To celebrate Tokyo Rainbow Pride (TRP), which runs from April 29 to May 8, we invited a handful of prominent personalities representing different voices of Japan’s LGBT community to share their experiences with us. We asked each of them to tell us what pride week means to them, and give us insight into what it really feels like to be LGBT in Japan. Welcome to the conversation…
Bryce (stage name: Anaphiel), born in the “bible belt” of the US, lives in Tokyo, works for a pharmaceutical company in HR, performs as a drag queen on occasion.
Miky King, born in Okinawa, lived in London for a decade, freelance graphic and fashion designer, works at Rainbow Burrito.
Shogo, born in Japan, lived in Beijing, works for China Airlines and is a singer on the side, is opening a Taiwanese restaurant in Nishi Shinjuku.
Ami (of music band Ayen), works for Apple, has lived abroad in several cities across the US, is focusing on a music career.
Taylor Wanstall (stage name: Tatianna), from the Pacific Northwest, teaches English in Tokyo, started the Tokyo Closet Ball, participates in improv comedy groups.
Yogini, born in Taiwan, lived in New Zealand for many years, performs as a drag queen in Tokyo while juggling a full-time job and volunteer work at temples.
Kan Kikumoto, born and raised in Japan, recent Sofia University graduate, works with Human Rights Watch to raise awareness at local schools, pursuing a Master’s in Sexuality in Media.
What is your past or current involvement, and what does Tokyo Rainbow Pride mean to you?
Bryce: I helped assemble an internal program at my company of 5,000 employees to bring awareness and protection to LGBT employees. This year, we are setting up a booth and will be marching in the pride week parade; I’m so thrilled to be joining this year.
Ami: I will be performing at Isotope in the Rainbow Fest this year. The first time I participated was down in Osaka, and it was really emotional. We released balloons at the end, and it was so beautiful, it left such an impression.
Shogo: I’ll be with my company, China Airlines, in the parade and at a booth, and I’ll get to sing. The largest pride parade in Asia is in Taiwan, and there was no true pride week in Tokyo for a long time… it’s very small in comparison. But now, as we get more attention, we can get a bigger reaction, and it’s a good opportunity for all of us.
Kan: When I first went to pride week here, I was able to bring all of my friends, even straight friends, and we had a ton of fun, and they wrote about it later on social media. Posts get shared, and it causes a chain reaction, and now the event is bigger. That’s so important.
Taylor: We constantly push for laws, but it can’t happen all at once. Sometimes the best thing for our community is simply to be seen. Casual homophobia and commentary disappear naturally after enough exposure. This kind of event is a great way to help push that energy away.
Miky: It’s very light in Tokyo. In Kobe, I feel that the event is much smaller, but makes a larger impact. In Tokyo, we are just high-fiving and having some light fun, but it doesn’t talk about the bigger issues that are more serious – like the fact that many still have to hide in public, even among other LGBT members.
Can you describe the status of the community in recent days, and progress within society, and general acceptance? What are your daily experiences?
Miky: Everyone knows and goes to Nichome [a predominantly LGBT district in East Shinjuku]. I’ve been going there for decades, but it’s changed so much. You used to be able to go to the bars and meet people and feel included in the culture. It was so [tight knit] and close. It was small, too, but crowded. Today, it’s crowded [for different reasons]. Everyone wants to find a partner just for sex. There are no real friends. There are too many apps just for hookups. It’s ruined the place that used to be so safe and sacred to all of us. We have more, because there are fewer suicides now from the online support and access, but it also feels like we have less.
Yogini: I actually like the apps, because it helps me find – yes, it helps me [get laid] – but it’s also great to find more people in the community who normally wouldn’t have come forward. There’s a new, more open generation and age.
Ami: I feel some homophobia amongst the public. Abroad, if I’m ever asked, and tell them the truth, people just say “oh, okay,” and move on so easily. Here, they can’t so much.
Bryce: I have to be smart about whom I talk to and how I talk to them. I typically try to avoid the stereotypical conversations with people who are a bit more ignorant, because they’re not ready yet, especially at work.
Taylor: I teach English because the kids don’t ask me, “Just how gay are you?”
How does Japan compare to other countries, in terms of progress with LGBT rights?
Shogo: Simply, Japan is so far behind the rest of the world. The LGBT community needs help from all of society. It needs to be less exclusive here . How you come out is so important in Japan. Usually many are immediately so taken by it and interested in the sexual side. Nobody cares about your life, or you.
Yogini: They turn it into an “okama” [slang for “gay man”] thing. First, Japan needs to stop objectifying the community. And it’s our responsibility to turn their questions around when they become inappropriate. But, on the other side, there is much less violence and open bashing, thankfully.
Miky: Here, the image of lesbians is so negative. The idea of “homosexuals” is of funny gay men on TV, and there is nothing else… Being lesbian, many assume that means you want to be a man, and that you must be manly if you love a woman. It’s so one-sided here, and media [is to blame] for a lot of [misconception] about LGBT people. Women, especially lesbians, are invisible here, mostly in media. It’s a sad case, but this is Japan.
