'Korega watashitachi no puraido' [This is our pride]: message board held by female queers, The Tokyo Lesbian & Gay Parade 2005.
Sexual Minorities in Japan:
A Revival of the
Tokyo Lesbian & Gay Parade in 2005

Katsuhiko Suganuma

  1. On the afternoon of Saturday 13 August 2005, a unique crowd of approximately 2500 people took to the streets of Tokyo. The Tokyo Lesbian & Gay Parade had returned to the city after two years' absence. As the hot sun shone down on the participants, some were dancing to music subversively dressed up in drag while others held political message-boards in their hands. All sorts of sexual minorities and those who support them marched together through the main street of downtown Harajuku Ward. Although different performances and agendas were being expressed by each individual participant, at the same time there was also a sense of commonality in the stream of the crowd—everyone looked extremely energised and cheerful while marching.
  2. It took about two hours for the entire parade to get back to Yoyogi Park where it started. After the entire daytime parade event had ended, the sky in Harajuku started to fill with dark clouds which quickly turned into a shower. It was almost as if my mind, overexcited by the lively events that had taken place on the street not so long ago, was precipitated into a state of calm by the shower, and I started to wonder how I could make sense of Japan's contemporary queer[1] culture and politics by observing the 2005 Tokyo Lesbian & Gay Parade.
  3. The history of the Lesbian & Gay parade in Tokyo can be traced back to 1994 when Minami Teishirō, the head of JILGA [The Japanese branch of the International Lesbian and Gay Association], organised the first parade in the capital city. The very first parade drew more than 1000 participants according to the organisers' public announcement and it continued to be held annually till the late 90s.[2] Yet, Minami's emphasis on adopting a political stance in the parade discouraged people from expressing more festive elements and met with dissent from the community, and the parade lost its centripetal force. Towards the end of the 90s, the decade when Japanese society was at the peak of what is known as the gei būmu[3] [gay boom], the city of Tokyo saw a decrease in collective interest in a parade for sexual minorities. Yet it needs to be recognised that, although on a relatively small scale, a Dyke March was held in Tokyo in 1997, and a Rainbow March in Sapporo in northern Japan started in 1996 and has continued to be held annually to the present (except in 2000).[4]
  4. In response to demands voiced by various communities of sexual minorities in the city, a revived Tokyo Lesbian & Gay Parade was held in 2000 under a new organiser, Sunagawa Hideki,[5] and it attracted the largest number of participants ever in its history. Instead of setting a specific agenda for the parade, Sunagawa tried to create a supportive environment for its diverse participants and make it a celebratory rather than a solemn affair. This strategy proved very popular with Japan's diverse queer communities. The parade was keen to collaborate with the newly planned Tokyo Reinbō Matsuri [Tokyo Rainbow Fest], which took place in the evening after the parade in the largest gay area in Japan, Shinjuku Ni-chōme. This collaboration was successful in creating a linkage between the political wing of the LGBT rights movement and the centre of gay and lesbian culture in Ni-chōme (which has sometimes been perceived as simply a locus for exploration of sexual desire and the sex industry). Encouraged by the success of Sunagawa's parade in 2000, further parades were also held in 2001 and 2002 under the organisers Fukushima Mitsuo and Sekine Shinichi respectively.
  5. Despite the success of the following two years' parades in Tokyo, the city again saw the absence of a celebratory march for sexual minorities from the year 2003 to 2004. It was said that the cancellation of the parades was largely due to logistical problems within the organisational committees, not the kind of ideological disputes that caused Minami's parade to fall apart. When I first heard that the Lesbian & Gay parade in Tokyo would come back again in 2005, I felt a joyous excitement and developed a keen interest in finding out what the parade for sexual minorities could tell us about contemporary sexuality politics and cultures in Japan.[6]
