discrimination, I am thankful to have been part of this event. Thank you to everyone who came.