Ami: Domestic companies have no idea what to do with LGBT people. Literally, the culture is “We don’t care.” There is sometimes no reaction at all, because they don’t know what to do.
Kan: We are so keen on labels recently, and I want to help undo it – we are too obsessed. We have to say proudly that we’re here, and keep pushing for rights and for awareness and to be noticed.
Bryce: When I moved here, I felt a great sense of relief and sudden freedom. People care so little that I can almost be all of myself here, unlike when I was growing up in the “bible belt” of the US. Here, I have found places to go, even an LGBT-friendly sign language group.
Taylor: You definitely can’t be as open publicly about it here without getting weird looks. But there are secretive groups where you can find support, like baseball teams, clubs, karaoke groups, or groups like the Closet Ball.
It’s a known fact most will experience micro-aggressions daily – have you ever felt more beyond that, or been barred from a service or been a victim of severe discrimination in Tokyo?
Yogini: When I’ve had issues in the past – with stalkers or violence – and have called the police, they’ve never shown that they were bothered by my status. There aren’t strong religious implications here instilled in the population, which I think makes for less judgment from within establishments. They took care of the moral problem at hand without any judgment.
Ami: When I have been to gynecologists for any [health concerns], all of my problems have been addressed professionally, I feel.
Kan: I think interactions and reactions will greatly depend on the person. If a system is in place on how to take care of people, like hospitals or police, they are prepared. But many people aren’t ready to react and help out proficiently.
Miky: Sometimes there are interesting scenarios at the gym, sauna, or at bathrooms or hotels… [They have] pointed towards the men’s bathroom or handed me a key to the men’s locker room, and haven’t apologized for their mistake. I’ve felt uncomfortable in the past, especially in public restrooms.
Do you have any advice for those living in Japan who may feel they can’t be open or be themselves yet?
Ami: They say you need to change yourself to change others. But I say – you know what – it’s actually okay to run away. If you feel different from others and you don’t think that you fit in, you can change your environment, and find “your place.” It does get better.
Shogo: There is a huge wall in our society, that separates the before and after of “coming out.” We are afraid of the wall and the reaction. You can’t be afraid of people disliking you. You have to break down that wall, but start from the inside, and break down your own wall first.
Bryce: After being honest with yourself and those around you, your status simply becomes a “new normal.” You will still be in control of your life; you have to always be.
Taylor: I agree with Ami; being in a new, great place, with new people can lead you to being the person you are happiest being.
Yogini: You can’t ever take shit from anyone. It’s not just about being LGBT; everyone just needs to work hard enough and you’ll get it all coming to you.
Kan: Your confidence is contagious. People have a great sense of fear and will use it and take advantage of you. Stand up for yourself and you take [the reins] before they can.
Miky: You absolutely need to find a support system and someone, even one person, you can trust. Judge your situation – it may be tough or seem impossible, but change and make your safety a priority. It’s so important to be “you” in all of this.
Shogo: Don’t forget to love yourself.
Ami: The most important thing is your happiness.
Do you think the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is helping the movement?
Kan: We are working on opening a “Pride House” for athletes and volunteers who are LGBT and will participate int he Olympics. “Work with Pride” is helping organize; the government will have to accept some facts! Japan is so scared of being different, so we have to work to train companies and implement programs. I feel really positive about events, because we are learning to share more inside and outside the community.
Ami: I think there will be a push for acceptance – but it’ll mostly be for business reasons, not necessarily for legal or marriage.
How does performing drag in Tokyo compare to shows in other countries?
Taylor: The scene is more old school, and it’s hard to establish yourself. That’s why I started the Closet Ball, a safe place to say, “Hey, can I borrow your wig?” It makes it more accessible within the community.
Bryce: Life has been all drag for me! Where I come from, drag was much more like a pageant, and it didn’t really appeal to me. There was definitely a hierarchy system, kind of like here too. You have to look for your own venue here where you feel comfortable performing.
Yogini: When I started, I realized you need to warm up to the Japanese drag kings and queens in order to be a part of the group; there is so much self-loathing from the competition and so much ass-kissing you need to do. I did rise up, but I’m not a huge fan of the drag culture here. I would be open to performing elsewhere!
Shogo, how has the transitioning process been like in Japan? Did you find a dependable clinic, and have your needs met?
Shogo: It was fairly easy to find a good doctor here, but in Japan there are so many steps you need to go through in order to finish the process. In London, if you have made up your mind, you tell your doctor and you’ll be given a permission slip to change your gender. Here, you need to be diagnosed and do the operation first. Appearance changing will come last. It took me years before I was able to get the right medicine to help. My insurance has finally been sorted out, but the prescription recently [tripled] in price, which makes it hard. I’m trying not to be bothered. Really, I’m so relieved now. I’m literally buying my happiness, but I don’t mind, because I was finally able to do it.
Want to hear more? We recorded the full conversation, which you can listen to here:
For all the details about Tokyo Rainbow Pride 2016, click here.
If you or someone you know is seeking counsel, help, or information about the community, reach out to any of the following groups for support and services: TELL Japan, Work with Pride, Human Rights Watch Tokyo, Out in Japan, Closet Ball