The Social Situation Facing Gays in Japan

Sunagawa Hideki

translated 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 wo torimaku shakai jōtai,' pp. 30-33

    A Time of Self-Affirmation
  1. I am in the midst of a research project collecting life stories from gay men and when I hear from young gays under the age of twenty-five that they experience little (or no) anxiety about their sexual orientation, I find myself overcome by a strange sensation, having myself reached my mid thirties only after experiencing various problems. Of course this is no doubt because of my research bias toward individuals in that age group who have been able to reply to these kinds of questions in a self-affirmative manner. Yet, it is clear that there exists a different social environment facing young people than that faced by previous generations—today's young people now seem able to talk about the details of their lives from the first awareness of their attraction to the same sex.
  2. One reason is that about the time that these young people would have first noticed their same-sex attraction, it was already possible to easily obtain books which gave a positive account of gay people. Gay men who are currently under twenty-five and who read the collections published from 1992 by Bessatsu Takarajima, such as Gay Present, Gay Toy Box and Gays' Heavenly Campus,[1] would certainly have received the message about the importance of a positive self image. Just at that point in their adolescence when they were becoming aware of romantic love, media such as magazines and television were swept by what was referred to as the 'gay boom' in which the voices of actual gay people were increasingly represented in the general media. Just at that point when these young people would have started to read gay magazines, publishers were capitalising on the interest in gay life and new gay magazines such as Badi and G-Men were flowing with positive information about being gay.[2] It is also true that the beginning of the 1990s was a period during which numerous volunteer organizations and groups were starting up their activities. One of the people who responded to my research question told me about his experience in a gay-related volunteer group that he had joined in his teens: 'I thought it was great that we could get together in broad daylight and introduce ourselves using our real names.' Although he remarked, somewhat dismissively as young people are prone to do, that there were few others like him in his age group, the important thing is that it was a period when it was possible for anyone living in urban areas to have that kind of experience.
  3. Moreover, it was also a period in which a large number of gay men around age twenty made their first debut into the gay world via the Internet. Not only were they able to use the Internet to get hold of gay information at an early age but we are now living at a time when it is not unusual for men still in their teens to create their own websites on which they publicly announce the fact that they are gay. It's obvious that most of these young people have been able to accept their sexual orientation much more easily when compared with gay men of previous generations.

    Social Changes
  4. There is one public indication which shows that there has been a change toward a more positive social situation regarding gay people and that is homosexuals are now the subject of human rights policies as defined by the Tokyo City Human Rights Policy Directive Manual released in 2000. Having initially been dropped from the first draft of the proposal as a category whose human rights needed to be protected, it was only due to the pressure of public opinion brought to bear by NGO activist groups like OCCUR and by a large number of people sending emails, that homosexuals were finally included. In addition, the final report of the Deliberation Council of the Justice Ministry for the Promotion of Human Rights also included homosexuals as a category whose human rights should be protected.
  5. As far as education is concerned, the positive treatment of homosexuality is expanding in both theory and practice, albeit gradually. The Education Research Council's People and Sex featured a positive discussion of homosexuality in the context of sex education, stating for the first time that homosexuals should be understood as a sexual minority. The report also mentioned that an LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender/Transsexual) support center was being established. The same research organisation also published the book Homosexuality: Sexual Diversity which addressed the question of how the topic of homosexuality should best be dealt with in the context of actual sex-education teaching, and included classroom examples and other practical suggestions. Also, in 2002 a foundation working under the jurisdiction of The Labour and Welfare Ministry released a sex-education booklet aimed at middle-school students entitled A Love and Body Book for Adolescents which included discussion of homosexuality in the Question and Answer section. Yet, while the responses did not reject homosexuality altogether, it cannot be said that they positively endorsed it either, and the booklet was later withdrawn due to legal action launched by conservative parliamentarians over its treatment of such issues as the contraceptive pill. To an extent, then, it can be said that these developments show how the understanding that homosexuality is not simply a problem relating to 'personal preference' is gradually becoming more widespread in society.

