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FOCUS June 2008 Volume 52

Japan and Sexual Minorities

Sam Shoushi*

*Mr. Sam Shoushi is an incoming senior in Middlebury College (USA) and 2008 summer intern in HURIGHTS OSAKA.

Hikage(meaning shadow) is one of the words used in describing the situation of sexual minorities[1] in Japan. Compared to other countries, Japan is more accepting of its sexual minorities. Nevertheless, they face many issues that remain in the hikage, largely ignored by the mainstream society and even by the sexual minorities themselves.

Sexual minorities in Japan

A Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) community exists, and continues to grow, in Japan. "Gay Areas" are found in various parts of the country with Shinjuku ni-chome in Tokyo, and Doyama in Osaka as the most well known. "Gay Groups" such as the Japan Association for the Lesbian and Gay Movement (popularly known as Occur) and MASH (Men And Sexual Health), an HIV information center with a community space called dista, exist along with other groups that support sexual minorities. Members of the sexual minorities and other individuals who do not necessarily belong to the community support Pride Parades, Film Festivals and other events held every now and then.

Interviews with members of the community and people who visit the areas and join the events reveal the absence of serious issues facing sexual minorities in Japan.[2] Several people who were interviewed said that they were more or less satisfied with their lives at the moment and that there were "no major difficulties in being gay in Japan."

Japanese culture and the major religions in Japan do not have a history of hostility towards LGBT people. Japan is not usually described as "homophobic" (or anti-gay/homosexual).[3] "Pre-modern" Japan (till mid-19th century) has a history of tolerance towards same-sex sexual conduct and relationships (mainly between males).[4]

The political and social reform of the Meiji period (1868-1912) started the prejudice and discrimination against LGBT people. Thoughts and structures introduced, encouraged, and standardized through modernization made the male-female (heterosexual) model for families and relationships a norm in Japanese society.[5]

Origin of LGBT Discrimination in Japan

Futsuu in Japanese means normal. And a futsuu lifestyle usually means that one settles down by getting married and having children. In general, sexual minorities do not (and often cannot) follow this lifestyle; they often do not have heterosexual relationships, they are not privileged with the right to marry their same-sex partner, and most couples do not have children. Not belonging to the futsuu (normal) lifestyle makes one futsuujyanai (abnormal) - a word usually used by the mainstream Japanese society to describe sexual minorities. Other expressions such as okama (literally means pot, but used as derogative word for male homosexuals), kimochiwa rui (uncomfortable/disgusting), and seidouitsuseishougai (an official medical and legal term for Gender Identity Disorder but considered controversial when used in some situations, particularly when generalizing all LGBT members) are also used in society when referring to sexual minorities.[6]

Some LGBT people choose to live the "normal" lifestyle but eventually find themselves living two "lifestyles" at the same time. Actually, it is said that a lot of LGBT people in Japan are "heterosexually" married but secretly, some openly, go to "Gay Areas" or have same-sex partners outside their marriage. This rigid social system creates a problem because it can force people to live double lifestyles; the normal lifestyle expected by society, and the homosexual one, usually kept discreet in the hikage to avoid discrimination from society.

The Japanese government notes the problem posed by the concept of futsuu when it states that Since homosexual and bisexual people are of a minority there is a tendency for them not to be considered normal and they may even be forced out of their workplaces. Although discrimination based on such sexual preferences is acknowledged as unjust these days, prejudice and discrimination have still been taking place, and, therefore, it is necessary to carry out human rights promotion activities to protect the rights of homosexuals and bisexuals.[7]

Discrimination against LGBT People

A person identified as abnormal in society is usually discriminated against. The portrayal of LGBT people in Japan as abnormal is perpetuated through the ignorant and derogatory comments used in the mainstream Japanese society and reinforced by the mainstream Japanese media. Different Japanese television programs and shows present, or rather misrepresent, sexual minorities. Most of these representations are limited to cross-dressers who are shown for the irony and the laughs. Although efforts to diversify LGBT representation in the Japanese media exist, many of the characters being showcased still misrepresent and offend many members of the sexual minorities community.[8]

Discrimination at school and work are also present in Japan. Although people interviewed for this article are not the main victims of such discrimination, there are anecdotes of LGBT people being bullied at school or experiencing tension at work. Moreover, many LGBT people, including the ones interviewed, are not "out" at their school or workplace; some are afraid of discrimination, and others are simply unwilling to bring aspects of their personal lives to such environments. This decision to "stay inside the closet" or decide not to reveal sexual identity reflects the common experience among minorities in Japan who have the possibility of "passing off" as "mainstream Japanese", such as the Korean residents and members of Buraku communities, in order to live as members of the majority.

Accommodation is another issue for sexual minorities in Japan. Although there are no discriminatory policies toward LGBT people seeking accommodation, individual landlords might discriminate against them. A famous example is the Fuchuu Youth Hostel case in 1997. The Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education, which manages the hostel, argued that it was against their policy to allow LGBT groups to use the facility. Occur, the gay and lesbian group, sued the Board and won the case.[9] Since then, this example has been used to signify change in discriminatory attitude towards LGBT people seeking accommodation. But this changed attitude has yet to spread in the different parts of the Japanese society.

