LGBTQ Living in Japan
This is an archive post written from the perspective of a queer cis-female who lived in Tokyo with LGBTQ friends who can speak English and Japanese (local and foreigners). As I do not have a family and am not trans, information for queer families and trans considerations comes second-hand from people I know who have shared their experiences and resources. This guide is no actively maintained.
- What are considerations if you’re moving to Japan?
- Legal Statuses, cisas and ID for Japan
- Trans considerations & access to HRT
- Workplace inclusion
- Daily life & social sentiments
- Community, events, spaces & meeting friends in Tokyo
- Community & making friends outside Tokyo & rural Japan
- Rainbow families
- What’s some good Japanese LGBTQ content to check out?
What are considerations if you’re moving to Japan?
For trans individuals, check the Stonewall Japan 2016 Guide. I will be referencing this guide in addition to the information I have because it’s quite comprehensive!
The answer to this would depend on stage of life. For example, if you are in your early-mid 20s and single, the main concerns may be going to events, meeting people, and forming a new friend circle. However, if you would like to move to Japan with a partner or family, then the first concerns are usually legal and administrative.
Here is a quick list of some considerations for moving countries in general:
- legal status to work
- ID, paperwork, opening a bank account, finding a place to live
- generally fitting in socially (neighbourhood)
- meeting new friends (LGBTQ or otherwise)
- school for kids
Note about skin colour, nationality, and language ability in shaping experiences
At this point I also want to highlight 2 significant factors for Japan that deeply colour people’s experiences:
- your perceived ethnicity & nationality
- Japanese language ability
Japan as a homogeneous society will make assumptions about how you look and it will have implications on first impressions as well as continued behaviour. You can draw patterns of experiences based on a person’s perceived identity and it helps to explain conflicting experiences between yourself and other friends.
For example, irrespective of your Japanese skill-level, if you are white, you will be signalled out. You may continuously get comments about how good your basic Japanese is. You may, after achieving Japanese fluency, be denied a room in a ryokan. This is also a small sample taste of how it feels to be a person of colour in other wealthy countries (Japan is the only wealthy country that is non-white dominant) and being white in Japan still comes with privileges that many Chinese, Indians, or Filipinos will never have.
In contrast, the Chinese, Malaysian or South Asian workers who speak fluent Japanese are often not respected in their workplaces. Finally, a local Japanese person who speaks fluent English is still subject to many gendered workplace expectations that we as foreigners are often exempt from.
Foreigners will encounter discrimination, and can sometimes even use it to their advantage. I begin with this to manage expectations — Japan is often frustrating for those who try to “get into the local scene”, and potentially a heaven for those who choose to live in their expat bubble. Personally, I think finding a middle ground in between is worthwhile.
If you are Chinese, like me, you may get away with looking Japanese enough in rural areas. I was often mistaken for Japanese and because I speak basic Japanese, people think I am a nisei (second generation Japanese person abroad).
Legal statuses, visas and IDs for Japan
Assuming you want to move here, a work visa / permit is important. Here are some places to start:
- Working Holiday Visa (check if your country is on the list). Canada, the UK, Australia are on the list. There isn’t an arrangement with the US (go petition your government, as it’s reciprocal).
- Working Permits: Japan has various work visas. Usually, the easiest one to get is one for teaching English. This is usually sponsored by your organization, such as the JET program or other chains. This visa is not transferrable to other professions, but it is possible to switch visas while in Japan.
- MNC internal transfer (i.e. international banks, consultancies etc.) — unless you are quite senior, not a realistic option unless you’re fluent in Japanese (like N1 level).
- Study in Japan (student visa), get a job and switch visas.
- Self-Sponsored Visa. Not recommended until after you’ve worked in Japan.
Same-sex marriage recognition
In the past, Japan didn’t recognize same-sex marriage. That basically means that partners may not get a spousal/dependent visa to come. However, Japan officially also in theory recognizes the marriage registrations of other countries. To be honest, the dependent visa isn’t the greatest, as you cannot work as the dependent.
In practice, what usually happened for companies that were supportive is that the partner would be brought in with a visa for “designated activities”.
An article discussing foreign LGBT people feeling that Japan is more safe (absence of violence) also mentions the issue of partnerships.