  6. On the morning of 13 August 2005 I woke up feeling anxious about the weather which had been forecast as rainy over the weekend in the Tokyo area. I quickly checked the official website of the parade,[7] and was both relieved and delighted to read the comments newly updated by this year's organiser, Okabe Yoshihiro, announcing that the parade would go ahead as scheduled. Barely containing my excitement, I took a subway train to Harajuku station which is located a few minutes away from Yoyogi Park where the Parade-related events would take place. Noticing that many on the street moving toward the park were wearing their drag costumes and badges with rainbow logos on, I reached the site right before the first symposium on HIV started. Betraying the weather forecast, the entire park was heating up with the high humidity of a summer's day in Tokyo. The crowd, probably still less than 1000, was scattered around the central stage for the symposium and around some booths set up by commercial publishers and other groups that have interest in sexual minorities.
  7. By the time the second symposium was taking place on the stage, the park's crowd had easily doubled from the morning's numbers and was excitedly awaiting the parade to start. At this parade event in 2005, there were two main symposiums. The first one was on current problematic issues concerning HIV in Japan, especially among gay and bisexual men. In the session, the empirical fact that there has been a consistent rise in the HIV infection rate among men who engage in same-sex sexual activities was critically addressed along with other related issues such as implementation of counselling for HIV-positive people and HIV-phobia among the gay community. Fushimi Noriaki, who has been a central gay critic and writer from the early 90s' gay boom to the present, made a cutting-edge comment by arguing that it is necessary for the Japanese gay community to address this critical internal health problem while simultaneously fighting the wider public's and the government's attempts to demonise the gay community as the cause of the epidemic.
  8. The second symposium was titled 'Our Aging: aging outside the marriage system' which discussed various hardships that lesbian and gay couples face-as well as strategies that they have developed-when living in partnerships not sanctioned by Japan's legal system. In both symposiums, high profile queer writers, scholars, and activists who had played a major role in mobilising the early 90s' gay boom appeared on the stage as panellists. The majority of these were in their late 30s, 40s, and early 50s. Glancing at the audience, a similar generational makeup could be seen. Considering that a certain level of financial security and social status is required for a person to come out as a member of a sexual minority in public, it is understandable that relatively few participants in their early to mid 20s could be seen in the crowd. Yet I wondered whether the younger generation of Japanese queers, especially in the metropolitan areas, are actually keeping up with, or more precisely finding such politics necessary in their lives?
  9. As 'aging', the theme of the second symposium signifies, such critical issues within queer communities are being formulated by older people who are facing up to the realities of their situation and are not being pioneered by the young. In the midst of a radical shift in gender relations and the breakdown in group solidarity due to the stress on consumerism and individualism in contemporary Japanese society, maybe for younger queers, sexual identity as such is not such a pressing concern as it was for others coming out in the 1980s and 90s? Nowadays sexual desires are easily satisfied through occasional encounters via the Internet, and the long sustained heteronormative ideal of the sararīman's[8] lifestyle is now conceived by many as a burden. Under such changing social conditions, younger queers might be facing less pressure to claim a non-normative sexual identity in order to counter heteronormative ideologies which are no longer as entrenched as they used to be.
  10. While I was anxiously wondering about generational matters, the centre stage started to fill with representatives from each float of the parade who humorously promoted their own concept, each introduced by the organiser Okabe. There were twelve different floats in total, and each one had its own unique agenda and theme. Some were sponsored by queer-oriented commercial publishers and groups, and others were sponsored by the organisers themselves. Some of the organisers' floats were themed to illustrate the diversity of the parade with regard to gender. For example one float was titled 'female float' to encourage lesbians and those who support them to march together and send a political message about asymmetrical gender relations within the queer community itself. At the same time there was a counterpart float called DC Marine Party that was sponsored by one of the biggest women-only club events, DIAMOND CUTTER, on which go-go girls performed a fabulous dance routine to club music.
