Media outlets in Japan have devoted numerous column inches to LGBTQ issues in recent years, with many reports lauding the progress that government agencies and corporate entities have made in this area.
The reality, however, is that many sexual minorities in Japan continue to face difficulties. This week, The Japan Times gives voice to personal stories of individuals who face complications with regards to issues of identity.
To protect the privacy of these individuals who would only speak to us on condition of anonymity, we’ve decided to refer to them by letters of the alphabet or a preferred pseudonym unless otherwise stated.
Coming out with a letter
“Dear Mom and Dad …
“I am writing because I have something to tell you. … It may come as a bit of a shock but I’m interested in women.”
In March, “BK” wrote a three-page letter to her parents about her sexual orientation. BK, 28, had found a partner she wanted to spend the rest of her life with and has, consequently, started to tell her parents and closest friends she is gay.
In the letter, BK told her parents that she was happy and surrounded by people who love her for who she is. She said she didn’t wish to hurt her parents in any way.
“As parents, they might want some sort of acknowledgement that they raised their child successfully and, if that’s the case, I want them to know that they achieved that,” BK says. “I’ll never marry a man and my partner and I may never have any children, but I have chosen and, likewise, I have been chosen.”
Having attended all-girls’ junior high and high schools, BK had never really felt as if she was different from others in the classroom. She always had close female friends, which was comfortable to her.
Entering a coed university, she tried to date a few men but it never worked out for one reason or another.
“I never identified myself as being either ‘lesbian’ or ‘gay,'” BK says. “I couldn’t see the point of putting labels on everything. It was only when I started to work that I felt the need to start defining who I was. I soon realized how defining a label can be.”
BK worked for a traditional Japanese company in Tokyo and heard from other co-workers that people assumed she was gay because she didn’t have a boyfriend. In addition to that, a colleague of hers was given a derogatory nickname for being “a bit feminine.”
Although BK feels her situation at work is far from safe, she still plans to come out to her colleagues at some point because she likes the company and wants to see it evolve.
“I know I’m not the only person in the company that feels this way,” BK says. “The company should respect the personality, ambition and motivation of each member of staff.”
In early April, BK’s mother reached out to her, telling her daughter that she wished to be supportive but couldn’t help break down in tears almost every single night.
Her mother believes her daughter’s true happiness lies in marriage and having children.
“I knew that it was always going to be a long and difficult road,” BK says. “I don’t wish to cause my parents any pain because I’m grateful for everything they’ve done, but I don’t want to lie about my identity. I certainly won’t give up. I plan to continue to work with them so that they can accept me for who I am.”
Living a double life
It’s a typical evening in Shinjuku Ni-chome, a district in Tokyo associated with the gay community. “CW” owns a small bar in the neighborhood, providing a quiet venue for customers to talk over soft jazz into the early hours of the morning.
CW leads a double life and next to no one outside the gay community knows about his sexual orientation, including his family and friends.
“I feel as if I’m living a lie,” CW says. “However, I don’t want to be seen as ‘the gay guy.’ I want to be seen for who I am — without any gay filters.”
Growing up in rural Japan, CW spent his puberty suppressing the interest he felt in other men. The issue was taboo in the community and he decided it was probably best to avoid confronting it as well.
CW, who is in his 40s, grew up watching “Homoo Homooda,” an offensive stereotypical gay character on television played by comedian Takaaki Ishibashi. Other public gay figures at the time were typically men flamboyantly dressed up as women and speaking in feminine tones.
“They were portrayed as abnormal and strange,” CW says. “I didn’t want to associate myself with them in any way. A man being attracted to another man was a taboo and I didn’t want to be seen as ‘abnormal.'”
CW initially tried to date women and convince himself that he was straight. In his mid-20s, however, he fell for another man.
He was introduced to Shinjuku Ni-chome and, in doing so, finally found a place where he felt free to be whoever he wanted to be.
“It was so exciting and fun, meeting people from various industries of all ages,” he says, looking back on those formative days. “And people in the community loved the fact that I came from a straight background.”
While he welcomes an increasing awareness toward LGBTQ issues, CW says the reality for most of his gay friends hasn’t changed: They can only be open about their sexual orientation in Shinjuku Ni-chome. And speaking as the owner of a bar in the neighborhood, he has mixed feelings about the fact that the area is becoming a tourist magnet.
