- Life in Japan
Identifying as LGBTQ+ in a Japan
Navigating your way out of the closet can be difficult and doubly so while living overseas.
You may find Japanese society to be conservative compared to your home country. Others might find life in Japan liberating; a chance to explore their identity on their own terms. Regardless of where you fall on that spectrum educating yourself about what to expect from life in Japan is important.
Before we digging too deep a disclaimer: the information here based on my own experience as a cisgender, gay, western, man. I have tried to provide information that applies to a wide cross-section of the LGBTQ+ community, but I can not speak to experiences that are not my own. I encourage you to do some further reading and research to hear as many perspectives as possible. You will find some more resources at the end of this article.
Life in Japan can be largely divided into two parts, professional and private. These two parts may overlap to some degree depending on the industry you work in, where you live, and how you made your way to Japan. I picked up some common scenarios I’ve run across during my time in Japan given practical advice.
Dealing with personal questions in the workplace.
Many Japanese coworkers and students have asked about my personal life. Often they ask if I’m married or have a “girlfriend.” Sometimes, they notice my wedding ring and enquire if my “wife” is Japanese. Often these questions come up in business settings with clients I’m meeting for the very first time. My advice is to have a prepared response. It might be helpful to take note of the conversations around you. Generally how much do your Japanese coworkers share about their private lives? Then decide for yourself how open you wish to be in the workplace. If you decide you’d rather avoid these topics that is ok too. As a high context culture, non-direct ques work wonders in Japan. Try changing the subject or go out of your way to keep answers vague. These can be an effective way of signaling you rather not discuss your private life. If the person you’re dealing with is still persistent a more direct approach might be in order. Even in “polite Japan” asserting yourself and establishing boundaries is perfectly acceptable.
Coming out to friends and acquaintances.
Most Japanese people are accepting of LGBTQ＋ people. Yet, you may find a lack of fluency or understanding of specific identities, issues, and concerns for the LGBTQ＋ community . Although Japan has made big strides toward equality over the past few years there is much work to do. Misinformation, stereotyping, and discrimination are very real issues facing the LGBTQ＋ community in Japan. A benefit of being a foreigner in Japan is falling outside of the many societal expectations for behavior in Japanese society. You might find Japanese people are more open and frank with you specifically because you fall outside of these expectations. You may be the first LGBTQ＋ person to ever come out to some of your Japanese friends or coworkers. Expect questions and be prepared to dispel some myths and untie some knots of confusion. Just like you will often play ambassador for your home country and culture you may also be an ambassador for the LGBTQ+ community. Familiarity often breeds empathy. Your willingness to open up, share and educate the people around you can have a very real impact on LGBTQ+ rights in Japan.
Mingling with the locals.
In short, if you wouldn’t do it back home you probably shouldn’t do it here. Best practices still apply in Japan. Many of the dating app used in your home country are also used in Japan with homegrown varieties as well. If you live in or near large cities you can likely find LGBTQ+ bars or neighborhoods where you can meet LGBTQ＋ foreigners and Japanese people alike. If you are in a more rural area you may find online alternatives to be the best option for making friends and finding love. If you are planning to “hookup” use common sense: meet in public, inform a friend of your plans, and practice safer sex. Although Japan tends to be safer than many of our home countries that doesn’t mean there are no risks.
I have had Japanese partners and known others who have dated Japanese people who are partially or completely closeted. While things are starting to change, it’s not unusual for LGBTQ+ Japanese to segment their lives to allows them to maintain a certain “respectable façade”. This can take a variety of forms and often seems to depend on a mutual unspoken agreement to turn a blind eye to what may seem so glaringly obvious. If things do get serious have an open very honest discussion about what that means to you and your expectations for each other. As LGBTQ+ people we need to have the same conversations heteronormative international couples have in addition to an honest discussion about how “out” we want to be as a couple. Be open to hearing what being “out” might mean for your partner, their career and their relationships. Also, give some thought to how your partner staying closeted or coming out can impact you individually and as a couple.
Finding your community.
Navigating life in Japan as a foreigner can be exciting and interesting, but at times it can also be isolating and difficult. This can be doubly true for LGBTQ+ folks. It’s important to find a safe space where you can lower your guard and let your pride flag fly, so to speak. If you live in a larger urban area you might find an LGBTQ+ inclusive hang out to fill this need of community. If you live in a more rural area you might need to rely on an online community or plan regular escapes into a larger city to find your community. Either way making an effort to get out there, meet people, join online social media groups, and seeking out local LGBTQ+ affirming events in your region.
While being LGBTQ+ is one aspect of who you are making room for that part of yourself is important for good mental health. Information and resources in English can be hard to come by, but one of the best resources in English on LGBTQ+ life in Japan that I know is Stonewall Japan. In addition to their main website they maintain an active social media presence. The Stonewall community has been a valuable resource for information, advice, and comradery for me and many others. If you are seeking information specifically on being Trans in Japan, they maintain a dedicated tab on their website with a downloadable “Trans* guide” and “Transgender Japan life resource” in addition to a list of clinics and other resources. This is a great place to seek out more information and additional perspectives on life in Japan. Their social media is updated on a regular basis and can be a valuable resource for more local information, and a great place to crowdsource advice.
In short, life in Japan can and should be a great adventure no matter how you identify. Before embarking on that adventure make sure you’ve done your research and be prepared. That is the best way to ensure your life in Japan is as comfortable and enjoyable as possible.