  11. About a week before the parade, I was kindly allowed to participate in a meeting for first-time volunteers for the event. At the meeting, the organiser Okabe was explaining several ethical issues and policies relating to the parade to the attendees. Among these, he mentioned that although the title of the parade was the Tokyo Lesbian & Gay Parade, as the official theme of '"Minna" de, parēdo!' [Parade by 'everyone'] indicates, the fundamental purpose was to create an event in which diverse groups of people could join together in a manner which they found most comfortable. Having heard such statements, it was encouraging to observe that this diversity was reflected in the actual event, although obviously, further steps toward inclusivity still need to be taken in the future.
  12. At the scenes of western pride parades, especially the one in New York City, it is common to see many different floats organised according to different groups of race, ethnicity and national origin. Despite the problems involved in the representation of queers of colour and diverse ethnic backgrounds in relation to hegemonic WASP [white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant] queerness, the very fact that these groups are acknowledged is a sign of their visibility. If I were to critically think about the turnout for the Tokyo 2005 parade, it would be good to see more diversity in terms of ethnicity, race and national origin in the crowd at future events as the city of Tokyo is by no means the capital of an 'ethnically homogenous' Japan anymore (nor has it ever been).
  13. The numbers in the crowd in Yoyogi Park reached a peak around 2 pm, less than an hour before the parade was to burst onto the streets. At the centre stage, final send-off messages were given by two publicly-out politicians. One was Kawakami Aya, who became the first member of a ward assembly to come out about her gender identity disorder [GID] in Japan in May 2003.[9] Now she has officially changed her gender to female in her family register, a change made possible after a special law for people with GID allowing them to change their birth gender in family records (under certain circumstances) became effective in 2004. Another was Otsuji Kanako who was elected as a member of the prefectural assembly in Osaka about two years ago, and publicly announced her sexual orientation as lesbian on the very day of the Tokyo parade 2005.[10] Simultaneously, she released her autobiography[11] to the public in order to address several issues surrounding the situation facing sexual minorities in Japan.
  14. Owing to the courageous efforts of a few publicly-out politicians and many non-governmental organisations, the legal situation for sexual minorities has gradually improved in the sectors of local government. Yet there has been very little discussion in the national Diet about the situation facing lesbians and gay men. Despite steps toward the legalisation of same-sex marriage in many western countries in recent years, this issue has yet to be raised in a political context in Japan.[12] From a simplistic Euro-American perspective, this lack of a political movement for legalisation of same-sex marriage or anti-discrimination laws in contemporary Japan might comfortably resonate with the society's preconceived 'homophobic' response towards queer individuals. Yet, at the same time, it is possible to look at the situation from a different point of view by arguing that the social stigma against and devaluation of queer individuals are not sufficiently pronounced to force individuals to develop this kind of counter-politics. This issue is hard to resolve and needs to be complicated further by considering different groups within Japanese queer communities in terms of age, region, national origin, ethnicity, race, physical ability, and gender. In this sense, although it might sound too abstract, I did think that the theme of '"Minna" de, parēdo!' [Parade by 'everyone'] for this Tokyo Lesbian & Gay Parade was extremely well considered.
  15. Roughly about 2500 registered marchers finally started to move with vibrant energy behind the floats and onto the streets around 3 pm. The leading float was guided by the organisers and the two politicians, Kawakami and Otsuji, holding a large plastic banner with the parade's title. Quite a few media crews were taking photos and videotaping. Compared to usual weekends, the streets of Harajuku were relatively less crowded due to the Obon break in which traditionally most people in Japan go back to their own home towns to get together with their families to grieve for the souls of their dead family members. Yet there were still many people who were shopping or walking around on the sidewalks and who halted in wonder at this unaccustomed sight.

