Hi everyone! I’m Kirsten, the previous chair of LUPride. The past six months, I’ve been travelling Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand with my girlfriend. As a gay couple, travelling the world is of course a bit different. For this reason, a blogpost on our experiences seemed like something that other (LGBT+) people might find interesting to read. I personally love to read about travel experiences of other people and as an LGBT+ person, I consider it a bit of a necessity, as not all countries are safe for us to travel or to be ‘out’ in. During this once-in-a-lifetime trip, I’ve made notes on how people react to us, a female gay couple, and how queerness in general is treated in the countries I’ve been to. So if you’d like to know how it is to travel around as a female gay couple in these countries and like a bit of a personal story, instead of relying only on official information from the government and tourist websites: here is my story!
Of course, this is only a female gay perspective on travelling as queer people and only in these specific countries. Other areas of the LGBT+ spectrum and different countries will need their own story teller.
I hope you like my story!
Part 1: Japan
Our first stop was Japan. Although this was already my fourth time in Japan, it was only the second time I’m here while being out of the closet and the first taking my girlfriend with me. A whole new experience!
Being gay in Japan, is legal and usually isn’t that of a big deal for the people here. I’m a member of the Stonewall Japan Facebook (there is a public and a private one); the LGBT+ organization of Japan. They have subgroups in most major cities/areas in Japan, and people have lively discussions on the page on how to approach certain topics of LGBT+ in Japan and how to present themselves at work or universities. The group consists of both Japanese people and foreigners and most discussions are in English, which makes it very accessible for people who are in Japan for the first time. Most people on the forum agree that being gay in Japan isn’t a big deal, as long as you don’t put it in people’s faces: don’t come out on your first day of work during your self-introduction, but it’s safe to tell people when they ask. This seems to be a bit similar to my experience in the Netherlands. You don’t go: ‘Hi there! I’m Gay, who are you?’ Of course, being able to come out easily differs per work environment, both in the Netherlands and Japan, but this is the general rule.
Coming out as trans in Japan often poses a bit of a problem. Japanese people are very familiar with ‘just for fun’ crossdressers in talk shows, but don’t always understand that some people are actually trans and are not ‘dressing up’ for a role they play. I once met a woman who was a regular ‘salaryman’ (suit, tie, everything) at her job in Tokyo. All her colleagues thought she was a man. However, a few times per month she went to a small village with lots of tourists, where nobody knew her, and put on a Lolita dress, long stockings, a wig and everything that made her feel like herself. That’s how I met her. She was completely open about it, but only when ‘on vacation’. She didn’t really want to bother the people at her job with her ‘identity issues’. I hope that one day she feels safe enough to be herself at her job as well.
Most Japanese people are not against homosexuality per se, and seem to be okay with transgender people to a certain extend as well. About the other letters of the LGBT+ spectrum, I don’t know that much. As long as it is not their own kid, the Japanese usually find gay people either interesting, amusing or give it only a shrug of their shoulders. However, gay marriage is currently still unrecognized. In some areas in Tokyo and some Japanese cities, civil unions between same sex couples are performed, which gives same-sex partners hospital visitation rights and makes it possible to become recipients of each other’s life insurance money, for example. However, article 24 of the Japanese Constitution still states that: “marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife as a basis”. It is possible to change ones gender in Japan, but this is only recognized after undergoing surgery. Basically, your genitals decide what gender you are in this country. However, both gender- and sexual conversion are banned!