“This is the only place where we can hold hands and kiss on the streets … but it’s almost like people come to see a freak show,” CW says. “I’m waiting for the day where it won’t even matter if we say we are straight or gay.”
CW continues to hide his sexual orientation from his family. His parents are now in their 70s and they continue to ask him about marriage and children.
However, CW believes they would be devastated to learn the truth. He has considered coming out to his younger sister, but doesn’t want to burden her with his secret.
“I’d feel terrible if my parents died while worrying about me,” CW says. “I’d love to be able to tell them not to feel sorry for me, because I’m happy in my own way.”
“Meme,” 37, is a “bisexual, FtX (female to ‘X’ gender), aromantic and nonmonoamorous person.”
Realizing that it’s hard to process this information quickly, Meme laughs and explains that such people have sex with both men and women without romantic feelings, but identify as neither male nor female. Meme also doesn’t want to be tied down in a monogamous relationship.
“I started using the term ‘X’ gender a few years ago because if I didn’t say anything, people assumed that I was a woman,” says Meme, a pseudonym used to remain anonymous. “I think the term has spread in recent times because so many people identify themselves in that regard.”
Growing up and living mostly in Miyagi Prefecture, Meme began to become aware of sexual orientation and gender identity in junior high school. As far as Meme was concerned, though, it was never really a concern.
“I’ve never understood why we needed to limit who we liked to the opposite sex. Why can’t we have fun with people of the same sex as well?” Meme says. “What’s more, I assumed that everyone felt the same way but that they just didn’t say it out loud. I still think this is the case, except that most people simply aren’t aware of it themselves.”
Meme ultimately “became fed up living in a patriarchal society in which women were victims of stalking and domestic violence and unwanted pregnancies by men unwilling to cooperate with contraceptives.”
“It wasn’t just about issues related to sexual minorities,” Meme says. “I was basically interested in issues related to gender or, rather, everything in life is pretty much related to gender.”
Meme realizes that people are now speaking out about their sexuality in order to eradicate discrimination against the LGBTQ community.
Nevertheless, Meme prefers to remain anonymous, especially given Meme’s rural environment and life as an ordinary company employee.
Unlike Shinjuku Ni-chome in Tokyo, there are few places for sexual minorities to meet up in Sendai and talk freely about their issues.
Meme began hosting sessions that gave women an opportunity to meet other women, a move that, eventually, led to collaborations with other activists.
“Whether someone comes out or not, it’s never black and white — it’s more of a gradation,” Meme says, likening the situation to the aftermath of the March 2011 disasters in which victims were urged to talk about their experiences. “There are just some things you don’t want to discuss or can’t talk about. Bringing everything out into the open is not the only solution.”
“JM” sits in a small bar in Shinjuku Ni-chome one evening after work. Sipping slowly on a glass of white wine, he starts to discuss his relatively new life as a gay man.
Now in his early 30s, JM says he was 26 when he was first picked up by a gay man at a nightclub in Tokyo.
Looking back, he feels the transition was pretty smooth.
“I guess you could say I’m a late bloomer,” JM says. “I never had much self-awareness and, to be honest, I still don’t think I know my own gender identity.”
To date, JM hasn’t told anyone outside of the gay community that he is gay. Having said that, he’s not afraid of receiving any kind of negative reaction from his friends or family.
“I’ve just never been in a situation where I’ve felt I need to come out,” JM says. “It might sound a bit strange, but why tell my parents that I like something that is a bit different from other people?”
JM works for a leading financial corporation with a progressive diversity and inclusion policy.
However, everyone at his company believes he is straight, including his openly gay colleague.
“I think it’s essentially a good system for those who need it but, from my perspective, I say, ‘Suit yourself,'” JM says. “I don’t see why I should tell my company about my own uniqueness or gender identity. It’s not like straight people disclose their private lives, so why should I?”
Contrary to the corporation’s public image, JM notes that the company is not as progressive as it makes itself out to be. In fact, he has witnessed a gay colleague being sexually harassed by a female boss and, more often than not, overhears discriminatory remarks made by his colleagues.
“Some of the people who boast about their understanding of LGTB issues are the ones involved in questionable actions,” JM says. “Coming out in such circumstances just puts a gay label on my forehead and nothing else.”
As of right now, JM says he has no intention of settling down with a lifelong partner or getting married to a woman — he is happy living on his own.