In 2015, Shibuya & Setagaya Wards in Tokyo was the first ward in Japan to offer same-sex unions. Since then, dozens of wards and cities have signed up to join the band wagon. This list will only keep growing.
In June 2018, Sapporo issued cards proving same-sex partnerships in case a partner becomes hospitalized.
As of June 2018, the cities that recognize same-sex marriage include:
- Shibuya Ward, Tokyo (2015)
- Setagaya Ward, Tokyo (2015)
- Nakano Prefecture (to issue certificates starting August 2018)
- Iga City, Mie Prefecture (2016)
- Takarazuka City, Hyogo Prefecture (2016)
- Naha, Okinawa Prefecture (2016)
- Sapporo, Hokkaido (2017)
- Fukuoka, Fukuoka Prefecture (2018)
- Nagasaki, Kyushu (announced it would join in June 2018 – Japanese)
Trans considerations & access to HRT
Identification and gender changes for trans individuals:
As a foreigner in Japan, go with the gender on your passport. In short, difficult to transition in Japan, but if you transition outside Japan, get a new passport with the gender marker changed, it will also be easy to change your identity card in Japan. Check the Stonewall Japan 2016 Guide for details.
If you want to learn about life for trans Japanese nationals, it is a different situation. As of March 2019, news has come out from Human Rights Watch that some transgender people in Japan are forced to undergo a series of invasive surgeries, including sterilization, to have their gender identity legally recognised. The Economist also reported on the news.
Access to HRT
If you require hormones, it is possible to get it with a doctor’s prescription. Also, in many ways, it is easier to get HRT in Japan than many other places as there is no / little stigma about Gender Identity Disorder (GID) in the Japanese health care system. For further information, you can read my upcoming spin-off post about navigating trans Japan.
The main message is: your first step and probably biggest hurdle is just finding an English speaking doctor to write the recommendation. In Japan, there isn’t as much regulation / gate keeping for GID and in Tokyo there will be a list of doctors who treat that. Even if you see a doctor who doesn’t specialize in it or you phone an English-speaking hospital, they will happily recommend other places to you.
If you have a doctor’s prescription from Canada, bring it. If you find a doctor / gynecologist who is comfortable with GID, you may be able to skip the referral from a psychiatrist to certify the need. If you need a psychiatrist, my trans friend recommended this hospital, which treats trans men and women and has a clinical psychologist, Sasaki Shoko, who trained for a bit in Canada. Some places may accept a clinical psychologist’s recommendation.
You can also check this Reddit question (2017). where one answer mentioned Dr. Kurosu speaks English and writes prescriptions for T in Tokyo. Note that the hormone prices can vary, so after you get the documents, you might want to shop around.
Most of corporate and local Japan does not have LGBTQ or Diversity & Inclusion programs. Sexism is still prevalent (pushing women out of work after they have children), and LGBTQ issues are not really addressed. Having said that, international companies such as Goldman Sachs, Japan Airlines, Nomura, IBM, and Google usually have internal networks that individuals can reach out to — even if there isn’t one yet for the Japan office, if you work with an international firm that has LGBTQ networks in other regions, reach out to them to learn how to get started.
There is now the Work With Pride Summit in Japan, one of the growing number of LGBTQ-related professional summits in East Asia.
The professional networks I’m aware of are:
These are the organizations advocating for LGBTQ workplace inclusion (mostly in Japanese):
Daily life and social sentiments
Crowds at LGBTQ events in Tokyo, with sponsorships from MNCs like Google — Photo by Athena Lam
I have a post titled Gay and Lesbian Tokyo: A Brief Guide that includes a section discussing whether Tokyo is LGBTQ-friendly and how to meet new friends. Some of the points will overlap, but the focus of this part is assuming someone is moving / living there and not travelling.
Worth re-iterating: public violence is rare against same-sex couples or gender ambiguity, especially in metropolitan areas like Tokyo and Osaka. This is because Japan (as with most of East Asia) generally doesn’t condone public violence.
As a couple moving to Japan, many neighbours will probably notice you more as “the foreigners” rather than “the gay couple”. Queerness may not necessarily be understood or recognized, so you may have very friendly neighbours who think you’re friends or flatmates.