    Oppressive Aspects
  6. The above discussion would seem to suggest that many of the obstacles preventing gays from being a part of society have already been removed but this cannot be said to be true. To begin with, even among those young people who can easily access information about gay life on the Internet or in books and magazines, there are still many who are troubled by their sexual orientation. Indeed, such young men are probably in the majority. Even though I mentioned earlier that it would be true to say that younger gay men, comparatively speaking, have a positive self image, this cannot be said to be the case among men when they first discover their same-sex attraction. Although this may seem obvious and not be in need of special mention, I think that it is important. No matter at what age an individual comes to that realisation, most have received the impression that it is a forbidden feeling since the people around them treat same-sex love negatively. So, by no means can it be said that society has become tolerant of homosexuality.
  7. For instance, even among those gay men who are not troubled by the fact that they are gay, very few actually discuss the matter with their family. Also, even among those university students who may discuss the fact that they are gay with their close friends in a relatively carefree manner, when they go on to enter employment, most will put on a straight face so as to fit in the workplace. Although a person with a strong sense of positive self-worth may be able to get by in such a situation, conversely, there is always the possibility that the gap between a person's real feelings and the demands of the situation will lead to larger complications. In the case of a person without such a positive sense of self, it goes without saying that this strong sense of oppression will be bound up with negative self feelings. Moreover, I've often heard about the unpleasant situation facing gays who live in provincial areas. It is only possible for people to live comparatively happily as gays under certain conditions and it can be said that society as a whole still maintains relatively severe oppressive features.
  8. Evidence of this negative situation was provided by a national research survey of 3,600 men and women (age 16 to 69) conducted by Japan's national broadcaster NHK in 1999, which discovered that 65 percent of respondents thought that sex between members of the same sex was 'bad.' Also, in 2002, there was the uproar caused by the rap group Kingu Gidora who released a song which contained extremely aggressive discriminatory language aimed at gays and other minorities and which was only withdrawn after protest. The number of violent incidents by youth gangs who target gay men in parks used as cruising spots, attacks which have resulted in deaths, must also not be forgotten.[3]

    Further problems
  9. However, a sense of community is increasing among gay people who are devising numerous ways to make their lives more enjoyable even in the midst of a society which still maintains many oppressive features. This does not just include cruising areas where sexual pleasures can be enjoyed or those bars and clubs where gay men can enjoy communicating and socialising with their friends but also those organisations and groups based on mutual interests which are now so active. It is not possible to describe the full range of activities undertaken by gay groups but they include wind ensembles, choirs, dance and other music-related activities, volley ball, soccer, tennis, basketball and other sports. Hiking, English conversation and other such groups also exist, as does a group for deaf-gay people. Also the number of musical activities undertaken by both individuals and bands is increasing as are the number of events. The number of people becoming actively involved as staff members in HIV/AIDS related projects, parades and events, too, is on the rise.
  10. In this way, even under restrictive circumstances, it is evident that gay people are certainly broadening the manner in which they experience self realisation. But this doesn't mean that there are not significant issues that gay people will have to face in the future. In particular, there are problems that individuals must face in the latter part of their lives. The days are gone when it was assumed natural that even if a man was gay he would marry a member of the opposite sex and have children. At present, now that an increasing number of men are choosing to live out their whole lives as gay, gay men will necessarily have to face such problems as old age, same-sex partnership law and problems to do with the welfare system. Also, as the number of men living openly as gay increases, there is also the possibility that they will be faced with problems in the workplace etc. that they have not so far encountered. Furthermore, in a different context, we cannot overlook the seriousness of increasing rates of HIV infection among gay men.
  11. If we are to solve these problems, it is clear that they can be grappled with on a purely personal level only to a limited extent. From now on, each and every gay man needs to consider how he can personally concern himself with these problems in order that his gay life can be improved.


    [1] Takarajima is a mainstream Japanese publishing house which specialises in both magazines and books focusing on subcultural topics. The three collections mentioned were published during Japan's 'gay boom'—a four year period in the early 1990s when the previously clandestine topic of homosexuality received increased media attention. Edited by major figures on Tokyo's gay scene such as Fushimi Noriaki, Ōtsuka Takashi and Ogura Tō, these special editions represented a breakthrough into the mainstream for literature by and for gay men and lesbians.

    [2] Japan has a long tradition of magazines directed at a male homosexual audience. Adonis, a privately circulated homophile magazine, was published between 1952 and 1962. Barazoku, published from 1971, was the first commercial magazine to be sold in large and medium-sized stores around the nation. It was followed by Adon in 1972 and Sabu in 1974 (all three now out of print). Badi (1992 -) and G-Men (1994 -) differ from the earlier magazines in offering more up-to-date, upbeat, lifestyle-orientated discussions of gay life.

    [3] For a discussion of one such attack see Mark McLelland, 'Private Acts/Public Spaces: Cruising for Gay Sex on the Japanese Internet,' in Nanette Gottleib and Mark McLelland (eds), Japanese Cybercultures, London: Routledge, pp. 141-55.


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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