Japanese mayor salutes gay relationships
In society with few hang-ups, homosexuals enjoy less prejudice for various reasons
Hiroko Masuhara and Koyuki Higashi hold a banner reading “Congrats on the same-sex partnership statute” after a Tokyo area recognised same-sex partnerships. Photograph: Kyodo/Reuters
Tucked in off a back street near Tokyo’s Shinjuku business and shopping district, the 24-Kaikan hotel gives little hint at what goes on behind its gray concrete walls.
A steady stream of customers in the salary-man’s uniform of dark suit and overcoat files through its innocuous doors.
Only in the lobby, cheerily adorned with scenes from a porn movie, does it become clear that this is one of Asia’s biggest gay landmarks: a seven- story building where men come to have sex with each other.
It is, in many ways, very Japanese: discreet and compartmentalised; live and let live as long as the outward appearance of things is maintained.
“This is a country that happily lives with contradictions,” says Taq Otsuka, author of several books on Japan’s gay scene. “It has its way of doing things that people sometimes don’t understand.”
Thus, Tokyo, a city with a reputation for being one of the planet’s most uptight capitals, also boasts one of its densest and most diverse concentrations of gay bars and clubs: 2-Chome, home to the 24-Kaikan.
A refuge for homosexuals for decades, the area includes watering holes catering to a vast array of tastes: bars for overweight men, transvestites, spankers, the hirsute, the over-70s, older men who want to be with younger men.
Although blighted by the usual agonies of personal identity and need for secrecy, life for gays and lesbians in Japan did not suffer the same outright repression as in other parts of the world. Discrimination in Britain and the US, at least until the 1960s, was “horrendous”, says Mark McLelland, a UK-born academic and author of Homosexuality in Modern Japan: Cultural Myths and Social Realties.
“You could be prosecuted there, whereas the Japanese are fairly laid-back about sexual scandal – it’s not personally harming in the way it is in the West.”
Christian culturesWhile cops elsewhere were still busting men in toilets and public parks, Japan did not even have an anti-sodomy law. Nor did it have what McLelland calls the “anti-homosexual rage” of many Christian cultures, the lethal fuel for homophobia and the “hyper-violence” of gay-bashing incidents. As Otsuka puts it: “Homosexuality was never considered a sin here, just shameful.”
If Japan has long been more laid-back about its sexual preferences, it also lacks the political and social frisson that helped transform the lives of homosexuals elsewhere. Gayness is still largely seen as a personal lifestyle choice, not something to be flaunted or argued over.
The annual gay parade in Tokyo, the world’s most populated metropolis, draws a few thousand people, smaller than the turnout even in Dublin.
Homosexuals are still not legally recognised in Japanese civil law, civil unions are prohibited and there is, as yet, not a single openly gay prominent business person or lawmaker in the nation’s parliament.
Now Shinjuku’s trendier neighbour Shibuya has taken a potentially major step toward politicising gay life in Japan and bringing it into the open.
This week, Shibuya’s mayor, Toshitake Kuwahara, said his ward would issue certificates recognising same-sex relationships – a first in the country. The purpose, he said, was to make a society “where everyone can live in hope”.
Shibuya’s ordinance is partly designed to remedy a problem that has long plagued gay couples – landlords who refuse to rent them apartments.
Although not legally binding, it will allow the ward to name and shame business that do not accept gay co-habitation agreements. It also asks schools to teach awareness of sexual minorities.
The conservative government of Shinzo Abe has reacted coolly. Questioned in parliament, Abe swatted away suggestions that Shibuya might force changes at the national level.
Japan’s constitution, he said, “does not envisage marriage between people of the same sex”. The family is the “basis of society”.
Public opinionThere are signs, however, that the government may be lagging behind liberal public opinion. The left-leaning Asahi newspaper found support for the Shibuya ordinance at over half, with 27 per cent opposed it.
Other mayors say they may follow Shibuya’s lead, but conservatives have reacted furiously, picketing the Shibuya ward office and ranting online. Even in 2-Chrome, some are wary. “I don’t like it when we become the focus of so much attention,” says a middle-aged man drinking in Arty Farty, one of the district’s most popular clubs. “We don’t need to make a fuss.”
Wataru Ishizaka, one of only two openly gay elected local politicians in Tokyo, disagrees. “Homosexual couples do not have inheritance rights when one partner dies,” he says. “We can’t simply leave things as they are. Shibuya is a small step toward something better.”