If you are looking for a flat as a couple, there may be issues getting a place if you do not disclose that you are partners as in Japan landlords may rent only to flat shares who are relatives (so basically anyone single trying to share a flat even with a friend is a challenge). If you do disclose you are partners, you may be rejected. If you have a child, then not coming out may not be an option. If you are being brought in by a company, I suggest you ask the company’s HR about possible support for finding a flat. A warning to JET teachers in Tokyo — many of the real estate agents that serve the JET Tokyo program have no incentive to do a good job and often give overpriced places. Try to schedule your own viewings during the orientation period they give you to have other options.
At work, it is common that long-time co-workers know nothing about each other’s families. (Please also read this piece that talks about being in the closet, which contradicts my statement.) If you’re not entirely comfortable being out at work, you will not be the only mysterious colleague in the group, though it may seem a bit unfriendly. I also feel that the awkwardness of being asked about girlfriends / boyfriends is universal and not specific to Japan. You may have the awkward situation of your manager trying to set you up. The manager setting two single colleagues up (younger, junior female with senior male) is still commonly practiced as an unspoken social norm for locals, especially in large companies, but likely won’t happen for foreigners.
While casual homophobia is prevalent and Japan is by no means LGBTQ-friendly, as someone who’s lived there I feel that most people are either unaware, ambivalent, or don’t have strong enough opinions to act on them (unless it’s their child or friend and they have to think deeper about the issue). People who watch anime or Japanese dramas will also be aware that many gender nonconforming and bi/gay characters are quite popular. Boys love (shortened as BL) and yaoi is often created for straight female audiences and hentai for straight male ones. Talk shows and TV dramas also have comical caricatures that are not the most flattering, but often endearing. This is all to say…in it’s own strange way, mainstream Japan has created a romanticisation or fetisization of same-sex relationships.
My personal opinion is that an individual is judged more for their perceived service to society and family — that they have a good job and have a family with a child. Anything else sort of goes, implicitly or explicitly, as is certainly the case for many salary men who spend more at hostess clubs on their own wives. Out of this sexist arrangement is that in some ways, what is done outside marriage may often be accepted, grudgingly or otherwise. There was a Chinese analysis piece titled 「當同志遇上「家」」(When same-sex [relationships] encounter “family”) that discusses how the TV show Tonari no Kazoku wa Aoku Mieru (2018) and movie Ototo no Otto / My Brother’s Husband (2018) may seem to encompass different types of families, but has a common underlying concept of family: all of these unorthodox families wanted / or were subject to the expectations of having a child. Even if someone was in a same-sex relationship, it doesn’t prevent him from producing offspring, in which case it’s mostly OK. This repeats some other anecdotal explanations I have heard where as long as individuals keep up a previous heterosexual marriage intact, there can sometimes be implicit agreements to be separated and have extramarital relationships with a same-sex partner.
From a day-to-day perspective, I personally do not think the LGBTQ identity will be as much of an issue. Instead, the bigger issue is usually the language barriers and probably cultural differences. Most people don’t speak English, especially outside Tokyo, though I will say that Japan has improved dramatically in the past 5 years. I think most people in Tokyo now, because of the 2020 Olympics, will at least venture a word or two of English to try to help. But for more complex issues such as renting a flat, registering yourself in your Ward / City, or getting your toilet fixed, there will likely be many challenges. My best advice if you do not speak enough functional Japanese is to make a bilingual friend or two. It will make the system far easier to learn.
Daily life & sentiments about trans individuals
If you are trans and pass / do not seem gender ambiguous, you will be generally treated as your gender. If you are misgendered and correct someone, it is likely that they will take your gender at face value without challenging it. This can be a mixture of social gender binary expectations, not being confrontational in general, or maybe lack of awareness.
A note on trans toilets. If you look like the “expected” gender for a toilet, it’s likely no-one will challenge you. But even if you are genderqueer or don’t feel safe going to your preferred toilet, most places have a wheelchair accessible toilet that says minna no toire (みんなのトイレ or 皆んなのトイレ) which means “Everyone’s Toilet”. I’ve used it liberally for expediency purposes.
