What It’s Like Being Gay In Japan

Professional content creator, social media editor, web producer and blogger Hajime Okazawa is a strong advocate for the LGBT community. He’s a mix of different values; he’s friendly and chatty, yet he doesn’t feel the need to constantly be the livewire of every party. It’s incredibly easy to hold a conversation with him; he’s open-minded and very willing to share. If you check his Instagram feed out, you will catch a glimpse of his main passions – fashion, food, design, and anything lifestyle!

I interviewed Hajime because I wanted to understand what it is like being gay in Japan. The longer I live in Japan, the more I realize how conservative Japanese society can be, though this is something that’s definitely changing.

Hajime begins our interview by telling me about a tragic event that recently occurred.

 

“A student in one of the top law schools of Japan fell in love with his classmates. He came out to him and said that he loved him. His classmate said, “Okay, I’m happy and flattered with this, but I’m not gay. Thank you for telling me.”

But this classmate didn’t keep it a secret, and outed this secret to a few friends, and also in a LINE group chat where there were 10 friends there, including this gay student. The gay student started having panic disorders and went to see a doctor. He slowly stopped going to school. He also consulted the school counselor three times, but was only told, “Understanding the pain of people is a good quality for a lawyer. You will be a good one.”

His parents became very worried about him as they wondered why they were losing contact with him. One day, he went to a mock trial class, and 49 minutes after the class started, he jumped off the roof of a building. He was only 25.

The school didn’t take this seriously, even after his death. They just thought, oh, a gay student died because he was dumped.”

It’s incredibly sad to hear stories like these, and one can only hope we foster more tolerance and understanding in society. And also, the ability for one to keep a secret to one’s self. It’s really sad that in today’s day and age, many of us aren’t free to express who we are.

These stories are incredibly sad to hear, and one can only hope we foster more tolerance and understanding in society. It’s tragic, that in today’s day and age, so many of us are still not free to express the truth of who we are.

How old was Hajime when he discovered he was gay?

“I knew when I was 3. Yes, I was very young and small. When I was in junior high, around the age of 13 or 14, boys around me were talking about girls and naughty things like how they would get a boner .I started realizing I was different.  I remembered fantasising about superheroes in spandex when I was small, so maybe that was a sign!”

We both hoot with laughter at the thought of tightly clad spandex superheroes, before moving on to how it felt like being so different. Did he tell his friends, or was this something he kept a secret?

“It made me realize that if I came out, it would be something that brought relationships and friendships down, and it made me scared.”

“I kept it to myself for a long time. I remember coming out to one of my closest friends for the first time in high school. I had two very good friends, and I fell in love with one of them. I told the other guy that I was in love with him and that I wasn’t straight. I said this in a very indirect manner, and he was very surprised. He told me not to tell the other guy that I was gay, and that it would ruin the friendship. It made me realize that if I came out, it would be something that brought relationships and friendships down. It made me scared.”

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I imagine it must have been very tiring to keep this a secret.

“It was. I’m very open about it now, but remembering the days of when I was in high school, and in my first company for 10 years and not telling anyone about it, it was very stressful then. I’ve heard that banks like Goldman Sachs are very open and actually do training about diversity. They have workshops, where they pick a straight person and get them to act like a gay or lesbian person, and feel how it is like to carry a secret in the workplace. There was a study done wherewhen you have a secret in the workplace, it gives you 20% more stress and inefficiency in the workplace. So they had a very financial way of looking at it and decided to kill all the inefficiency that was coming towards them!”

“In the past few years, we have seen quite a lot of progress. Wards like Shibuya and Setagaya, along with other cities in Takarazuka city in Hyogo, Iga city in Mie and Naha city in Okinawa have started to recognize same sex partnership. That’s a big step which we never expected to happen so early.”

Hajime talks candidly about how being gay was considered very fashionable in the 80s.

“Being gay now is normalized. Back in the 80s and 90s when Calvin Klein came out with their male models, naked with only a pair of boxer briefs, that was the first time when people started referring to it as homoerotic, not homosexual. People used this erotic approach as marketing, and since then, being homosexual or gay became fashionable.”

