For those of you who have just ventured here from some of the more glitter filled rainbow capitals of the world, Japan may come as a bit of a shock. In an age where lesbian chic is dominating primetime in everything from procedural and family drama through to your not-so-secret prison fantasy fetishes, we can all be forgiven for living under the vain assumption that everyone everywhere is A-OK with the G-AY.
Now, I didn’t come here to pop your flannel clad bubble. Yes, Japan is a notoriously conservative country built on the ideal of patriarchal hierarchy. Yes, they did arrest a woman for making a vagina kayak. Yes, many Japanese people will laugh and tell you there are no gay people in Japan; and yes, you are more likely to get away with prancing down the street in a purple unicorn costume throwing penis confetti than you are with snogging another woman in public…wow…I’m really not selling this am I?
However, never fear! All is not lost. Although the Pride Festivals may be a little more subdued, rest assured that there are significantly more lesbians and bisexual women here than the above would lead you to believe.
So, how to meet ‘em?
If you’re fresh off the boat and looking for something in your area, I would highly recommend a quick stop into the Stonewall AJET website. A hub of information on bars, clubs and events across Japan is at your fingertips, and even better, it’s in English!
The Facebook page is also a great way to get in touch with women in your local area. Many will be more than willing to take you out and show you the ropes.
Nightlife for Women
Tokyo and Osaka play host to two of the biggest scenes in the country with Shinjuku Ni-chome, and the Doyama-cho district near Umeda respectively.
Both areas have a number of small, intimate lesbian bars coupled with larger gay clubs which often host mixed nights. Smaller bars often require a little Japanese ability unless the host speaks English, while club events welcome foreigners, probably because we drink like fish and spend a bucket load of money.
Ladies only events are a big thing here. Although held irregularly, they are definitely worth attending. They are great opportunities to meet people from outside the city centres who venture in for the night.
My personal favourite as a Kansai resident is the hugely popular bimonthly LadyKiller party (follow @LADYKILLER_pro on Twitter for updates) which is held at Grand Café in Shinsaibashi, Osaka. This massive club night is a must if you happen about Osaka when it’s being held.
There are a number of other semi-regular nights including Lookme and Sista; and local drag events are also a great place to meet like-minded individuals. Dedicated lesbian venues will also hold their own events which range from meet ups, through to book clubs and queer movie nights.
All of this is coming from a Kyoto/Osaka perspective, so you can guarantee that Tokyo does the same, but on a larger scale.
A word of warning: most, if not all of the events are advertised in Japanese; and often the websites are like some hellish early 90’s geocities flashback made even more impossible to navigate with the addition of hiragana, katakana and kanji. My best advice is: save yourself a headache, buddy up with some local residents, and register for the Stonewall mailing lists to get this information.
Although Tokyo and Osaka are home to two of the biggest scenes in the country, they are not the be all and end all. Nagoya and Hyogo both have a notable scene and even Fukuoka has a lesbian bar! As with all places, sometimes it just takes a bit of a digging. Don’t ever lose hope!
As you all probably know, the boys dominate this field with apps such as Grindr and Jack’d. We haven’t been left completely out in the cold though! The top three recommended apps for Japan in my opinion are:
There is mixed success with these apps depending on where you live and who is available in your area. OKCupid leans heavily towards foreign, English speaking women whilst Spindle is the opposite. You will need at least a little Japanese under your belt for the latter. Blendr seems well balanced on the language front; however, the app’s filtering system leaves a lot to be desired. The algorithm likes to ignore your sexuality and dating preference, going straight for the ‘I will throw you every single woman, including straight and unavailable in your area’ approach. With a bit of patience it can pay off however.
Never fear, there is Pride here! Both Tokyo and Osaka play host to a Pride parade once a year. ‘Tokyo Rainbow Pride’ is usually held towards the end of April, whilst the ‘Kansai Rainbow Festa’ is held later, with this year’s event landing on October 11. You can keep abreast (sorry…couldn’t resist…) of the situation by checking out each event’s Twitter, Facebook and websites listed below.
When I first arrived I was forewarned that there are a number of labels in the Japanese scene. Without going into too many details there are three key terms you may or may not come across:
‘Tachi’ – dominant (butch)
‘Riba’ – meaning you fluctuate between the two roles
‘Neko’ – submissive (femme)
To put it bluntly, Japanese women still adhere very closely to gender roles in some cases so be prepared. Also, as a foreigner, you’ll likely out-butch pretty much everyone even in a dress and 5 inch heels.
It is important to note that in Japan most, if not all women are in the closet, and if you happen to choose to date a Japanese woman, or a woman with Japanese heritage here in Japan, you will quickly need to accept the rules of privacy that come along with that. PDA is most definitely a no-go here regardless of whether you’re straight or gay.
Most, if not all women are not out at work, and I can safely say that this also applies to a large proportion of the foreign lesbian community working here in either teaching or professional positions. Whether or not you decide to come out in your workplace is entirely up to you. There are mixed opinions surrounding this, and it will always be a contentious issue. The rule of thumb in Japan is that personal lives aren’t really discussed at work. At home, a bit of gloating about your weekend exploits was standard fare where I was from; however, Japan is a different beast. There are co-workers I socialise with outside of work who are aware of my dating habits; however the majority of my colleagues have no idea.