If you speak Japanese and are trans, you will likely know this already: you can present your gender through the pronouns you give yourself (rather than what other people give you) and the way you conjugate verbs. If you are gender ambiguous, I am not as sure of what the experience is. If you are in Tokyo, people likely won’t think too much because there are enough eccentric people, but the countryside will probably be a bit more awkward. I have a friend who transitioned while in Japan and speaks fluent Japanese, so he’s shared his experience feeling of being able to present as he wanted to colleagues.
Though I’m not trans or genderqueer, I was often mistaken for a boy in the countryside. Sometimes I run with it out of curiosity. Other times people realize right away, but with short cropped hair and mostly gender neutral / masculine clothes, I’m pretty atypical. I’ve never felt threatened.
Community, events, spaces & meeting friends in Tokyo
Below is information for someone who wants to grow roots in Tokyo / Japan.
Historically, Pre-Meiji Japan has had same-sex relationships that have a more transient identity — as in, the choice of partner and sex act does not automatically mean a “gay” label. The Wikipedia article on Homosexuality in Japan does a pretty decent job of covering codified monastic and military (samurai) same-sex love, relationships, and contracts as well as male prostitution. The “homosexual” or “gay” identity is a Western import.
Because gay and lesbian labels as popular usage is relatively new (10-20 years?), there is there is an ambivalence amongst locals in using the term. Though they do not articulate it academically as a construct, many individuals say they don’t identify with LGBT representations in an online opinion survey in 2018 by Nijiiro News. The finding is somewhat consistent with my own experiences where I feel local Japanese do not feel a need to be in a larger, visible community; the ones that are not out do not necessarily feel safe being in that visible community either (as the concern is being outed to family/friends without the Western need to band together to protect against violence). Many are comfortable with their queer circle of friends. This then means that aside from highly visible bars in Shinjuku Ni-Chome, there are fewer queer-related physical spaces, but there can be active programming.
My advice for making friends in Tokyo is more for foreigners than LGBTQ individuals. Getting to know different types of people goes miles for a great experience. For example, there are the bicultural locals who can help explain cultural quirks or contextualize frustrations. There may be other foreigners to reminisce about home with. And, I’ve befriended many locals who have a lot of warmth and generosity if we’re patient enough with the language gaps. My tips would be to try everything and even if you fail the first time, give it 3 tries and make an effort to change your approach each time.
Meetup.com worked well for me. I only went to about 3-5, but found two of my best friend groups from them (one language exchange and the Tokyo Instameet group). Other options are asking friends (even outside of Japan) to refer friends, your university alumni network (or crashing another uni alumni event), work friends, activities (such as crafts, hiking is great for less talking). These channels can apply for LGBTQ events, such as the Tokyo LGBTQIAP+ and Supporters — and if they have no event coming up, message the hosts to offer doing one like a historical walk. Jackie, the meetup group host, lives outside of Tokyo, but was always very supportive of suggestions
Also follow news on Hello!Rainbow, an app that is being developed to connect the LGBTQ community through low-stress coffee chats. You can find more information via “Project Rainbow” or Chelsea Hostetter (Twitter: @chostett).
You can also check out the growing number of Japanese accounts on Instagram including:
Community & making friends outside Tokyo or in rural Japan
Get a Twitter account and save key Japanese search terms. This is true even for people in Tokyo, but Tokyo has more channels. Japanese people are huge users of LINE for messaging and and Twitter for news.
Cities outside Tokyo
Good news: if you are in Osaka and the Kansai area with a rainbow family it might be even better than Tokyo. In my searches, I found that Kansai seems to have far more community programs than Tokyo (mostly clubbing and corporate) and one friend has told me that many events are also inter-generational (not something you’ll find in Tokyo).
If you are in rural Japan and want a support network, stay within a convenient train / highway bus ride to cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Fukuoka so you can join events. Below is a short sample list of Japanese communities & events on Twitter:
Other places in Japan
- Sapporo Rainbow Pride
- Nijiro Miyazaki
- Rainbow Pride Ehime
- Proud Okayama
- Arinomama ni jibun rashiku for Takarazuka City (roughly Come as you Are)
See my full Japan LGBTQ Community Twitter List here. Some groups are more active on Twitter and haven’t updated their website in over a year.
Making friends in rural Japan.
