Japan's Gay History

Sunagawa Hideki

translated from the Japanese by Mark McLelland

This article originally appeared in Fushimi Noriaki (ed.) Dōseiai nyūmon [Introduction to homosexuality], Tokyo: Potto shuppan, 2003, under the title ' Nihon no gei no rekishi', pp. 44-47

    The birth of the gay community
  1. The Tokyo Lesbian and Gay Parade 2000 was held on 27 August 2000. Having been revived after a four-year break, this was the largest parade so far to be held in Tokyo with over two thousand people participating. In conjunction with the year 2000 parade the Tokyo Rainbow Festival was later held in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ni-chōme district.[1] The festival was organized by a group of gay bar owners and attracted such a large number of participants that it was impossible to move in the streets. Watching the fireworks released at the end of the festival brought tears to the eyes of many gay men present, gathered as they were in Ni-chōme, the site of so many gay bars and full of so many memories.
  2. Fushimi Noriaki, a gay critic who has been positively engaged with the mainstream media from the beginning of the 1990s, summed up the events of that day in the gay magazine Badi with the daunting phrase, 'the birth of the gay community.' In recent years, despite the difficulties of defining exactly what 'community' might mean, the use of the phrase 'gay community' has become much more frequent among gay men. While the phrase is sometimes used to refer to Shinjuku Ni-chōme, an area housing over two hundred gay bars, it is also used to refer to the various volunteer networks that gay men participate in and can also be used to refer to various circles of gay friends. The term is also sometimes used to describe the regular crowd at each individual gay bar. Therefore there is probably not much point in arguing over what should or shouldn't really be included in the term 'gay community.' What is important to consider is that the term gay community should be used to refer to gay groups in which some sense of fellowship is apparent or is being created or in which there is a sense that a community consciousness is developing. Without a doubt the emergence of the term gay community has come about due to a change in consciousness among gay men in Japan.[2]
  3. Although this essay has been given the title 'Japan's gay history,' I'd like to follow just one line through this broad topic and provide an outline of the development of a community consciousness. However, even with this limitation it is still extremely difficult to write a history of Japanese gay men (not to mention that of same-sex desiring men in the period before the label 'gay'). One reason is due to the fact that there is no long-term record of gay voices. However, one thing is certain and that is the shift from a time when there were no gay people speaking for themselves, to a situation in which gay voices can speak freely, is directly related to the formation of a strong sense of gay community consciousness.

    A history of silence
  4. Like many individuals who are oppressed and discriminated against, for a long time gay people were unable to write in their own words about their experience and could not create their own history. Although there are many literary and artistic representations dating from the Edo period (1603-1857) which describe sexual acts which took place between men using terms such as danshoku[3] and wakashu,[4] at that time participating in such acts did not designate a specific type of person and so these records cannot be read as part of the history of 'gay' or 'homosexual' men. The so-called 'birth' of the homosexual took place in Japan in the Meiji (1858-1912) and Taisho (1912-25) periods when participating in same-sex sexual acts came to be understood as the result of a personal disposition, but almost no first-person narratives survive from this time.
  5. The only records which remain from this period are case studies and analyses from a genre of sexology publications dating from 1900 which treated 'homosexuality' as one example of 'perverse sexuality.' There are also some articles and reports about cross-dressing male prostitutes who existed before and after World War II, but these reports, are also 'about' homosexuals and do not represent their own voices. However, this period of silence in which there were no records created by homosexuals themselves began to change in 1950 with the appearance of magazines such as Amatoria which took sex as their theme. On the one hand, while Amatoria continued the tradition of treating homosexuality as a kind of deviance or perversion, it did also publish letters from homosexuals who were seeking advice as well as stage roundtable events featuring homosexuals as discussants. Two years after the first appearance of Amatoria, the first privately circulated magazine for homosexual men, entitled Adonis,[5] appeared and it is probably correct to assume that this represents the first time that the voices of actual homosexual men themselves came into circulation. This situation did not change dramatically until 1971 when Barazoku,[6] the first commercial magazine aimed at gay men, was launched. This has been followed by an uninterrupted flow of other commercial magazines aimed at gay men.

    Toward a common experience
  6. The availability of gay publications in regular bookshops brought about a sudden expansion in gay networking and also the fact that gay men could now write about their lives in the pages of these magazines helped them to develop a broader sense of shared experience. Another result was that gay bars, which had previously been advertised mainly by word of mouth, were able to be advertised in these magazines and thus the existence of these establishments became more widely known. Thus, it would not be a mistake to say that these publications, through advertising gay bars and printing letters in their personals columns, contributed to an increase in opportunities for gay men to get together and so further strengthened the sense of a commonality of experience. As a direct result, in the latter half of the 1970s numerous small gay liberation groups were founded and began to issue newsletters. A further epoch-making event took place in 1978 when one of the first spokesmen for gay lib, Ōtsuka Takashi, became a popular radio personality which meant that his gay voice was able to reach a wider audience.[7]
  7. However, these developments were based on largely personal acts of liberation by a few pioneering activists and were not deeply rooted in the culture of Japan's gay scene. Even more than today, at that time gay bars were seen as venues for searching out sexual partners and there was slim chance of developing what we now think of as a community feeling. As a result those groups and newsletters that developed during this period were not able to continue for very long.