“People will think, oh, he or she is more creative than straight people!”

“The old perception of being gay was that it was a very cool or hipster thing. Nowadays, after people have started to normalize it, some have become resistant to the normalization of it, because they want to feel special. They want to be seen as weird, sensitive or artistic because we’re gay. Although you really cannot be artistic just because you’re gay. Back in the 70’s and 80’s, even straight people started coming out as gay or bisexual. David Bowie came out as gay in 1972, but became bisexual 4 years later and in 1993 he told Rolling Stone that he’d been a “closeted heterosexual”. Even in Japan, I heard it was quite popular to come out as bisexual instead of homosexual. People like stylists and makeup artists claimed themselves to be bisexual because it was cool and fashionable and it made it easier to get close to girls too. People would think, oh, he or she is more creative than straight people!”

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Since Hajime is very open and comfortable with his own sexuality, what would his advice be to a young teenage boy starting to discover himself?

“I’m really glad I did a one-year stint abroad in England, and I can now speak English better than the average Japanese.When you speak more languages, you have more choices. You can work abroad, or in a diverse working environment. This is why I can work in an MNC with a very diverse working environment. Here, I feel really open and accepted.In the first company I worked in, I was very closeted because it was a very Japanese, domestic type of publisher. Everything about it was very traditional. The culture and the job, even though I was working for a fashion magazine for young women. It was very big on craftsmanship culture. Your senior editor doesn’t teach you anything. They just tell you to look at their back, and you get a little sneak peek of what they’re doing, and then you learn to steal the technique. It’s really craftsmanship culture! There was a lot of violence as well! (laughs) If you did something wrong, they would hit you. The movie “Devil Wears Prada” wasn’t bad enough. The reality was worse for junior young editors. It was very, very old fashioned. I never ever thought about coming out in the office.”

 

If he came out in a typical, traditional Japanese company, what would he expect the reaction to be?

“Japanese people never react immediately to anything, but they would slowly start distancing themselves. They would feel like something about you is different. In Japanese society, it’s very important to be communal. You really have to fit in to accomplish the same goals and rules. There was a survey by the Japan Labor Union Association that asked how people would feel if they found out their colleagues were LGBT. 35% answered they would feel offended, while 81% had never experienced or heard of any LGBT coming out. So it’s understandable that only 4.8% come out in the office.

I think it’s easier to be gay if you’re a foreigner living in Japan, because people know you’re different. They understand that you’re different anyway. Being different is beautiful in the States, but being the same is beautiful in Japan.”

Would he expect to be bullied?

“The way Japanese people bully is by keeping a distance. It’s not like an American TV drama where you get pushed around. It’s more mental bullying, which is what I think happened to the law student.”

Would he expect a career backlash if he came out?
“If you work in a more traditional company, yes. There are a few really traditional trading companies that have been in business for over a hundred years. They have this idea that you’re not a real guy if you’re not married. However, this perception is changing. In the 80s and 90s, the economy was bubbling, and everyone had this concept of being single and enjoying the single life. It was called ‘Dokushin Kizoku’. Dokushin means being single, Kizoku means ‘noble, celebrity’, which translates to making the best out of being single as a guy. This word was invented in 1977, and it was seen as prestigious to be single and enjoying life! Gay people started using the word to describe themselves. It was like, oh, I’m just being single and enjoying my life! That’s why in the 80s, during the bubble boom, there wasn’t anything done about legalizing it. Being gay then was fashionable, and it was all about this image of being cool and different. And for all those gay people in the 60s and 70s, they’re all married and have grandchildren now. Back then they had no idea about this ‘Dokushin Kizoku’ concept. They knew they would go to Ni Chome, the largest LGBT district in Tokyo but they all had families and it was just really common to have an affair. And then for the people in the bubble boom who were busy being single, and are now over the age of 60, they realize that nothing is really legalized for gay couples.

 

“If you go to an ER and you’re not an officially legalized partner, you can’t see him or sign a consent form for any kind of emergency surgery.”