Befriend a neighbour or two. If you are in a small town or village and learn some basic Japanese conversation topics (the weather) to converse with a neighbour. I’ve spent some months in various parts of Shikoku and we would often have neighbours dropping by looking for my host, help make umeboshi (pickled plums), or leave a basket of cucumbers. Rural Japan can be a dramatic change and a huge disconnect for those used to urban life and a strong queer support network. However, I find it is also a place that affords the space for us to just get to know each other as people, living off the land and seasons.
Rainbow families & LGBTQ considerations for schools
Finally, if you are moving to Japan with a spouse and child, there are additional complications. Many challenges are similar perhaps to home countries with issues such as whether both parents’ names are on the birth certificate and have custody. These have trickle down effects for hospital visits, attending school events, etc.
No family’s experience is transferrable as it is contingent on too many factors (location in Japan, nationality, marital status, child’s status, company in Japan, visa situation), so this section has more to do with schools.
Fostering for same-sex couples was previously not possible. However, Osaka made news by being the first city to recognise a first same-sex couple as foster parents.
Rainbow Family Groups
Japan also has Rainbow Family support groups. I’ve listed the ones I know of below (which are mostly Japanese):
- Rainbow Families (Nijiro Kazoku) — they often participate in Tokyo’s Rainbow Pride
- LGBT Family & Friends Group (LGBT no Kazoku to Yuujin o Tsunagukai LGBTの家族と友人を繋ぐ会)
- Rainbow Family Sapporo
- Osaka has them — maybe just try to get into the community and ask around.
School policies and stories
Schools in Japan have a huge problem with bullying and it is a common topic in mainstream dramas and television. Bullying is often not the locker-shoving violence that Americans may be used to. It often comes in ways like group ostracization and name calling.
In 2017, Japan updated the Basic Policy for the Prevention of Bullying to protect against gender identity and sexual orientation. In theory, this offers better protection for LGBTQ students and and queer families in Japan and has also coincided with increasing public activism. Of course, there’s a long road between policy and practice, but there is already work being done in places beyond the cities. I found this guide written by an non-profit (NPO): LGBT Ally Teacher’s School Kit. This also means that more resources are put into school and teacher training for LGBTQ-specific issues.
One woman I know is Japanese and met her partner in Canada. They moved back to her hometown in southern Japan with their daughter. The mom weighed the options for informing the school about her and her partner and met with the principal because she did not want her young daughter to feel that her parents were hiding something. In her case, she knew the principal and when she told him, he was supportive and told her that he had the teachers in his school go through a workshop to addressing LGBTQ issues because of struggling students he had met in previous years. This likely isn’t representative of Japan, but it does confirm an official national roll out of the policy. Whether the principals in turn drive the issue or bring in facilitators for teachers is another issue, but not all situations are necessarily an uphill battle from the onset.
My sister worked in a local Japanese school in Tokyo and my trans friend also taught in rural Japan before switching industries. My sister’s school, which was in a low-income area with many former drop-out students who were returning to school, had trans students with supportive teachers. The supportive teachers reflects the roles of teachers in the Japanese education system. Teachers are expected to watch over and look after their students, to the point where teachers will phone home to ask why a student has skipped class (again!). Teachers have pressure to keep attendance rates up and by extension, whatever they think of trans individuals, they are institutionally pressured to make it work. Also check the Access to HRT section above for further explanations on Japan’s perception of GID.
What’s some good Japanese LGBTQ content to check out?
A word of caution, Japanese websites are not that great. They may not be mobile friendly, be broken, loaded with text, and not updated often. If you’ve found something off Google search and find the website out of date, don’t despair — try clicking on their Facebook and Twitter logos to see if they have upcoming news.
Also, a lot of events go down the grapevine faster — another benefit of meeting some local Japanese friends.
Also check out Masaki Matsumoto‘s English content. They’re a Japanese native speaker, but they studied abroad and have excellent in-depth pieces for LGBT-related topics.
Check out Queer Japan, which is in English on Twitter to get into the feel of things. Also check information on Nijiiro News, which has resources for gay men and expats.
For the rest, please check out my Gay and Lesbian Tokyo Guide, where I have a content section.
Also, please check out my LGBTQ Decision Making Approaches for Asia post to see how international people and locals may often have different priorities for life choices.
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