Whether to come out at the office

Gays and lesbians in Japan try to navigate the gay gray zone in a 'closeted' society

by Samantha Loong and Jackie Hoffart

“Do you live on your own?”

It’s a perfectly casual question at work, one that would naturally arise in conversations. For many gays and lesbians, however, if they happen to live with their partner, queries such as this often become the moment of truth — or the moment of avoiding the truth.

In the four years since Osaka’s Kanako Otsuji showed her true rainbow colors and became Japan’s first out politician, there has been a notable increase in gay and lesbian visibility across the country.

From Fuji TV’s drama “Last Friends,” in which characters explored issues of gender and sexuality, and NHK’s “Heart TV,” which had panelists talking openly about their struggles coming out, to the massively popular Japan DVD release of “The L Word,” the American cable-TV series from the broadcaster HBO, queers appear to be here to stay.

So what about Japan’s everyday gays and lesbians? Since there are no laws against homosexuality in Japan — it was even encouraged among samurai and monks before the Meiji Restoration in 1868 — is coming out even controversial anymore?

In a word: Yes.

Although gays and lesbians generally manage to find each other through the Internet or through the anonymity of any of Japan’s big cities, coming out to colleagues remains a gray zone.

In conversations with gay men and women living in Japan, the key factor for them in deciding whether or not to come out at work has everything to do with how close they feel to individual people at their workplaces and just as much to do with the culture of their company. Think of the closet as having a revolving door.

At her previous job in the IT industry, 33-year-old Ai was openly gay among her coworkers.

“There was another gay guy working there, so it was no big deal when I came out,” she says, adding, “the staff were also much younger.”

Ai is now a caregiver for the elderly at a government-run nursing home and is not out at work. She worries about upsetting older colleagues or the families of the people she cares for — and the possibilities of rampant gossip. (Yet, a couple of the women under her care at the home have come out to her.)

Likewise, Maki, who works at a conservative male-dominated trading company, says that “it’s a case of whether or not they’ll respect you and your privacy.” Although she prefers to only be out to people who she is already friends with, the 35-year-old also refuses to hide who she is. “An ex-girlfriend used to meet me for lunch outside my office building. We’d always give each other a hug or a kiss, and I wouldn’t be surprised if people from my office saw us, but it hasn’t affected my work life at all,” she says.

A dislike of gossip-hunters is one of the reasons why Alex, 39, who works at a conservative advertising agency, also prefers to only come out to coworkers who seem genuinely interested in getting to know him.

“There are some people in Japan who think that just because you’re a foreigner, they can ask you anything,” Alex says.

Even though many Japanese people “just don’t get the whole gay thing,” being seen as a foreigner can have its advantages, notes Ayumi (not her real name), a 28-year-old postgraduate student who is half Japanese.

“If you are a foreigner, Japanese people will be more accepting of your ‘strangeness,’ ” she says, noting that in certain professions, there are advantages to being out even for Japanese. “My girlfriend is in arts and media, so being gay is almost an asset. It’s viewed as ‘edgy.’ ”

On whether or not people should come out more at work, Ayumi cuts to the chase: “I think it all comes down to the fact that Japan is a ‘closeted’ society, not just about sexual orientation, but about one’s personal life in general.”

Jennifer (not her real name), a 35- year-old teacher who is reluctant to come out to Japanese colleagues, believes that the Japanese phenomenon of separating honne (true feelings) and tatemae (the facade) tends to lengthen the process of getting to know and trust someone.

“If somebody asks me if I have a boyfriend,” she says, “I’m never, ever going to out myself to this person because they’ve already made this assumption about me.”

Indeed teachers seem to have the most reservations about coming out of any group interviewed.

“Educational institutions are the last bastion of homophobia, partially because of parents’ expectations over what you can and can’t talk to the kids about,” says Teresa (not her real name), a teacher at an international school, who is out to her colleagues. She feels that teachers are wired to be social, and there is a culture to become friends. “If you don’t come out it could seem a bit strange, a bit standoffish,” she says. But she draws the line at telling students and parents.

Lisa (not her real name), a 29-year-old assistant language teacher who lives in the countryside, has found that same friendly culture disappointingly absent among the teachers and staff she works alongside. After three years of working with the same people, the American had hoped that she would feel comfortable enough with her Japanese English teachers to do more than divert conversations away from boyfriend- related topics. She acknowledges that she sometimes has to lie, and says she feels guilty about introducing her girlfriend as her “friend,” but has her reasons: “I had problems in the past gaining acceptance from my own parents and schoolmates, so I can’t help but feel cautious and protective over that area of my life.”

Despite careful approaches to coming out at work, the number of gays and lesbians out to their coworkers is likely to increase in Japan. There is always a chance that if there was an about-face in America with regards to gay issues, this could nudge U.S.-trend-conscious Japan toward more queer-friendly politics and increased acceptance of gays and lesbians in society. The signs seem positive, especially when, earlier this year, the Japanese government made it possible for Japanese nationals to marry their non-Japanese same-sex partners if they were from a country where such marriages are legal. Although this is a big step, the move does not allow same-sex marriage in Japan, suggesting that homosexuality — at least between Japanese — is still difficult to accept.

Until homosexuality is fully recognized in Japanese politics and by society, gays and lesbians in Japan — whether Japanese or not — will continue to reveal themselves only to those who are deemed trustworthy, while in a noisy izakaya or on a cigarette break behind the building.

Perhaps one day, though, gays and lesbians in Japan will find that the corporate closet has become more of an open-plan office. One person did point out that at her workplace she feels that there is more stigma attached to her tattoo than her sexuality. Even though she is out to coworkers, she tries to hide her ink.