    Voices speak out
  8. In the 1980s a major event occurred which was to have a major impact on gay people (as well as many others throughout the world)—the arrival of AIDS. One unforeseen outcome of the advent of this disease was that mainstream news media which had previously ignored homosexual issues began to report on the social situation and lifestyles of gays in the United States. Then, somewhat later, after the spread of HIV infection to Japan, the media's gaze turned on gay people living in Japan.
  9. At just that moment, several Japanese gay liberation groups were emerging, including ILGA (International Lesbian and Gay Association) Japan, founded in 1984, and the Association for Moving Lesbians and Gays (also known as OCCUR), founded in 1986. These organizations immediately began working on issues related to gay men and AIDS and their campaign against the AIDS Prevention Law[8] and other activities were widely reported in the general media. This was the beginning of a new period in which the voices of gay men themselves began to be reported outside gay circles.
  10. However, it was at the beginning of the 1990s that the existence of gay people really began to be brought to the attention of the outside world. In 1991, OCCUR launched a court case which became known as the Fuchu Hostel Incident. While holding a meeting at the hostel, OCCUR's members had been badly treated by other groups using the facilities and as a result OCCUR were refused future use of the hostel by the management, resulting in OCCUR launching a discrimination case against the facility's owners, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. (In 1997 the judgment came down on the side of OCCUR.)
  11. In the same year, Fushimi Noriaki released his pioneering gay studies book Private Gay Life. In that book was included a photograph of the author, a highly significant step at a time when having a picture of one's face released in the general media took a lot of bravery. Then, in 1992, Ōtsuka Takashi and others edited the 'Gay Present' edition of popular magazine Bessatsu Takarajima. As a result, interest in gay topics gradually picked up pace in the general media resulting in what became known as the 'gay boom' in which experiences and accounts from actual gay men were widely reported.

    Not simply voices but faces
  12. One symbol of this increased visibility was the parade. Organised by Minami Teishirō (of ILGA Japan), Japan's first Lesbian and Gay Parade was held in Tokyo in 1994. This was followed in 1996 by the establishment of another parade in Sapporo (the capital of Japan's northernmost island, Hokkaido). Despite the fact that after the third Tokyo parade disputes about the parade's organization meant that the event was not resumed again until 2000, the commencement of such events meant that for the first time it was not just gay people's voices that were reaching out to a wider public but gay people themselves were becoming more visible.
  13. Also in 1994, the release of the gay magazine Badi, which showed for the first time the faces of 'ordinary' gay people, continued this trend toward 'not simply voices but faces' in the media. Gay magazines such as Badi and, later, G-Men, pioneered a new approach which had not been seen before in gay magazines—offering a more positive impression of gay life and printing news and information about 'ordinary' gay people. These magazines continued the trend toward a broadening of gay community consciousness.
  14. In this manner, gay people's voices are being recorded, gay people's mutual experience is being brought together, and the fact that gay 'fellowship' is becoming more visible means that we can now think in terms of a gay community. Undoubtedly this community consciousness will continue to expand and it will be possible to write a new kind of gay history. The writing of a full-blown history of gay Japan is something that can now be undertaken.


    [1] Since the late 1950s Shinjuku's second ward has developed into Tokyo's premier gay entertainment district and is currently home to over 200 bars and other establishments catering to gay men and to a smaller extent to transgenders and lesbians.

    [2] Unlike in English where the term 'gay' can be used to refer to both men and women as in the phrase 'gay people', the use of gay (or gei in Japanese) has always referred exclusively to men. When talking about the 'gay community', then, the author is referring primarily to the sense of community experienced between gay men.

    [3] Danshoku (sometimes nanshoku) is comprised of the Chinese characters for 'man' and 'eroticism' and designates the traditional Japanese practice of adult males who took boy lovers.

    [4] Wakashu were boys and young men (before their coming-of-age ceremony) who were loved by adult men in premodern Japan.

    [5] Adonis, published monthly until 1962, was available only to subscribing members.

    [6] Due largely to competition from newer and trendier gay publications (such as Badi and G-Men mentioned later in the text) and also the Internet, Barazoku finally went out of business in 2004.

    [7] The author is here referring to Ōtsuka's appearance on the popular Snake Man Show over a period of 18 months in 1977-78. For a discussion of Ōtsuka and his early activism, see Mark McLelland, Queer Japan from the Pacific War to the Internet Age, Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, pp. 171-74.

    [8] This law, had it been passed, would have required that doctors register the names and addresses of people living with HIV with local authorities.


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/sunagawa.html.

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