Tokyo Rainbow Pride
Although legal protections and possibilities for LGBT+ people are still scarce in Japan, things are starting to change. The Setagaya and Shibuya wards in Tokyo have accepted same sex civil partnership in 2015, followed by Iga, Takarazuka and Naha in 2016, Sapporo (the first big city) in 2017 and Fukuoka (Japans’ fourth biggest city) only this year. Still a long way to go, but progress is being made. Tokyo Rainbow Pride has also seen a big growth over the past couple of years. It started in 2012 with only 2500 people attending the parade. In 2013 this had already increased to 12.000, becoming 14.000 in 2014, and 55.000 in 2015, after the US legalized same sex marriages. This year, Ayumi Hamasaki, one of Japans biggest popstars, if not the biggest, even gave a free concert in support of the LGBT+ community! 150.000 people attended the 9-day event. A record high! The event was promoted by all kinds of brands and companies who distributed rainbow colored shopping bags, turned their logos rainbow colored or just sponsored the event. It was really cool to walk through Tokyo in early May and see all the rainbow colored stuff in the Shibuya and Yoyogi areas of Tokyo. I felt suddenly very much accepted in a country where I usually feel like I shouldn’t show other people too much of myself.
Still, I won’t walk hand in hand with my girlfriend anywhere here. Not because people will think we’re weird, but because almost nobody does that here, even as a straight couple. Maybe when you’re a high school student or really want to be a show off with your partner, but most people walk just next to each other, without touching. Kissing and cuddling in public is even more strange. If you get funny looks in Japan when you kiss your same-sex partner, it’s probably not just because you’re gay, but because your kissing at all!
As I said before, the law might not recognize same-sex couples here most of the time, the people usually don’t mind or even think it’s cool. Upon arriving at hotels and being told that the room with one two-person bed is ready, the hotel staff sometimes asks if we didn’t make a mistake in our reservation. But most hotels and hostels don’t ask any questions.
Especially young school girls are very fast to notice/assume our sexuality. Not realizing I speak Japanese, we overheard a whole conversation of Junior High School girls walking behind us, evaluating our clothes and the way we walked. In The Netherlands, we would definitely not be categorized as butch. Yet, in Japan, I usually feel that speaking up, having an opinion, not wearing make-up, wearing pants and walking in a resolute manner, makes us butch. Or at least not very feminine. But that probably goes for most Caucasian girls here. Both gay and straight. The high school girls finally concluded that we must be gay, after discussing our choice of clothing for five minutes.
Another group of girls that we encountered at one of the temples we visited, were also very confused about our way of walking. At one point, one of the girls daringly said: ‘that’s because they’re LGBT, you know.’ Well, although the girls all generalized quite a bit, I’m happy to see they know what LGBT is.
In Japan there is a HUGE, and I mean HUGE section of so called BL or yaoi (better known as boy love) within manga books. One would think that this is directed at gay men, but it seems to be mostly directed at women, who adore and ship this kind of love. There also is a much smaller section on GL, yuri or girl love, mostly directed at men and further developed into hentai, a lot of naked girls having sex. Same sex relationships, however fictive, are idolized by a lot of young and not so young Japanese people, usually of the other sex. Although there is quite a bit of girl love manga that I enjoy as well, the largest part I gladly avoid, as it seems to be made into a boys fantasy, with suddenly appearing male organs or the whole book pictured through the eyes of a teenage boy watching his all-female class getting into an orgy.
This interest in same-sex relationships are, although sometimes fun to read, not necessarily the same as acceptance or even tolerance of LGBT+ people. As is often the case with manga and anime, it shows something that is not accepted or real in everyday life in Japan. You are not a ninja in an old Japanese village, you are not a super sayan, you usually don’t spontaneously roll into an orgy on your first day of school and you don’t kiss your same sex partner on the streets while she’s accidently not wearing anything without anyone noticing. In books it’s possible, but these types of stories aren’t anything new, and haven’t changed laws in Japan.
However, with the growth in interest for the LGBT+ community in Japan and with the introduction of same-sex partnership in Japan, more LGBT+ stories will hopefully also be written. When I was there, I bought ‘yagate kimi ni naru’ (Bloom Into You), a sweet story about two girls falling in love. And I hope to find more stories like this!
Overall, most Japanese I encountered seem to be pretty okay with female gay people, especially when they’re just there to visit. They find it interesting, amusing or just don’t know how to react, but I’ve never gotten a bad reaction, other than: ugh, tourists. So that’s good. Hopefully, with current developments in mind, LGBT+ individuals will soon be accepted and normalized everywhere in Japan!