LGBTQ People Exist in Japan?!

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Being queer in Japan, I’ve been quite curious about the LGBT culture in Japan. Are there LGBTQ individuals in Japan? Where do they meet? What resources are out there? What’s it like? I’ve noticed that although I’ve never faced any issues being gender nonconforming in Japan, I’ve also never met anyone who is openly LGBTQ here. Same-sex relationships are quite popular in anime and manga, but perhaps they only exist in media. Well, the other day, I discovered that most of the population also share this thought. A few days ago, I had the privilege of speaking to someone who was able to provide answers to many of my questions from their expertise.

Due to Japan’s history of having men play female roles or vice versa in plays, Japan is rather accepting of gender non-conforming and transgender individuals. However, the word “gender-nonconforming” does not exist in Japan, but rather “gender neutral.” For Japanese people, the word gender neutral means “I know you are a boy/girl, but you don’t look/act like the traditional image of it.” The word “transgender” is also a term that has only been recently introduced to Japan because of a tv program that aired last spring.

2 years ago, if someone said “transgender,” not many people would know the term – however, because the main character of the show was transgender, the term has now gained some popularity. Prior to the introduction of the term, people would only know Gender Identity Disorder. GID serves as a substitute for not only the word “transgender,” but occasionally “lesbian, gay, bisexual, etc” as well.

Most people in Japan don’t have much knowledge about the many different terms associated with the LGBTQ community, so the concept of “sexual orientation” is rather foreign. For example, if someone is questioning their sexuality, they might believe “I might be GID” or if they express attraction towards the same gender, another person might suspect that individual as being GID. It is not meant to be offensive, but rather a result of limited access and knowledge of the LGBT community.

Younger generations of Japanese people are more accepting of LGBT individuals besides possibly the rural areas. In particular, Tokyo is perhaps the most accepting, and as of July, six cities have introduced same gender partnerships for same-sex couples which can be utilized for life insurance if your partner passes away.

Acceptance of the LGBT community has been propelled by the Tokyo 2020 Olympics as the government has been working towards promoting understanding in society for LGBT-identifying individuals. This has led to the introduction of many LGBT books, souvenirs, etc., which was not previously found prior to 2015. But because this is recent, there aren’t many resources or safe spaces for LGBT people to meet up or have access to besides a few gay bars and some LGBT exclusive apps.

For transgender individual, this means sex reassignment surgery is a very difficult and long process. To receive hormone therapy or surgery, one would have to be diagnosed with GID. Not many physicians have enough experience with diagnosing individuals, it usually takes 6 months to get an initial appointment, you’d have to see the physician every month for about a year until they can write a diagnosis for GID, and only one hospital performs sex reassignment surgery which means it can take up to two years for it to take place.

Another unique aspect of Japan is that if there is intolerance of the LGBT community (typically by older generations), rather than for religious reasons, it would be because of the belief that the Japanese marriage system (which is very strict) would collapse. As a byproduct of this notion, a large majority of LGBTQ individuals in Japan are in the closet.

So much so that, many Japanese people also believe that perhaps LGBTQ individuals exist only in media, and not in their day to day life, and LGBTQ individuals may experience a strong sense of isolation. What has surprised me the most is that while the lack of knowledge may inhibit LGBTQ individuals from receiving the support they might need, Japan seems to be more accepting and understanding of the LGBTQ community – but in a very innocent and/or naïve sense.

Last week, I jokingly said I shipped two girls from an anime together to one of my Japanese friends, and she looked genuinely confused. It wasn’t disgust, intolerance, or anything negative, but rather the idea of two girls being together in a romantic sense had never crossed her mind. Reflecting upon that now, I realized that it might not even be a “I don’t know much about that topic,” but perhaps, a foreign concept that has never been introduced – the thought that same-sex relationships can be possible has never occurred in the minds of some individuals.

For me, that was just fascinating because growing up in California, I thought everyone had their own opinions or remained neutral, but it never really occurred to me that the idea of queer relationships can be so foreign that someone could be genuinely surprised that they exist – like the idea of unicorns, centaurs, and mermaids. So is Japan accepting of LGBTQ people? Yes, and I think it’s wonderful the LGBT movement has been progressing, but like every country, there’s always room to grow.