“I knew a couple. The house caught fire, and one them died in it. The other guy was away. They had never come out to their parents, so nobody knew they were together, apart from their gay friends. When the other guy came back to their place, it was all gone, and it had been under the contract of the guy who had died. So this guy now had nothing, no house, no belongings, and had to start from scratch. These things happen, and that’s probably why we’ve started becoming more active about legalizing gay marriage, as we’ve realized the law isn’t giving us the same benefits as other couples. And if you’re not out to the parents of your partner, you have to come to the funeral as a friend. If you go to an ER and you’re not an officially legalized partner, you can’t see him or sign a consent form for any kind of emergency surgery. There are all these sad stories, and that’s why I think in 2014, 2015, people have started realizing the constitution doesn’t allow us the same benefits. We’re NORMAL people. We want to have the same benefits.”

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Do Hajime’s parents know he’s gay?

“No. I think my mom and brother may know, but that’s without me telling them. I don’t know if my dad knows. He might know, but he still says that unless you’re married, you’re not a real guy.”

Hajime explains to me that there is also a hierarchy in the gay world, though this hierarchy might differ in different cities. I ask who is at the top tier of the hierarchy.

“Before the Internet, bartenders in gay bars, go-go-boys and DJs at gay parties were on the top tier. After the emergence of the Internet, everyone started making his or her own websites. There are some gay Internet idols. Now, there’s a term called ‘shiny gay’ to describe people who show off their fabulous lives on Instagram. There’s also a very interesting demographic difference between Twitter gays and Instagram gays, too. Twitter is very popular in Japan because of the anonymity, and is now the 2nd biggest market following the US.”

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Today, there are more and more publications, both mainstream and indie, targeting the LGBT community.

What was life like being gay, before the Internet became really big?

He recalls a day when he was in a local bookstore, browsing through magazines.

 

“I happened to find a gay magazine at a local bookstore. Back then, the Internet was around, but it wasn’t so common. There were things like pen pals, and I found an article in a magazine that was from a university. They had an LGBT community in the university, and an email address to contact then. When I got a letter from my university that I was accepted, I emailed this community. At the time, I didn’t know anyone gay around me, so I was the only one. But I knew there were a lot of people from the magazine, and I remember meeting the other members on the first day of school. We had a hanami party! But after awhile, the community fell apart, because the lead representative dated everyone, ha ha ha! Also, the founder of the community and one of the reps at the time had different ideas of what they wanted for the community. The founder wanted to create a space where closeted students could feel safe and at home in the university. The rep wanted to take it a step further to make it a place where they could find dates, like many of the other communities in the university. He wanted to normalize it, but that didn’t work out.

I re-founded the community after. I created a website for it, and then its existence slowly took place, and it’s been over 15 years with more than 10 people taking over as representatives.

Some communities in universities, like Waseda, have different attitudes. They’ve actually officialized the community, make promotions, give out pamphlets, and really ask people to join!

I targeted people from the countryside, who probably didn’t know other gay people, so I kept the community unofficial and confidential. When I first met these freshmen, and they would say to me, “Oh, you’re the first gay person I’ve never met!”, I felt really pressured. I could give them the wrong impression about gays! So I tried really hard to be nice, and spend a lot of time in that community. I met people from all over Japan!

Hajime’s never shy to speak his mind.

Does he ever want to get married?

“I’m not sure. I’ve never had this idea of getting married. I’ve never thought of it.”

Hajime brings up a point that I’d never thought of before. In male female relationships, there are usually typical gender roles assigned, although of course, these roles are being challenged in modern times. In a male male relationship, there are no typical roles.

“They put themselves in the same shoes as their parents, so it’s easier to understand the relationship.”

“Since there never really was a module on being a gay couple, a lot of gays tend to apply the module of male female relationship to their top bottom relationship. I think everyone uses his or her parents as role models. Now, it’s a little bit different. In some cases, there are a dominant role like the ‘male’ who is stronger and the traditional Japanese woman who takes a step back and plays a more supportive role. This type of couple works and tends to have a longer relationship because they have the same idea of being a couple. If you’re both male, sometimes these couples assign one as the ‘wife’ and one as the ‘husband’ so they know how the relationship should go. They put themselves in the same shoes as their parents, so it’s easier to understand the relationship.

