Japan's lesbians still scared to come out
“Homosexuality itself -- as long as you don’t say it -- is accepted in Japan. Once you start saying it you put yourself in a box,” says 29-year-old "Keiko," describing the situation for many gay women in her country.
“Then sometimes you get in trouble, and maybe you get all the images put on you that come with the word,” she says.
In Japan, while there is no law against homosexuality, being gay or lesbian is something that remains generally ‘undesirable’ in mainstream society. Marriage in the country is only permitted for heterosexual couples.
High profile transexuals change thinking
Still, in recent years more lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals (LGBT) in Japan have trickled into the public eye, including some high-profile celebrities through the powerful channel of the Japanese showbiz industry.
Twenty-five-year-old singer and actress Ataru Nakamura’s popularity is rumored to have grown after the 2006 disclosure of her male-to-female (MTF) gender reassignment, while transsexual celebrities Ai Haruna and Ayana Tsubaki are a common sight on the variety show circuit.
Outside the entertainment world, several openly gay politicians have seen the spotlight as well, including Aya Kamikawa, the only openly transgendered official in Japan, who was re-elected for a second four-year term in 2007 to her seat in Setagaya ward, the largest ward in Tokyo.
And this August, the Tokyo Pride parade received international media attention as it returned with gusto after a three-year hiatus.
But there is still a noticeable lack of openly lesbian figures in public arenas, leaving many in the dark when it comes to the lesbian community in Japan.
Fear of coming out
However, for Keiko’s partner, a 34-year-old called "KM," the situation is very different.
KM still lives at home with her family. When Keiko sleeps over, which is often, they place an object at her bedroom door to give a warning call when her mother stops in -- so one can quickly roll off the bed, onto the guest mattress laid beside it.
KM is still in the closet, although she plans to soon come out to her family and friends.
Wearing makeup and dressed in a feminine, up-to-date outfit, she looks like a typical Japanese female in her early 30s, next to the more athletic and makeup-free Keiko.
However, her dual life hasn’t come without certain sacrifices.
KM explains that when she first started going to lesbian and gay bars in Tokyo 10 years ago, it was fine, until her friends began to ask questions.
“They asked about my future. ‘When will you marry?’ ‘Why don’t you have a boyfriend?’ They would ask me, and it was trouble,” she says.
Dating men to avoid suspicion
In the past, KM went on dates with men, to avert suspicion, but she became so stressed from the deception she developed an eating disorder. Later, to appease her friends, she pretended that her girlfriend at the time was a man.
“I couldn’t go into specifics that way, and they would press for more details and that was sort of the last straw," she says. "So I just stopped seeing my friends at that point. And I just started hanging out with my lesbian friends.”
KM guesses that fewer than 10 percent of the Japanese lesbians she knows have come out to their friends, and that the number who told their parents is likely even lower.
“The lesbian community in Japan is pretty big, not like Canada and America, but then you don’t realize there are so many lesbians because you don’t see it," she says. "They don’t act like they’re lesbians.”
“Lesbians in Japan are considered kawaretteru or hen (odd or strange). People think maybe you had a family problem in the past, like maybe it’s your parents' fault that you are a lesbian or something, maybe like it’s a strange deviance. They think it’s something you can change, not a natural thing, a choice of sexual activity. Then it’s considered to be perverted or gross,” says KM.
When asked what she thinks about gay marriage, KM replies, “Men and women falling in love, is considered normal. Even if we could legally marry here, because there is this image, it simply wouldn’t go well, I think.”
Chu is a pioneer in efforts to bring people closer together. She is the chief organizer of the three-times-a-year Dyke Weekend gatherings held in the prefecture of Saitama.
Chu is also a well-recognized face in the community and among international lesbians living in and passing through Tokyo, having run the Chestnut and Squirrel, a popular weekly lesbian international bar night in 2-Chome for eight years.
The bar where the night took place closed earlier this year, much to the dismay of many.
According to Chu’s partner, Toby Siguenza, a 31-year-old U.S.-native who lives and works in Japan, “everyone felt like it was their home away from home. Everyone was so upset, and people around the world were like, 'this is a travesty.'"
Chu, who was inspired to get more involved in the Japanese gay and lesbian community after traveling to New York and seeing the more free and politically active LGBT scene there, notices a fragmentation that exists among lesbian women in Japan, who are spread out and grouped into categories like ‘international’ or ‘younger,’ ‘older,’ ‘on-line,’ and more.
“Maybe our problem is that we don’t connect with each other well," she says. "Maybe we’re not as good at connecting as other kinds of communities. I think we still need political action in the community. There are still problems in society."
Therefore, Chu is currently focused on promoting awareness and unity through partner Siguenza’s new venture -- an English cafe for lesbians in Tokyo in the 2-Chome district.
“Maybe if Japanese lesbians learn English we can break the language wall and help them," she says. "Cultures in the West are more open while Japanese tend to hide because of cultural reasons and the language issue. Maybe they want to explore the world but they’re shy.”
Chiga Ogawa is another famous figure in Japan’s lesbian community for designing parties for women including the girls-only monthly club event Gold Finger, which has been running since 1991.
She is currently also the owner of Motel, a popular lesbian bar in 2-Chome. Ogawa seems similarly determined to continue to bring people together -- not through language, but rather, through fun.
Weaving swiftly through the vibrant clientele at her popular girls-only gathering spot, ducking in and out from behind the bar -- she is an impressive businesswoman with an air of authority, a figure who is called the boss of the lesbian community by many.
When asked her thoughts on lesbian culture in Tokyo, she is hesitant to categorize or define anything, instead describing the atmosphere of her bar as “just fun. It’s just people coming together to have fun. That’s all,” before darting away to attend to clients walking in the door.
Reaching the younger generation
For lesbians who live in urban areas, and who can afford to take part in the night scene, there is something exciting and friendly on offer.
But for younger generations, who are still in school or living in rural areas, or just not into going out to bars, Siguenza says they find other ways to interact with others like them.
‘‘There’s this site, bianbian.jp and it’s purely lesbian and it’s purely Japanese and this is the most popular one,” says Siguenza.
Whether it's flourishing online communities or events like Dyke Weekend, there are lesbian-aimed efforts in Japan. But with such a varied and scattered community across the country with so many women opting to stay in the closet, it is hard to come close to defining a Japanese lesbian culture or what the future holds.
After being asked about the prospect of being able to legally marry in Japan, KM suddenly remarks, “If I could, maybe, maybe I’d come out.”
But she adds that for most lesbians in Japan, that’s still a faraway dream. “I think most people just want to be together. That’s enough.”