Being Gay in Japan: The Ups and Downs
In any country in the modern world, LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) people have hurtles to jump. Being out and open about your sexuality can be met with anything from acceptance and love, to hatred, violence, and even prison terms and execution. Every country has different dynamics and social views. In some, we can "put a ring on it" and marry the ones we love. In others, we dare not speak a word of it for fear of hatred, violence, and even prison terms and execution. The situation in America is tottering at the more positive end - every year, more people come out in support of love, and more laws pass in our favor. But bigotry stemming primarily from Christianity and other Abrahamic religions is a discomfort and even danger to many LGBT people.
Let's take a look at the opposite side of the world: Japan. Japan has a history completely separate from the West, evolving into what it is today in East Asia with unique philosophies, social structures and religious education. That history has affected contemporary Japan, but the Japan of today is not totally free of Western influence, either. How does the situation of Japan affect its treatment and rights of LGBT people?
Many people recognize that ancient Greece (and to some extent, Rome) were relatively open about gay relationships. Themes of homosexuality were plentiful in mythology, folklore, and everyday life. Generally, these relationships were not a substitute for marriage, and though adult men might enjoy the company of others, and even love them dearly (who can forget Plato's Symposium, which claims that love between men is pure and beautiful?), they were still expected to marry and have children.
Many people - even Japanese people - don't realize how similar premodern Japan was. There were two terms commonly used in older works: nanshoku, meaning "male colors," a flowery term for the perceived beauty of such a relationship, and wakashudō, which means "the way of the youth" and refers to the commonly practiced pederasty (relationships between "teachers" and adolescent "students").
According to Professor Gary Leupp, author of Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan, Japan had three fields in particular where same-sex relationships were known, understood and accepted, even praised: the military, the clergy, and the theater. Japan's samurai class are well understood by historians to frequently practice pederasty between apprentices and masters. The philosophy was that the master was responsible for his adolescent charge in all things, from military skills to etiquette and honor. The clergy had a similar role. There is no moral opposition to homosexuality in Shinto, the native religion of Japan. Even in Buddhist temples, where sex was forbidden, it was sometimes loosely interpreted to mean sex between a man and a woman, therefore sex between two men was permissible. In kabuki theater, young actors, especially actors who played female roles (similar to Greece, troupes were typically all-male), were often the objects of desire by wealthy patrons. Male homosexual acts are littered throughout Japanese artwork and literature - even the famous The Tale of Genji, written a thousand years ago, has an instance where the male protagonist, Prince Genji, abandons courting an uninterested woman and instead sleeps with her younger brother.
Of course, as with Greece, men were usually still expected to marry a woman and have children. As with most countries, the history of lesbian relationships is much quieter, too. Due to foreign influence, particularly from the West, homosexuality was briefly outlawed in 1872, but this law was repealed a mere seven years later.
Today in Japan, there is no law against homosexuality. Consenting adults are free to have sex, but there are no civil unions or gay marriages. Laws barring discrimination based on sexual orientation or identity don't exist on a national level, but some prefectures, including Tokyo, have enacted their own laws for this purpose. Since 2008, transgender people may legally change their gender if they have had sex reassignment surgery. Gay rights, including marriage, receive very little political discussion.
In fact, there is little discussion of LGBT issues at all. Homosexuality is frequently kept silent. There is still no religious basis for discrimination, but gay people struggle to face Japan's strict family and gender roles. Though crime is low, LGBT have been harassed or even attacked because of their identities. At best, it is usually a subject kept under the table. In my experience, almost all Japanese LGBT people I met while living in Tokyo were shocked when I asked if they were out to their families. Often they are only open at gay bars and events. I tried to be honest about my own sexual orientation when it came up in an effort to spread awareness, and I can't count the number of awkward silences I endured after answering the infamous "do you have a boyfriend?" question. One young man even claimed to me, "We don't have gay people in Japan."
Gay people do exist in the media, for better or worse. Several politicians and pop culture icons have come out as gay and transgender, and undoubtedly their courage has influenced Japan's perceptions of LGBT people. But largely, gay and transgender people are portrayed as comedy acts on TV, often by straight comedians, and sexuality is frequently at the butt of jokes. Gay characters do on rare occasion exist in movies and television dramas, but it is rarer still to find a portrayal that is not stereotypical and comedic. Gay and lesbian comic books and magazines do exist and have existed for some time, but the atmosphere of Japan still isn't open enough for many people to feel comfortable being open with their sexual orientation.
On the other hand, like most large cities, Tokyo and Osaka have plenty of gay bars. In fact, Tokyo's Shinjuku Ni-Chome district is said to be the largest gay district in the world. A must-see for any gay traveler (or, for that matter, any straight traveler looking for a friendly and welcoming night out), Ni-Chome has bars and clubs for people of all types. Gay Pride takes place annually and includes a parade in Tokyo. And though gay marriage may not be just around the corner in Japan, more and more LGBT people are coming out and proud - just this year, Tokyo Disneyland celebrated its first gay wedding. Though not legally recognized, it could be a sign that change is somewhere in Japan's future.
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