Inheritance is another issue mainly concerning same- sex couples. Since same-sex marriages are not permitted in Japan, homosexual couples are deprived of legal rights and protection provided to their heterosexual counterparts. Some members of the LGBT community have dealt with this issue through the adult adoption system that permits an older person to adopt a younger one who is over twenty years old. Although this method grants inheritance rights to the couples, this option nevertheless implies a form of discrimination against sexual minorities in Japanese society.

Issues inside the LGBT community

Several issues arise from within the LGBT community itself. This occurs when people attempt to define the community. Who represents the sexual minority community and who does not? What are the community's rights and obligations? What should or shouldn't it be active in, etc. In between asking the questions and answering them, voices of some groups and individuals are lost. Another hikage veils people within the sexual minority in Japan who are ignored and marginalized in their own community.

Those who express satisfaction in living their life as LGBT have the means to do so. Socially, they are able to break through the heterosexual social structure and enjoy their life as LGBT. They have access to places where most of the members of the community gather and hold their activities. They also have the financial means to meet the groups, participate in the events and activities, and obtain relevant information. This situation does not cover those who have less economic means and social connections to enjoy life as LGBT, and whose plight is ignored whenever the more visible members of the community express the view that there are no difficulties in being gay in Japan.

Most of the gay-oriented areas, groups, and activities in Japan cater to the male members of the community. This situation marginalizes the women members of the community, especially since they are generally economically disadvantaged compared to their male counterparts. Worse, while men's groups often receive funding from the government for HIV research and sexual health services, women sexual minorities are disqualified from receiving such subsidies and financial aid because they are not considered the main victims in this matter.[10]

Bisexuals and Transgenders constitute other groups that are ignored in the discussions about sexual minorities. While the growing gay rights movement in Japan has been a driving force in promoting sexual minority rights and awareness, it is often criticized forexcluding bisexuals and transgenders. The "Tokyo Lesbian and Gay Parade" title was criticized for ignoring sexual minorities who are neither lesbian nor gay. Thus it was changed in 2007 to "Tokyo Pride Parade.[11] The use of binary categories also excludes those who do not belong to any of the categories. Thus the change of the "male or female" category into "homosexual or heterosexual," "gay or lesbian" marginalizes and ignores sexual minorities who do not belong to these categories.

The activists for sexual minority rights are a minority inside the minority. Not all LGBT people fully appreciate the efforts of the activists. In fact, most of the objections to sexual minority rights activism come from within the LGBT community. This happened when members of the sexual minority community objected to holding the Kansai Rainbow Parade in Osaka.[12] Many consider LGBT activism, which presents the community and its issues to the public, as aggressive and unappealing. Moreover, many in the community, especially people who feel comfortable with being a sexual minority in Japan, believe that the efforts of activists are not only unnecessary, but also harmful, causing more discrimination against, and segregation of, the community.

LGBT issues as national concern

Legal provisions on non-discrimination (from the Constitution, to national laws and local ordinances) in Japan do not yet explicitly cover sexual orientation issues. On the other hand, the court (at least in one case) [13] and the government, on the other hand, recognize the right against discrimination of people with a certain sexual orientation.[14]

Measures of the Japanese government regarding education against discrimination (which include education on sexual minority issues[15]) have hardly been seriously implemented. And the conservative perspective within the Japanese educational system prevents discussion of the rights of sexual minorities.[16]

Moreover, there are several issues such as sexism, heterosexism, and the gender binary system that have rarely been dealt with by the government. These issues affect not only sexual minorities, but also people (especially women) who live "alternative" lifestyles (such as opting to live together without getting married or opting not to have children). The issues faced by the LGBT people in Japan should not only concern members of the sexual minority and those who have "alternative lifestyles," but of the Japanese society as a whole.

For further information, please contact HURIGHTS OSAKA


1. In this article, 'sexual minorities' encompass Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) people.

2. On 25 March 2008, the author interviewed sixteen people, eight of whom consider themselves as members of the LGBT community.

3. Interview with Hibino Makoto, one of the organizers of the Kansai Queer Film Festival (website:

4. Dean Poland, "The Beautiful Way" in Kansai Time Out, February 2008, Osaka.

5. Ibid. Gay studies use the word "heteronormative" to describe a society which upholds the belief that there are only two sexes - male and female, and that a certain set of behaviors and expectations follow from one's sex. See Derek Leschas, Heteronormativity, in

6. Refer to note 2.

7. See Ministry of Justice, Human Rights Bureau in

8. Mark McLelland, "Male Homosexuality and Popular Culture in Modern Japan", Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian ContextIssue 12, January 2006.

9. Interview with Shingo Iizuka, Occur staff member. (

10. Mark McLelland, Queer Japan from the Pacific War to the Internet Age, Rowman& Littlefield Publishers, New York, 2005.

11. See

12. Interview with Akeyoshi, one of the organizers of the Kansai Ranbow Parade (

13. See Hiroyuki Tanaguchi, "The Legal Situation Facing Sexual Minorities in Japan", Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context Issue 12, January 2006 in

14. See note 7. Japan's White Paper for Human Rights Education and Awareness Raising(2007) mentions educational measures regarding sexuality and sexual minority.

15. See the 2002 Basic Plan for Human Rights Education and Awareness Raising of the Japanese government, and reported by the Ministry of Justice in its annual white paper on human rights education (note 14).

16. Interview with Kagida Izumi ("Bubu"), a staff member of dista community space (