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  • Charles McCutcheon

Past and Present of LGBTQ in Japan

Modern Japan is more conservative on the issues of romance and sexual diversity compared to many Western countries. However, in truth, until very recently diverse sexual expression was common in Japan. It was only because of the adoption of western ideas that they became taboo. The widely-held misconception that Japan is "tolerant of homosexuality" is what perpetuates LGBTQ invisibility in Japan.

Sexual intercourse between men is also known as ‘nanshoku’. Between the Edo/Sengoku and Meiji periods, it was as normalized as the act of sexual intercourse between men and women. Nanshoku was common in places where there were considerably more men than women; temples and shrines, battlefields with many samurai, and metropolitan areas with few women. Nanshoku was also practiced in other countries, including China and South Korea, but only in Japan was it not ridiculed and seen as taboo.

However, as a result of westernization, nanshoku became illegal in the 19th century. Japan entered the Meiji era in 1868, and the Meiji Restoration began. Along with the Meiji Restoration, a movement to westernize Japanese systems and customs - called ‘Bunmei-kaika’ (English ‘civilization and enlightenment’) - had begun. Bunmei-kaika brought many positive changes to Japanese society, but also adopted Western customs that were often more conservative than pre-existing Japanese ones. Nanshoku was one of the Japanese customs that became taboo due to Westernization. Sexual activity between men became known as ‘keikanzai’ and became illegal in 1872. However, it was not that homosexuality itself became illegal, but rather the act of nanshoku - sexual intercourse between men. So, when did homosexuality itself become taboo?

The concept of homosexuality in Japanese society was established in the 1910s. Romantic relationships between women, at the time called ‘ome’ and ‘odeya’, were popular in the media, and double suicides of lesbian couples - which happened often during this period of time – attracted widespread attention. In middle and high school dormitories especially, lesbian relationships were seen as a problem because it was ‘difficult to distinguish’ between a friendship and a romantic relationship. Different opinions about whether or not these students should receive sex education to ‘correct’ their sexual relations prompted the birth of a field of science called ‘sexology’ in Japan, a field of science that already existed in the West. Inspired by the ideas of Western sexology in the 1920s, Japanese sexologists began to label homosexual attraction as a ‘perverted desire’, because they thought homosexuality was unnatural and should be medically treated. When nanshoku became illegal, it was seen as the responsibility of the individual, but according to 1920s sexology, homosexuals were seen as sick deviants led astray at the fault of their families.

In present-day society, many people think that Japan is ‘tolerant’ of homosexuality because its views towards homosexuality are distinct from the attitudes of the West. But to claim that Japan is tolerant is to deny the ongoing discrimination against homosexuals in Japan. The ‘tolerance’ seen in Japan is often passively tolerating homosexuality, however not actively doing anything to lift up the LGBTQ community. For example, same-sex marriage, a sure indicator of the progression of LGBTQ rights in a country, is not yet allowed in Japan. Furthermore, during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, many Japanese philosophers, such as Shouhei Yonemoto and Norio Akasaka, insisted that there was no discrimination against LGBTQ people in Japan because Japan has no homophobic religious background. At the same time, however, a bill that threatened the human rights of the LGBTQ community was passed; the AIDS Prevention Law. Insisting that Japanese society is ‘tolerant’ is and has been a strategy to conceal homophobia and discrimination against LGBTQ people.

Moreover, the LGBTQ population in Japan is almost invisible because there is very poor media representation of them. The general impression of a queer person in Japan is the drag kings and queens who appear on Japanese variety shows and comedy TV. Gays and lesbians who do not do drag or cross-dress are much less likely to be represented in the media. Therefore, when queer people - who have very diverse expressions of gender and may seem straight or cisgender - come out, they are often ignored. This ignorance contributes to the invisibility of the LGBTQ community, and this invisibility is one of the main reasons why there is the misconception that Japan is tolerant towards LGBTQ people. Reducing the visibility of their discrimination only further perpetuates their struggles. In order to change the so-called ‘tolerant’ Japanese society that does not talk about LGBTQ issues, each Japanese person must make an effort to understand LGBTQ identities and discrimination.

Japan has been accepting of diverse sexual expressions since ancient times but began to consider them taboo due to the influence of westernization. The widely-held misconception that Japan is ‘tolerant of homosexuality’ perpetuates LGBTQ invisibility. What each Japanese person can do to help the situation is to avoid making assumptions, and to fight invisibility by asking questions and researching LGBTQ issues and history. Firstly, do not assume that the people around you are straight or cisgender. When asking questions about people’s love life, use words such as ‘partner’ that do not assume gender rather than words such as ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’. Also, when you can, ask questions about the LGBTQ community and listen with respect. Please also educate the people around you and help them to become allies of the LGBTQ community. By doing these things, you can help create a society that is truly tolerant of LGBTQ people.

Edited by Emiru okada

Graphic by Charles McCutcheon and Ayumi White


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