My friend’s ex-boyfriend used to call him yome, 嫁, which is a traditional way of calling a wife. He expected his yome to act reserved and have good behaviour in front of all his friends.”

For Hajime, which role does he see himself in, the husband or the wife?

“Both. That’s what’s difficult. Now, people realize you don’t have to be the husband or wife. You can be equal. But you don’t have to specifically specify your role, or have a traditional expectation of a ‘husband’. It’s really hard because the whole situation is changing now. It’s something that each couple has to create. They have to have their own rules, but it’s hard to create rules from scratch. You have to look up an example, which is either your parents or your friends.

If you asked me if it’s difficult being gay in Japan, I would say yes, but that difficulty changes with time. When I was younger, the difficulty was that I was scared to be open to my straight friends and colleagues. Now, it’s difficult because when I’m open, some gay friends are hostile about me being open. They’re like, “Why are you open?” When you’re open, some people are against you.”

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Why, though? Why would fellow gays be against one being open?

“One friend said, “You betrayed me! If you are open and we hang out, this will automatically out me too.” This pushed away some of my closeted friends. I’ve also had this conversation with one of my really good friends, who’s gay but really against being open. He brought up this topic of the suicide of the law student. This guy who killed himself probably thought it would be okay to come out. But it wasn’t. So by being open, what we are doing is creating a misunderstanding, not for straight people, but for gay people. This guy may have misunderstood it was okay to come out, and then he killed himself.

Another reason why some people are against me being open is that they want to protect the areas which are really gay friendly like Ni Chome which is now becoming straight –friendly. That’s what scares some closeted gay people who live with their parents and are closeted in the office, because that is the only place they can feel at home and be themselves. Back in the 60s and 70s, men used to go to Ni Chome, pull off their wedding rings, date guys, and then put their wedding rings back on when it was time to catch the last train home.”

I have heard of gay people who got married and had children due to family pressure. How does that work?

“Sex with a woman can happen, but he said he wasn’t sexually attracted to her, and he was trying to close his eyes and think of a guy.”

“A friend of mine had a female colleague who told him that she was in love with him. He came out to her, and told her that he was sorry but he was gay. But he really loved kids, and he wanted to have a family and children. This girl was Japanese, but brought up in Canada, and had a really open mind, so they ended up getting married. They had a discussion on how to have a kid. My friend was willing to have sex with a woman because he really wanted a kid. So they spent several months trying but it didn’t work for a while. They was a rather awkward atmosphere in the house but finally they ended up with twins! In fact, now they have a third kid. So sex with a woman can happen, but he said he wasn’t sexually attracted to her, and he was trying to close his eyes and think of a guy. She accepts it.”

What are the things he finds most misunderstood about gays?

“The typical thing is that guys start thinking you will fall in love with them. Or they think it’s a choice you make. They wonder why you become gay? Do you think men are better than woman? And they feel fear.”

I definitely know some silly men like these, and the only thing I’d like to say to the is, “PLEASE get over yourselves.” The only type of fear we should feel in this world is that of people who refuse to embrace diversity and choose to walk through life with a very narrow minded view.

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In an ideal world, how would he like gays to be treated?

“Normally! I think Japanese gay society is as conservative as Japanese society itself. Although we ask the society to be gay-friendly, some part of gay society still refuses to be straight-friendly.

It’s really about an individuals being friends with each other. Then we will be equal. We will be normal to be gay, and normal to be straight.”

Want to know more about Hajime? Follow him on TwitterInstagram or his blog!

If you enjoyed this post and want to read more life stories, like why a Japanese girl quit her job to travel the world, or how difficult it is to return to Japan after living abroad, check them out here and don’t forget to like Little Slices on Facebook!

Ann Jie

Loves good conversations and hates small talk. Finds people fascinating and wonders why meanies exist. Loves writing violent, graphic short stories but finds horror movies too scary to watch. Follow me on Instagram @annjieslices or tweet me a slice of YOUR life at @annjieslices!

4 Comments
  1. Hi. I like this particular topic because Im a gay guy from The Philippines and I am applying to work in Japan in a factory but I ma scared that employer and the agency might turn me down because of mysexual preference. Just wish me luck.

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