    Figure 2. The top float led by the organisers in The Tokyo Lesbian & Gay Parade 2005

  16. After the organiser's top float passed by, all the festive floats with many drag queens, go-go boys and girls dancing to loud music followed by. Some passers-by seemed totally taken aback. Others started smiling at the marchers acknowledging the nature of the event, and even taking photos of them using the digital cameras that were built in their cell phones. Of course, the glances thrown by the pedestrians were not always positive ones. Some people were giggling with each other and looking at the people in the parade not necessarily in a supportive manner but rather with a sense of disrespect and ridicule. However, there were hardly any abusive words thrown at them, or counterattacks by some conservative religious groups as occasionally happens at pride parades in other countries. I was certain that many of the pedestrians were gathering around the parade with a voyeuristic curiosity, yet even if so, the event was achieving one of its main agendas—reaching out to the wider community for the purpose of creating social integration.

    Figure 3. Gay magazine Badi float on the road in The Tokyo Lesbian & Gay Parade 2005

  17. However the issue of the ways in which queer communities integrate with society is a crucial point to be addressed. It is doubtless a fact that Japanese society has maintained a rich culture of homoeroticism in both the historical and contemporary contexts. Yet, as the current state of the queer communities illustrates, it must be said that the communities, especially the gay community, tend to be relatively self-contained entities in terms of their economic and cultural organisation instead of integrating with others outside of the Ni-chōme sphere in Tokyo or the virtual communities created through the Internet. Given the power relations among different social groups within a capitalist society, it could be regarded as a positive step for the Japanese gay community to gain a strong economic basis in order to counter the heteronormative economic system. However, it is essential for the leading gay community in Tokyo to be critically aware of their economically-based identity as a strategic process. Otherwise, in the same conceptual vein as Audre Lorde subversively asserts in her essay, 'The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House',[13] it can be expected that the further commoditisation of gay identity will only further the social distance between the community and society, and perpetuate gender divides within the communities.
  18. In the leaflets distributed at the event site, there was an entire list of the sponsors for this year's parade. It shows that the budget of this parade was disproportionately reliant on funds from Tokyo-based queer-orientated commercial bars, publishers, and other non-profit organisations, and rarely from governmental sources. Needless to say, the majority of these sources were ones supporting gay men's interests. It will be interesting to see if this aspect of the event will change over time as there is a growing trend towards lesbian businesses. For instance, the Japanese lesbian erotic magazine Carmilla[14] (see this edition of Intersections for an interview with Carmilla's editor Inoue Meimy) is subversively creating a space for lesbians to explore their erotic desire. The future outcome of this ongoing challenge by Carmilla might also be an interesting site that can tell us more about queer politics in Japan in the coming years.
  19. Two hours after the departure, the entire parade finally marched back to Yoyogi Park without creating any major disturbance to the public transportation of Harajuku. The crowd behind the final float which was created for people who did not wish their photos to be taken, was welcomed with warm cheers by the organisers and other participants at the entrance of the park. Faces full of satisfaction and joy were evident all over the park and the site was once more filled with vigour. Drag queens, with their makeup grotesquely runny, looked even better. The numberless crowd began to face toward the centre stage again when the organiser Okabe started his final speech to congratulate every single participant of the day. More than 300 volunteer workers were sincerely thanked by Okabe who invited all of them up on the stage. The president of TOKYO Pride, Sunagawa, announced that the next year's parade would also be held under the direction of Okabe, and this news was cheered by the crowd. When the closing remarks by Okabe ended, people started to make their own way home very slowly as if they wanted to enjoy the exciting atmosphere a little longer while all the volunteers immediately got to work on cleaning up the site. Some people gave the volunteers a hand while others walked toward Harajuku station either to get ready for the ongoing all-weekend queer festivals in Ni-chōme and other venues in Tokyo, or to shift back into their ordinary lives. The long-awaited rain finally hit Harajuku not long after the parade ended as if the weather also had wanted to enjoy the festival of sexual minorities in Tokyo.

    Figure 4. Closing ceremony: the organizers and volunteer workers congratulating everyone for the success of the event at Yoyogi Park after The Tokyo Lesbian & Gay Parade 2005

  20. Next morning, perhaps not surprisingly, none of the major newspapers I checked had reported on the parade at all. Although I saw quite a few media crews at the site of the parade, it was probably the case that most of them were queer related media after all. Probably the comeback of the Tokyo Lesbian & Gay Parade in 2005 had not provided a sufficiently controversial or interesting topic for instant attention from the major newspapers.[15] In any case, this highlights another issue relating to Japanese queer communities and the mainstream media in general. The representation of 'gay' men in the Japanese media has been a site for controversy since the media images are overwhelmingly of feminine men portraying camp caricatures and it has been questioned whether this kind of visibility is positive for the community as a whole. It is true that there are some highly valued and respected homosexual celebrities in contemporary Japanese media, but there has been a consistent trend that those figures tend only to be male-to-female transgenders, such as Miwa Akihiko, Pītā [Peter], and Karūseru [Carousel] Maki. On the other hand, other types of gay men, such as more gender-normative masculine-identified gays, are hardly ever represented. It can be argued that Japanese queer communities are only ever partially and selectively represented in the mainstream media to satisfy the public 'gaze'. In this regard, it would have been beneficial if the parade had gained wider media exposure so as to underline the diversity of Japan's queer communities.
  21. Yet it should be noted that the power of the mainstream media to influence public opinion is diminishing as new media technologies make it possible for more diverse representations to be broadcast to a wider public. For instance, as far as Japan's queer communities are concerned, the number of alternative queer related news and other media available via the Internet is growing exponentially. It is probably via these alternative media outlets that events like the parade will gain an audience.
  22. In the summer of 2005, through participating in the revived Tokyo Lesbian & Gay Parade, I was led to think creatively about various aspects of Japanese queer culture and politics. As mentioned, the diversity of queer cultures in contemporary Japanese society cannot be reduced to those based only within Tokyo. As the fact that the Sapporo mayor has visited the Rainbow March several times in recent years illustrates, Tokyo does not have a monopoly on creative queer activism. Yet the queer cultures and politics manifested in Tokyo have been, and still are important factors influencing contemporary Japanese sexuality politics as a whole. As I experienced myself, each individual who participated in the Tokyo festival was led to a deeper understanding of queer matters in Japan in their own way. Whether those experiences lead to encouragement or criticism, there is no doubt that engaging with such events is essential for reaching both an academic as well as a personal understanding of the current situation facing queer communities in today's Japan. Bearing this in mind, I hope the Tokyo Lesbian & Gay Parade will continue to thrive as a site where many political viewpoints can be productively expressed, debated, and contested in order to bring further justice and joy to the lives of sexual minorities in Japan.