“I guess I’ve been lucky so far, because I’ve yet to encounter any problems,” he says.
Sharing the burden
“DK” went to an all-girls’ junior high and high school and it wasn’t unusual for students to be close.
DK recalls how her heart raced as she shared diary secrets with an older student, offered homemade chocolates to other students on Valentine’s Day and held hands with other girls. She received 13 chocolates on Valentine’s Day in her senior year.
It was only when DK started university that she realized she wasn’t like her friends, who all started dating men. She was attracted to women.
“It was all pretty normal at an all-girls’ school,” DK says. “However, I realized that for those who went to coed schools, fawning over girls was not the norm.”
DK, 41, says she struggled to describe herself as being “lesbian” for a long time, associating it with a form of pornography.
“The term ‘lesbian’ had a really bad image and there was no way I wanted to admit that I was one or have any association with it,” DK says. “I was terrified of lowering my own self-esteem because of the word.”
DK kept her sexual orientation to herself until her early 30s. DK always fell for straight women, and so the last thing she wanted to do was to embarrass her partner. However, it was particularly difficult for her because she had no one to discuss her love life with.
“The pain of not being able to speak the truth is more painful than the pain of being rejected,” DK says. “Looking back, I realize it was a huge burden on my heart being unable to talk about my relationships with anyone.”
To date, DK hasn’t told anyone at work about her sexual orientation. She has, however, come out to many of her friends and eventually told her parents when she was in her mid-30s.
Like other gay friends, DK says she told her mother in the worst possible way — blurting it out in a fit of anger after years of listening to her asking when she was going to get married and have children.
Her mother’s response was just as emotional.
“It’s absurd that you have a uterus but you aren’t using it,” her mom said.
“It took me years to accept who I was, so I should have known that it would also take my mother a long time,” DK says. “I pretended not to hear her for years but I was mentally exhausted.”
To this day, DK questions whether telling her parents was really the right decision.
“I think there might have actually been a way for all of us to have lived happily without having to come out,” DK says. “Once you tell them, the burden of keeping that secret — the lying that you yourself have had to go through for all of these years — falls heavily on their shoulders.”
Parents often find it difficult to accept the fact that their child is a sexual minority. They often blame themselves for their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Ryoko Kobayashi knows this only too well. Kobayashi has been a member of nonprofit organization LGBT no Kazoku to Yujin o Tsunagu Kai (Group to Connect LGBT with Family and Friends) for a decade now, offering support for families of sexual minorities.
In most cases, she says parents are distraught: Mothers typically blame themselves and fathers are unable to accept the revelation.
“By blaming the parents, everyone is satisfied,” Kobayashi says. “That’s how everyone accepts the situation and the problem is somehow solved. It’s absurd but the truth is that many parents react like that.”
The organization was founded in Kobe in 2006 by the mother of lawmaker Kanako Otsuji, who herself has since come out as gay.
With offices now in Kobe, Tokyo, Fukuoka and Nagoya, the group periodically holds open meetings where they discuss issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity in order to promote understanding of the issues among family and friends.
“Parents often fall into the trap of trying to live their children’s lives,” Kobayashi says. “Ultimately, we want to help parents realize that their lives and their children’s lives exist independently. … You don’t decide whether your child is happy or not, it’s up to your child to determine that.”
Kobayashi’s child came out to her as a transgender male at 22 completely out of the blue.
“He told me he wanted to quit being a woman,” Kobayashi says.
Kobayashi immediately understood that her child’s gender identity had nothing to do with how she had raised him.
“I knew it wasn’t my fault,” she says. “I don’t know if I can say with confidence that I followed all of the so-called rules on child-rearing but I do know one thing — I gave my children a lot of love and affection.”
In order for her son to transition to match his identity in accordance with a 2003 “gender identity disorder” law, he had to undergo surgery to have his breasts and reproductive organs removed.
Kobayashi’s son had two separate surgeries when he was 28. A few months later, he was officially recognized as being male. On that same day, her son and his partner submitted their marriage certificate to their local ward office.
Kobayashi’s son is now 37 and is happily married to his wife.
“I’m so grateful to my son for teaching me about a world I knew nothing about,” Kobayashi says. “My life is full of joy everyday.”
This is the second installment of a two-part series on LGBTQ issues. To read the first installment, visit bit.ly/embracing-progress.