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Finding space in gay Japan

'Rainbow Imperialism' conflicts with concept of 'don't ask, don't tell'

by Thomasina Larkin

At first glance, homosexual life in Japan can seem quite repressed. Public displays of affection are next to nil, gay Japanese men often live secret lives and it’s hard to notice a gay presence at all unless by venturing into Tokyo’s “gayborhood,” Shinjuku Ni-Chome.

But by taking a deeper look past the surface of society and crossing the linguistic barriers that surround the word “gay,” the system in Japan often provides a more relaxed environment for men who sleep with men.

To many, “gay” evokes images of homosexual men out twirling their rainbow flags and proudly expressing themselves with an “I’m here and I’m queer” attitude.

Brought up with this stereotypical understanding of gay life, some foreigners think Japanese men who live in a hushed gay culture should liberate themselves through similar actions.

“My term for that is ‘Rainbow Flag Imperialism,’ ” says Greg Dvorak, an American PhD candidate at the Gender Relations Centre of the Australian National University (ANU) and a visiting research fellow at Tokyo University.

“It’s like its own form of colonization. The word ‘gay’ in English carries a lot more baggage than we think it does. It includes some people but it excludes others.

“There are many men who if you ask if they’re gay, they may say no. But if you ask if they’ve had sex with men or desire men, they may say yes.”

Being “gay” in Japan has totally different parameters than what has become accepted in mainstream Western cultures.

The word itself was imported after World War II ended, when American soldiers scoured the streets in search for sexual relations with either Japanese women or men.

Shortly after, one of the first gay bars opened in Shinjuku.

Today, over 200 gay bars are crammed into a maze of streets in Shinjuku Ni-Chome, each catering to a very specific clientele such as “debu-sen” (those who seek fat men), “fuke-sen” (men who love older men) and “gai-sen” (‘gaijin’ chasers).

Japan has enjoyed a history of open sexuality dating back to the Heian period when samurai and Buddhist monks practiced sex with young male pages. In more recent days, saunas provide meeting places for gay men.

Straight men, as in most of Asia, touch each other affectionately as friends. And Japanese men don’t have any qualms about calling another guy cute.

But as would probably be done in the West, none of this is has been stigmatized or labeled as “gay” or “queer” or “homo.”

“People don’t come out in Japan, they come in,” says Dvorak. “The tendency is to find your own space. You don’t need to come out to your parents or boss, it’s not about how exposed you can be. It’s about coming in, like joining a club. You find your own niche. That’s what mainstream Japan is like with sexuality.”

Unlike Western societies, where people are urged to talk about everything, Japan has an unwritten law of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” where much is left unsaid as a form of respect and politeness to eliminate many embarrassing or potentially dangerous predicaments.

“At home, I’ve felt very threatened in some situations where if I said I was gay I might lose my life,” says Jonah from America.

“Gay bashing doesn’t happen here. Gay life here is much more comfortable because being in a non-gay environment is much less threatening.”

Another notable disadvantage of the vibrant and open gay scene in other countries is that it can foster pretentious attitudes within queer communities.

“At bars in the States, guys sit around with these looks on their faces like they’re too pretty to be approached,” says Jonah. This rarely, if ever, happens in Japan, he says.

Gays abroad may feel they have to fit into a perfect pretty mold that has been created by society. As long as they are interior designers, good cooks, witty and stylish, they are accepted into the mainstream. Those are the types represented on TV and in the media. A fat gay South American making breakfast in bed for his lover isn’t likely to get much airtime.

“It’s a pre-packaged vision of marriage that looks like heterosexuality. That’s repression. People who don’t fit that model can’t find themselves in that. The people who made this rainbow flag kind of world didn’t make space for Asians,” says Dvorak.

“This liberation idea is very important, the need to be visible and appreciated. But globalization is only taking one particular brand of gayness and selling it to the whole world.”

Because many foreigners in Japan don’t feel the same pressure to conform to the ideals of “perfect gayness” that they experience back home, they often feel less inhibited when approaching Japanese men.

“If I see somebody I think is cute, I’ll just walk right up and tell him or say ‘Hi. What’s your name?’ In America, everyone has so much attitude, I would never do that.

“The guys I meet here are way younger, better looking and in better shape, but I don’t feel like they’re out of my league. Dating has become a much easier endeavor,” says Jonah. Those who want to build same-sex relationships with Japanese into something long-term usually feel it’s an impossible feat.

“I can never tell my parents about my sexuality. They could never accept homosexuality,” says Ko-Ko from Tokyo, who is currently involved in a long-term relationship with a foreigner.

“They see gay people on TV but they never believe it could happen to them. So I’d never tell them, to keep them happy.”

And the gay people they see on TV are never regular gay Japanese men, such as a businessmen or politicians, who have come out to provide a public role model.

Since Japan has yet to pass legislation for job protection against gay discrimination, it’s little wonder why Japanese “don’t come out, they come in.”

While it’s easy to be invisible in Tokyo, where many gay men marry and have children, but lead a secret life to satisfy their sexual appetite, it can be especially lonely in the countryside where everybody is connected.

“Outside of Tokyo, foreigners or Japanese can feel very isolated,” says a volunteer at a gay hotline in Japan. “I’ve taken many calls from foreigners entering young adulthood at the same time as they’re sent to nowhere-ken, Japan to teach English and they feel very alone. That could be a disadvantage of a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ society where when they never tell, they’ll never know.”

In addition to the lack of public role models who could help others feel like they’re not alone, most media depicts stereotypical gay characters with the aim to entertain the straight public.

For example, TBS’s personality Razor Ramon HG (Hard Gay), is a straight man pretending to be gay by wearing leather bondage and cruising around thrusting hips all over the place. And last month, toy company Tomy released “Kurohi-gei Kiki Ippatsu,” a game where Razor Ramon hides in a barrel in which the player stabs plastic swords until he pops out of the top. Some believe if there is ever a hope of gaining same-sex legal rights in Japan, Razor Ramon isn’t the best image to portray the gay community.

“We’re correcting the false stereotypes like Razor Ramon that show a lack of respect and understanding and we are trying to educate Japanese people about the advances in gay rights around the world,” says Hiroshi Mochizuki, editor in chief of Gay Japan News, an online media service established about a year ago that currently gets about 50,000 hits per day.

“The lack of knowledge is the biggest problem. At this point we’re bringing people together.”

Mochizuki also founded a body called Equality, which he expects will be registered by the government as a nonprofit organization within the next two months.

While Equality’s first aim is to disseminate information to both the gay and straight community, its long-term goal is to achieve antidiscrimination legislation and rights for same-sex marriages.

He says to do so, he hopes to strengthen the economic muscle of the gay community by bringing together the support of local business.

So for those gays in Japan who don’t feel so happy, Equality may be their pot of gold waiting at the end of a rainbow.

(Names in the article have been changed to protect privacy)

On the Web and in print

* Gay Japan News: www.gayjapannews.com

* Gay Japan and Japanese Gay Resources and Travel Tips by Utopia: www.utopia-asia.com/tipsjapn.htm

* Japan AIDS Prevention Awareness Network: www.japanetwork.org

* McLelland, Mark; Queer Japan from the Pacific War to the Internet Age McLelland, Mark; Male Homosexuality in Contemporary Japan: Cultural Myths and Social Realities

* Saikaku, Ihara (Schalow, Paul, trans.); The Great Mirror of Male Love

* Leupp, Gary; Male Colors

* Pflugfelder, Gregory; Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600-1950

* Summerhawk, Barbara; Queer Japan: Personal Stories of Japanese Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Transsexuals