National / Social Issues

Tokyo craft store meets demand for LGBT rainbow goods hard to find in Japan

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

At first glance, Nijiiro Komachi (Rainbow Beauty) looks like any craft shop, with colorful handmade earrings, necklaces, illustrated postcards and metal badges adorning the shelves and walls. The store in Tokyo’s Kichijoji district, however, has a unique mission: to support sexual minorities in Japan.

Haruka Imatoku, 20, opened it in March, hoping to raise awareness of issues pertaining to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people from the perspective of a heterosexual. She considers herself straight.

While a few municipal governments have recently moved to give official recognition to same-sex partners, and despite a recent survey by advertising giant Dentsu Inc. which found that 7.6 percent of 70,000 people polled consider themselves part of the LGBT community, prejudice and discrimination against sexual minorities abounds.

Imatoku said she wants to promote awareness of their ranks in a casual setting.

“I created this store to give people who are not part of the LGBT community a chance to know about it,” Imatoku said.

The Aichi Prefecture native said she knew nothing about the community until a few years ago, when she came across a certain individual on Twitter.

“The Twitter user, born female, described herself as an ‘X-gender pansexual polygamist with three or four lovers,’ ” Imatoku said. “LGBT was a foreign concept to me at that time, but I became curious.”

Imatoku moved to Tokyo in January 2014, where she initially aspired to become a fashion stylist. She made friends with more LGBT people, and started to feel she wanted to support them somehow.

While attending last year’s Tokyo Rainbow Pride, Japan’s largest LGBT festival and parade, she heard from a friend that LGBT goods — characterized by six-color rainbow designs — are hard to find except at the Pride. So she started making some by hand, using beads.

Goods inspired by the rainbow flag, the emblem of the LGBT movement, are not commonly available in Japan, where rainbows are traditionally illustrated with seven colors. The additional one is indigo blue.

Imatoku soon came to realize the advantage of enlisting artists and handmade goods creators to make items instead of doing it all herself.

She emailed hundreds of creators whose work she admires and asked them to create original works for her.

The creators receive the sales revenues, although Imatoku levies a commission of 20 to 40 percent on every item sold.

Of the 70 or so artists whose works are on sale at the store, only three or four are members of the LGBT community, Imatoku said.

She asks the artists to feature six colors “if possible,” but is not strict on this, focusing instead on showcasing mostly semi-amateur artists whose work she admires and believes deserves promotion.

While a section of the store is dedicated to rainbow goods, and a poster on the wall explains the various LGBT terms, many other items have little or no link to the LGBT community.

Imatoku said this was done on purpose, to give non-LGBT people with no interest in or knowledge about sexual minorities a reason to visit the store.

Also, some of the LGBT-related items use pale or pastel colors rather than vivid hues, as some people who have not come out of the closet prefer to wear earrings or necklaces with nuanced colors, she said.

Imatoku opened shop about a 15-minute walk from the bustling Kichijoji Station. Kichijoji is a suburban neighborhood with an artistic and somewhat countercultural reputation, and she chose the location because she believes existing stores are not easy for people to visit discreetly.

“I wanted to set up my store at a location a bit away from Shinjuku or Shibuya, where most LGBT businesses are clustered. Also, I wanted the store not to be near the station, because some customers might want to visit without being noticed by others.”

She used her savings and financial support from her parents to rent a 20-sq.-meter space, and supports herself through holding down an early-morning cleaning stint at the nearby Parco department store.

Six months since its opening, Nijiiro Komachi has evolved into a hub of exchange and support for LGBT-related issues.

On Sunday, Imatoku organized a meeting of people who consider themselves asexual and nonsexual — minorities who feel themselves to be outside the LGBT concept.

In November, she plans to hold another casual gathering at a cat cafe in Kichijoji.

“Most of the LGBT events have been either stiff, serious lectures about the issue, or aimed at finding dates, typically held in clubs in 2-chome,” she said, citing the nickname of a Shinjuku neighborhood known for its many gay establishments.

“I’d like to offer opportunities for young people to casually mingle and to learn more about the community in a relaxing atmosphere.”