Discover more from Out of Japan
Technology, Rainbow Communities, and Japan
How apps and the Internet are changing gay Japan
In 1988, desperate for company, shall we say, in my new home of Japan, I found International Friends.
In November of that year, I attended a conference on teaching English in the greater Tōkyō metropolitan area and met another gay American working in Japan. Cameron and I became fast friends and it was he who squired me to my first IF meeting.
Looking back, I don’t know how IF got the word out, but every monthly meeting was always attended by a good group of men, and each time I attended I made more friends (and friends, too). IF had a pamphlet of a magazine (and I wrote an article for it once on being gay and fat in Japan), and that magazine might have been available at Shinjuku Ni-chōme bars like GB and Arty Farty where Cameron hung out. (I used my fluency in Japanese to find bars where English was not needed.)
Bars were the basis of community then. Thankfully, I was able to handle my liquor, and my cigarettes prevented me from running too high of a bar tab, but each bar had its own (sometimes overlapping) set of regulars. Bars organized events, like trips to the seaside or to museums, or cherry-blossom-viewing parties.
There were also groups that organized around equality, but at the time those groups were driven by college students and I never got involved. I did applaud them, however, as they fought for (and won) the right for equal accommodation in public accomodations.
When I left Japan in 1998, the Internet was in its infancy. I had used a dial-up BBS in Tōkyō, GayNet Japan, for more than seven years at that point and it was still going strong, but the idea of using the Internet for anything other than ordering books in English from the US seemed ridiculous.
Each time Hiro and I returned to Japan, however, for weeks-long adventures in 2006, 2016, and 2023, we witnessed changes. Sure, the physical landscape changed—Tōkyō is always changing and new buildings, new rail lines, new restaurants, and new stores delighted us.
There was also a greater openness to foreign visitors on display as more and more signage included not just English but also Korean and Chinese text.
Queer community was witnessing changes, too.
Bars remained a constant, which surprised me after seeing many bars wither out of existence here in Seattle. Of course Tōkyō’s gayborhoods are not in areas prone to gentrification as is often the case in the United States. That said, the gayborhoods in Tōkyō are increasingly becoming tourist destinations, especially Ni-chōme. And if you thought I am annoyed when a drunk gaggle of bridesmaids crashes a gay bar in Seattle, you have no idea how infuriating it is to witness a claque of tourists, camera at the ready, stalking the Ni-chōme streets,
But I digress.
Community groups pushing Japan toward greater equality for all citizens have grown in number and voice since 1998, and court case after court case has been filed in support of equal immigration, marriage equality, and adoption equality. And although Japan’s ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party, are flush with old, hidebound conservatives when it comes to social issues, the courts are slowly beginning to rule that discrimination against queer people goes against the constitution.
Out of Japan is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a paid subscriber.
The Internet and apps have made it easier for gay men in Japan to meet but instead of detracting from community, my opinion is that the greater availability of private sexual opportunities (you can meet men at bars, of course, but all of the patrons are aware of the connections and the histories involved—gay bar patrons in my day were Yentas on steroids) only serves to strengthen community.
What’s more, the Internet has made it much easier for queer stories in Japan to be shared and celebrated. When the success of non-erotic gay comics like My Brother’s Husband and What Did You Eat Yesterday? came television adaptations. More and more mainstream media promotes queer-themed content. Seeing ads for queer romances while riding in Tōkyō taxis might have taken me aback at first, but I too quickly became a cheerleader for these rapid changes.
There are short form series on YouTube as well, like Shinbashi Koi Story. I originally pooh-poohed the production values, but that doesn’t change the fact that people are sharing honest love stories in new and exciting ways.
I hope that one of the lessons rainbow-dwelling Americans can continue to take from our siblings in Japan is community is ours for the making, especially now when we need it the most.
Have some thoughts about this? I’d love to read your comments.