    [1] In this essay, I use the term 'queer' as a general term for sexual minorities in Japan in a very inclusive way instead of specifically referring to groups of people such as lesbians and gays. That is to say, when I refer to queer people, I include lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders, transsexuals, and those who not only cannot fit into those sexual categories but would also reject them.

    [2] For details, see Sunagawa Hideki 'Parēdo ga hajimatta hi' [The day a parade began], in Parēdo [Parade], ed. Sunagawa Hideki, Tokyo: Pot, 2001, pp. 186-89.

    [3] The gei būmu took place in the early 90s when representations of gay men were enthusiastically appropriated by mainstream and subcultural Japanese media including magazines, TV shows, books and so forth. Albeit not exclusively, most of these materials were targeted towards a heterosexual female audience rather than queer communities themselves. Yet it is noteworthy that, due to the efforts of the sexual minorities themselves, the early 90s was also the period when the sexual liberation movement in Japan began to be acknowledged by the general public.

    [4] Sunagawa, 'Parēdo ga hajimatta hi,' pp. 186-89.

    [5] For a close account of Sunagawa's experience in the 2000 parade, see his memoir in Queer Voices from Japan: First-Person Narratives from Japanese Sexual Minorities, ed. Mark McLelland, Katsuhiko Suganuma and James Welker, forthcoming, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006.

    [6] The return of the Tokyo Lesbian & Gay parade became possible under the auspices of the newly established TOKYO Pride, an organisation that administered the entire event. The president of the group is Sunagawa Hideki who ran the revived 2000 parade. After 2000, subsequent parades were run by different chief organisers which actually hindered the accumulation of efficient administrative skills and knowledge. Finding this situation problematic, Sunagawa urged the community to establish a professional organisation specifically aimed at organising the annual parade in Tokyo.

    [7] For the official website of the Tokyo Lesbian & Gay Parade, see http://www.tlgp.org/

    [8] The term sararīman is the Japanese transcription of the English term, 'salary man'. Sararīman refers to male white-collar employees of private corporations who are portrayed as being workaholic and loyal to their corporations, especially during the period when the Japanese economy was rapidly expanding, until it collapsed during the late 80s and early 90s. For a more detailed account of gender discourses surrounding sararīman, see Romit Dasgupta, 'Creating corporate warriors: the "salaryman" and masculinity in Japan,' in Asian Masculinities: The Meaning and Practice of Manhood in China and Japan, ed. Kam Louie and Morris Low, London and New York, RoutledgeCourzon, 2003, pp. 118-31.

    [9] For detail account of Kawakami, see her personal website http://ah-yeah.com/index.html, accessed 10 October 2005.

    [10] For a detailed account of Otsuji, see her personal website http://www004.upp.so-net.ne.jp/otsuji/, accessed 15 October 2005.

    [11] Otsuji Kanako, Kaminguauto: jibun rashisa wo mitsukeru tabi [Coming out: a journey to look for my own originality], Tokyo, Kōdansha, 2005.

    [12] It must be noted that theoretical and academic discussions on issues concerning same-sex marriage or partnerships have been taking placed in some published materials. For example see Akasugi Yasunobu, Tsuchiya Yuki and Tsutsui Makiko (eds), Dōsei Pātonā: Dōseikon DP hō wo Shirutameni [Same-sex partner: for understanding same-sex marriage/domestic partnership law], Tokyo: Shakaihihyōsha, 2004; Saito Emiko, 'Dōseiaisha to kazoku' [Homosexuals and family], in Tokaihōgaku, no. 27, (2002):52-58; and Fushimi Noriaki (ed.), QJr [Queer Japan returns] vol. 0, May (2005):126-37.

    [13] Audre Lorde, 'The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House,' in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1984, pp. 110-13.

    [14] Carmilla was first published in July 2002 by Pot publisher as a Japanese erotic lesbian magazine. Since then, taking female sex and desire as its central theme, it has become the counterpart for some nationally distributed pornographic magazines targeted at gay men.

    [15] It must be noted that early in September 2005 a major broadcasting corporation, TV Asahi, aired a special documentary on Otsuji's coming out story in one of their news programs called Sūpā Mōningu [Super morning] in which the Tokyo parade 2005 was briefly discussed. Although the parade itself was not the central focus, issues of lesbian and gay rights in Japan were addressed in a positive manner.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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From February 2008, this paper has been republished in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific from the following URL: intersections.anu.edu.au/issue12/katsuhiko.html.

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