Misrepresented, misunderstood and mysterious, a group of women fight a dual struggle, compelled to speak up for their rights, yet fearing the consequences of a life made visible in an oppressive world.

The mysteries surrounding this group have too often become false myths that stereotype the lives of lesbians. Very common is the belief that women become lesbians because of some traumatic experience they’ve had with a man.

“That’s no more valid than asking a straight person if they had a bad experience with someone from the same gender and then become heterosexual,” says Kim Oswalt, a Tokyo-based psychotherapist.

“Straight people know they are straight at a young age — maybe even before having a sexual experience. The same could be said for lesbian and gays — they may know their orientation at an early age.

“Internalized homophobia is when gays feel like they have to look and act straight to be invisible because there is a culture of repression,” says Oswalt. “I have my doubts that the politics of assimilation strengthen the voice of any marginalized group.”

On the other hand, even if someone is out of the closet, it’s not easy to identify a person’s sexual orientation by how they look.

Every Wednesday night, a snug and mellow little Shibuya bar hosts a night called Chestnut and Squirrel, or “kuri to risu” in Japanese. The air is filled with the smell of what organizers call “dyke food,” the sounds of ice clinking in so-called “dyke drinks” and the chatter of over a dozen international women.

They may all be there for one common reason, but not one looks much like another.

Within the lesbian “community” are several pocket communities divided by members such as political activists, party girls who are into cruising the bar scene, career women or lesbians with children.

“Sometimes people think that just because two people are lesbians, they’re going to get along,” says American EV. “But the truth is, I’m not defined by ‘being a lesbian.’ I’m myself. Being gay is part of who I am, but it’s not all of who I am. We all have something in common, but it’s just one thing that we have in common. It’s not a hobby, like ‘I’m gay on Wednesday nights but I scuba dive on Saturdays.’ ”

Lesbians are all around. They’re our nurses, our teachers and our Saturday scuba diving buddies. They’re even our friends and our sisters. They just blend in really well, sometimes to the point of invisibility.

“Minority, minority, minority,” says Olivia Moss, who wrote her thesis for Cambridge University on Japanese lesbianism in the 1990s.

“For foreign working women in Tokyo, the minority of being foreign, within the minority of being lesbian, within the minority of being a working woman, means that it’s no surprise we’re ‘invisible’ on a large scale. Add to this the population who are able to be ‘out’ at work, and the minority chain just goes on and on and the numbers decrease with the chain.”

As Japan has yet to pass same-gender rights or antidiscrimination laws, most women don’t fully come out, thus feeding the myth that lesbians don’t exist in Japan.

“There’s a fear among both foreign and Japanese women that it wouldn’t just be taboo but there’s a risk of losing your job or of alienating yourself from the so-called straight society,” says Moss. Though Kanako Otsuji, an Osaka lawmaker, took a step forward by coming out publicly at last August’s gay pride parade in Tokyo, Japanese lesbians have long been lacking public role models.

In 1980, well-known pop singer Naomi Sagara saw her career collapse as she was banished by the public after her former partner announced she was a lesbian.

“I didn’t come out until I was 32,” says Chu, who is lovingly referred to as Momma and has been helping organize “dyke weekends” (thrice a year get-togethers in Saitama) for over 10 years, as well as hosting food and drinks at Chestnut and Squirrel for four years.

“It’s all about repression. I only knew about Naomi Sagara. She was lesbian and it was bad news. But then KD Lang was so cool. When I saw her sing at The Grammys, I thought ‘I’m lesbian!’ It was finally time for me to consider my sexuality. It must be a visible positive image for women to want to come out.”

Chu says lesbian activities hit their peak in 1994, coinciding with the American feminist movement, when leaders of groups in Japan all worked together.

She says since then it has calmed down and because groups have different agendas they have gone their own ways.

Recently Japanese lesbians have been going their own way, with an increasing number choosing the Internet, rather than public places, to meet other women.

“The Net is different from meeting in a bar. I want more. People have lives and experiences, not just parties,” says Ayano, who has been meeting Internet friends around Chiba for daytime activities like horseback riding and swan watching since September.

For some, following the personals on the Internet has compromised the strength of lesbian communities.

“Women can lead double-lives and that counteracts what the possibilities can be. It’s easy to find a relationship on the Net by speed dating, but you end up closeting yourself and it affects the structure of that minority group. So then we don’t fight for visibility because we’ve disappeared,” says Moss.

“We need to encourage a community where women can express themselves. I feel like the foreign community has a moral obligation to care, contribute and support.

“It’s time to work toward building self-awareness within our own foreign lesbian community — and find ways of breaking down any barriers between ourselves and other communities.”

But because of language barriers, the transitory nature of foreigners and the lack of same-gender spousal visas, there are different agendas for the foreign and Japanese lesbian communities.

Perhaps one of the challenges is how to respect the different agendas while at the same time building a strong political base.

Until a broader spectrum of visibility exists, public blindness remains and stigmas are continually reinforced by images of lesbianism brought to the mainstream.

“There are still many who believe in that there are virtually no lesbians in the real Japanese society,” says Maki Kimura, a staff member of the Kansai Queer Film Festival and partner of Otsuji.

“A market where feminine lesbians are objectified and consumed as objects of sexual desire by heterosexual men, say through pornography, has developed.

“There are also a great number of lesbians who marry men due to economic concerns, partly because wage differences are still large between women and men in Japan.

“Even though we describe it as a community, there is not enough sharing of information with each other. Except for personals on the Internet, it’s a big problem that there is virtually no media to link Japanese lesbians,” says Kimura.

“I want to cut off the vicious cycle of discrimination and prejudice. The more we become visible, the more a systematic change favorable for us will be fostered.”

Lesbian links

PA/F (Performance Art/Feminism): Space monthly events in Waseda include performances, fashion shows, speeches by prominent members and contributors to the Japanese lesbian community.

LOUD: Resource center and rights group for lesbian and bisexual women in Tokyo ‘s Nakano district; weekly events and information service.

The Kansai Queer Film Festival is trying its best to reach all the remote parts of Japan (currently in Aomori Prefecture) and welcomes any support for festival fundraising

Tokyo International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival

Tokyo Lesbian and Gay Parade

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