Non-Japanese members of the nation’s LGBT community tend to feel less discrimination in expressing themselves freely than their Japanese counterparts, although many complain of a lack of support, problems dating, and difficulties in obtaining a spouse visa.
Whereas Human Rights Watch recently highlighted the problem of bullying of Japanese LGBT students in schools, non-Japanese gay people have an easier time. In particular, this is because the threat of violence is almost nonexistent.
“I’ve had a mostly positive response from my co-workers about transgender issues,” a 33-year-old transgender woman from the United States said by email. She is currently teaching in Japan.
“However, only some co-workers know that I identify as lesbian, and sometimes it’s a little awkward. I did face issues with one co-worker early on, but in general the co-worker was difficult toward other people, too,” she said.
She identified problems in a lack of LGBT resources such as meeting places, events outside large cities and doctors with experience of transgender medical care.
She opts to live in Japan, if only because compared with her native North Carolina, vocalized discrimination or bullying of sexual minorities is not an issue. North Carolina recently passed a law that bans transgender people from using public restrooms for the sex they identify with.
She said she has no worries when using restrooms in Japan.
The common assumption among Japanese that most everyone is straight can cause a sense of alienation. For example, self-introductions in Japanese often include “uncomfortable” questions such as “Do you have a girlfriend?” said Louis Williams, president of Stonewall Japan, an LGBT support community.
“In Japan you would not think that your next-door neighbor, your fellow in the office is gay or transgender . . . LGBT don’t really exist in the day-to-day conversation of a Japanese person,” said Varun Khanna, vice president of Stonewall Japan and a scholar at Osaka University.
Anxiety about being a double minority — foreign and LGBT — can also be an issue.
“I can’t speak fluent Japanese, I don’t look like Japanese, also I’m a gay man,” said Williams, a teacher from England. “That’s an anxiety that some people in the community feel. (It) is the way you are different that adds on the anxiety.”
Khanna, however, said being a foreign national makes it easier to be what you want to be, since there is no societal pressure regarding sexual identity of the kind he would likely face at home.
The recent progress of some Tokyo wards in issuing certificates recognizing LGBT couples is still considered “symbolic,” since it has no effect on the country’s immigration policy.
Foreign and Japanese LGBT people working in Japan cannot invite their partners on a spouse visa as the country has not legalized same-sex marriage. “But a partner can be provided with a designated-activities visa if the couple have been married elsewhere, which in reality limits them from having the benefits of a normal spouse visa,” said Masafumi Imagawa, vice president of same-sex marriage lobby group Equal Marriage Alliance Japan.
If a non-Japanese LGBT person, with a Japanese partner, is staying in Japan on a working visa and falls ill, the person would be unable to marry the Japanese partner and thus may have to leave Japan, he said.
“In a way it is a loss for Japan because Japan is rejecting a lot of global talent that it needs right now, because LGBT people who are bright and successful abroad might not want to come here,” said Khanna.
Changing gender for a member of the foreign LGBT community is a protracted process that must start in his or her home country.
A change of gender, marker or name must be recorded in a person’s passport, Williams said, adding that this is “troublesome,” given the volume of paperwork and questions that ensue.
A government committee has been formed to tackle issues facing the LGBT community ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But gay visitors during the games could still face problems, such as love hotels that prohibit their entry or capsule hotels that ban transgender people.
While the rather larger number of gender-segregated LGBT clubs and bars can be a problem for people wanting to hang out in groups, the availability of “alternative” spaces that allow all such genders to mingle is a plus, Khanna said.
Brenden Van Stolk, coordinator of the Partner Outreach and Development Division of Tokyo Rainbow Pride, said he faces no difficulty being gay in Japan.
He believes he is better off than many of his Japanese friends in their 40s and 50s who probably will never be able to come out at work or to their friends. But the situation is changing, he said.
“You are seeing the emergence of a Japan that is trying to celebrate diversity,” he said, adding that change should be “recognized and appreciated.”
The fact that some Japan-based firms sponsored the Tokyo Rainbow Pride 2016 on May 7 and 8 shows the climate is undergoing a shift, he said.
The event attracted 70,500 people, and 4,500 of them marched in the parade. The American, British and Irish ambassadors gave short speeches.
“In the United States, as in Japan, around the world, too many LGBT students are bullied, LGBT adults face discrimination, and LGBT teenagers commit suicide in heartbreaking numbers,” said U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy.
“Today we commit ourselves to fight intolerance and reach those who are suffering.”
Khanna commented: “We have many criticisms for Japan, but Japan still tends to be one of the most sexually liberated countries in the world, and certainly is the most accepting country in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.”