On a lighter note however, I am here to tell you that the lesbian/bisexual community in Japan is an extremely welcoming place to be and it’s not as small as you might suspect. As with most scenes across the globe, fresh faces are always appreciated and the homogeneity of regular Japanese society doesn’t dominate here. I have never been made to feel unwelcome, and you will often find yourself a novelty, particularly if you venture off the beaten track where foreigners don’t usually tread.
As with most things, it can be difficult to navigate in the beginning—but just dive straight in, give your sub-par Japanese a shot, and if all else fails simply dance like it’s nobody business! You can’t really go wrong.
The following is based on the opinion and experiences of the author. She does not claim to be an expert in anything other than drinking copious amounts of alcohol and making an arse of herself on the dance floor. If you’re looking for more in-depth information about bars, clubs and events in the Kansai region, please check out her blog and if you’re in the Osaka/Kyoto region, don’t hesitate to get in touch via Twitter: @kansaibent or Email: .
One of the most important things you could do is to join the special interest group Stonewall Japan. Find out which block you are in (they’re a bit different than your National AJET Blocks), get in touch with your block representatives, and ask the Stonewall community any and all questions that you might have. They will be your best source of information and can give you a feel for what it’s like to be a queer JET in your area of Japan.
Being Out in the Workplace
Japan has come a long way, but it still has miles to go before queer people in Japan have full rights. Unlike western countries where discrimination is practiced under the basis of religion, Japanese opposition to homosexuality stems from the idea that people have a duty to create traditional one man one woman families and must make an effort to procreate. Coming out in your workplace will be something that you will need to test the waters on. There are no discrimination laws protecting you from being fired from your job for your orientation, so you will need to weigh the benefits against the risks of being out in your office. Don’t let your contract fool you. People can, have been, and unfortunately probably will in the future be fired for their orientation.
Japan follows a system of honne and tatemae which means that many people have their true self, and their “self that they display for others.” Unless you make close friends with the people in your Japanese community, you will hardly see your co-worker’s true self. You might work next to the same people for years, speak to them on a daily basis, and know nothing more about them than their last name. This provides an option for you to keep your private life separate from your work life. Some people will not be comfortable having to “go back in the closet” and that’s ok! Some queer JETs have even found ways to incorporate current events into their lessons and have been pillars of strength for queer students that feel alone in the world. This is a prime example of “every situation is different” motto that I’m sure you’re sick of hearing by now. Be careful, find your allies, and if it’s important to you to be out at work, then express that to your BoE/CO and make sure everyone is on the same page as you begin your journey in Japan.
Bars and Social Scenes
Most prefectures (yes, even the small, remote ones) will have some sort of hangout area or bar for guys who like guys. The best way to find these places in your area is to get in contact with fellow queer people around where you live. You’ll be surprised how many allies you may find around you. Be aware, some of these bars are not mixed, and they might prevent you from entering if you identify/appear female. A lot of them will have mixed nights though where you can bring all of your friends along with you. Checking updates with Twitter, Stonewall Japan, and Facebook are all great ways to find out what’s going on in your area.
If you’re familiar with dating apps in your home country, then you might be pleasantly surprised at the most popular options for gents in Japan. Dating apps provide a unique way to meet new people that share your interests. You are more likely to establish conversations with people on the apps than you are in bars/public etc. Be warned—if you’re looking to just make friends you will need to state your intentions from the beginning when establishing conversation with people. Using the apps is a great way to make friends if you’re in the inaka of Japan.
Also remember—you are a professional international ambassador, so please be mindful if you feel to need to exchange racy pictures. You never know what kind of digital information can find its way back to your BoE/Prefecture office.
9-Monsters – A Japanese original. Has RPG like elements to it allowing you to level up as you add people to your “breeding” list. Rather popular in Japan. Automatic translations provided with sent messages. Nice way to make friends with people that don’t speak English.
Grindr – Not as popular in Japan as it is in the West. Location information.
Jack’d – Commonly used dating app with location information.
As a side note: If you see some interesting kanji such as 凸 and 凹, just know that these are the kanji used for “top” and “bottom” by many people. They mean convex and concave respectively.
After establishing initial connection with someone, they will likely ask for your Line ID. Line is a useful, and more reliable way to message your new friends. It also doesn’t have annoying ads or slow loading time that some of the apps do.
While Japan has one of the lowest rates of AIDS in the world, it is still a legitimate health concern. Condom use in Japan also might not be as prevalent as is it in your home country; and you might find that Japanese condoms are less than suitable to the ones you are used to at home. You can find Western style condoms at Amazon Japan and other online retailers. Always be prepared. Just because your partner might be Japanese does not make you immune from STIs. Stay safe, prepared, and alert even in times of inebriation.
Check out Stonewall Japan’s Sexual Health resource page for info on testing services. If you’re in a small area, you still might be able to undergo testing at a local clinic, but the confidentiality might be questionable. Check clinics in your prefecture’s capital for info as well. Some clinics offer free testing.
The special interest group, Stonewall Japan, has an excellent guide on what to expect as a Trans JET. Check out the guide and various other resources here.