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The Gay Scene in Japan - a brief introduction
Japan has a reputation around for world for doing things a little differently than everywhere else. The Gay Scene there is no different. There are specific types of venues which cater to particular audiences and little rituals and “ways of doing things” that you should familiarize yourself with in order to have the best possible time while exploring gay life in Japan.
In this article, Ryan Stenhouse, who lives and works in Tokyo, gives a primer on exploring the scene in Japan.
The heart of gay life in Japan is usually thought of as Shinjuku Ni-Chome, a neighborhood with around 400 venues catering to the LGBT community. However, there are a number of lesser known bars and clubs spread throughout Japan - notably within big cities like Tokyo, Kawasaki, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, and Yokohama.
While it’s perfectly legal to be homosexual in Japan, there are some social, legal and political challenges which homosexual couples face. Japan does not have equal marriage (at the time of writing), although some areas, like Shibuya in Tokyo to offer some recognition and protection for same-sex couples.
While society is slowly changing, it is rare to meet an “openly gay” local person in your day-to-day life. If you meet a Japanese person at a bar, even in Shinjuku Ni-Chome, you will likely never find out their name. They’ll introduce themselves by a nickname and will usually not divulge information around the type of work they do.
Remember to be polite
Don’t press people to share more than they want to. Remember - just because it’s OK for you to be sharing personal details, such as your occupation, other people might not feel safe to do so. Respect that the closet is very real in Japan and respect people’s privacy.
Following on from this, you should be especially careful when taking pictures.
If you’re wanting to take pictures in a bar, or out in the street in a gay neighbourhood, like Naka-dori in Shinjuku Ni-chome, you should be aware of your surroundings and the people around you. Taking selfies is fine and pictures of the frontages of bars - but do not photograph people without their permission.
Some venues will outright ban photography while you’re inside them. If you’re in doubt, ask. If you can’t ask, don’t take a picture.
Things that might come up
While Japanese people you meet in bars will likely not share too much about themselves, the bar managers (called mama-san) (or locals who feel particularly daring) will sometimes ask you a bunch of seemingly quite personal questions.
Don’t be surprised to be asked about your hometown, why you are in Japan, and other mundane things along those lines. You might also be asked about more bedroom related things, such as your preferred position (“tachi”, “neko”, “reba” for “top”, “bottom” and “versatile”). If you’re a guy, you might even be asked “how big is it”.
You will also be asked if you speak Japanese. Don’t try to bluff through it. If you can’t just say so.
The main reason for the barkeep asking all these questions is to help them do their job. They will be trying to “match” you with other customers who you might be able to have a conversation with.
To wrap up
The scene in Japan is mostly geared towards locals. While there are a great many gay bars around the larger cities, very few of them explicitly cater to foreign visitors. If you can’t speak Japanese, you will be limited to visiting very few places unless you bring a friend with you to translate.
Don’t let that put you off exploring though.