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Lesbians in Japan, part II: Tradtions and Laws

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Elizabethtown chapter.



Linguistically, the terms for the LGBTQ+ community in Japan are complex and not entirely politically correct. Gay men may be referred to by the term okama, which literally means pot but, in this context, simultaneously means an effeminate man and also is a crude term that refers to anal sex (source). However, this term may also be used for transgender women (Long). Similarly, the term the term gei, while a loan word from English, was originally used for young male prostitutes who cross-dressed, and has come to mean either a transgender woman or an effeminate gay man (source).  Lesbians may be referred to by onabe, developed as a parallel to okama, since it literally means pan (source). Onabe is somewhat the opposite of okama, meaning a masculine woman; and like okama, it can be conflated with being transgender (source). This mixing of a transgender identity with a gay one is common in Japan, although it may seem odd to those in Western LGBTQ+ communities in which the fight to differentiate transgender individuals from effeminate gay men or masculinize lesbians to those outside the community is very much present (source). Amongst the lesbian community, the terms “tachi” and “neko” (loosely “butch” and “femme”) are heavily emphasized, sometimes to the extent that women feel they must fall neatly into one of these roles (source). Rezu or rezubian, while still in use, hold overwhelmingly pornographic connotations, and despite some desire to reclaim them, are not universally accepted in the community (source). Indeed, this association is so strong that existing in a lesbian identity that is not heavily sexualized is difficult (source). This is particularly problematic for young lesbians still exploring their identity who may not feel comfortable with a label so closely tied to pornography (source). 

To some extent, it can be argued that the Japanese LGBTQ+ community lack a “gay identity”; or at least an identity equivalent to the community in Western cultures (source). This may be for a variety of reasons, but in the landmark book Queer Japan, Summerhawk, McMahill, and McDonald suggests that a reason for this may be that the LGBTQ+ community in Japan simply lacks the “linguistic space to exist,” in part because of this lack of distinction between being gay and being transgender. However, she believes that the community will eventually grow into something similar to what is seen in Western countries. Others argue that LGBTQ+ people in Japan will never have a “gay identity” equivalent to that in Western countries, because the Japanese do not see sexual orientation as a great determinant of oneself (source). Some research has argued that the globalization of LGBTQ+ awareness is simply not relevant in Japan (source). Regardless of the argument, the impact of the West in Japan has both pathologized and provided methods of gaining freedom for the LGBTQ+ community (source).

Traditionally, minorities in Japan have been allowed into society but encouraged to stay silent, and scholars argue that this is the case for the LGBTQ+ community and lesbians in particular (source). While lesbians may be tolerated, this is only if their voices are erased and they live quietly in the greater society (source). This invisibility has drawn some criticism, with scholars arguing that the community must gain visibility to be truly accepted (source). No laws prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ+ people; Tokyo once intended to pass such legislation, but it was eventually tabled under the assumption that too many Japanese people do not tolerate the community (source). Japan has had few out politicians, with Otsuji Kanako’s election to the Osaka Prefecural Assembly in 2005 considered by most as the first openly LGBTQ+ elected politician (source). A few gay male politicians exist on the local level, but no LGBTQ+ politician has ever been elected on the national level (source).

The existence of legal equal marriage is sometimes seen as a measure of a country’s acceptance of the LBGTQ+ community. While this is an oversimplification, the legalization of equal marriage does often indicate a country’s attempt of acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community. A number of countries have legalized equal marriage in recent years, including the United States, Germany, and Australia, but Asian countries are distinctly missing on this list, including Japan (source). However, the debate surrounding the wording of Japan’s marriage laws may not explicitly forbid equal marriage (source). Marriage is governed by Article 24 of the 1947 Constitution and the Civil Code. Article 24, as read by most lawyers, does explicitly state that marriage is between a man and a woman (source). The Civil Code is a bit murkier. Some argue that the use of gender-specific terms like “otto” and “tsuma” are sufficient to prove that it states that marriage is between a man and a woman only (source). However, this remains a matter of debate (source). A survey conducted in 2013 found that only 24% of Japanese people surveyed thought that equal marriage should be legal (source), a disheartening statistic. One way of becoming a family without equal marriage is adoption of the younger partner by the older partner (source). This process is much easier than the process of adopting a minor and allows LGBTQ+ families many of the same rights as a “traditional” family, most importantly for medical emergencies (source). It is unknown just how many LGBTQ+ partners choose to do this process and some research indicates that less lesbians use this process than gay men (source). Adoption of children by unmarried couples is illegal in Japan, and therefore LGBTQ+ couples cannot adopt children (source).

Sarah Kaden

Elizabethtown '20

Sarah Kaden is a Psychology major with an English Professional Writing minor. She works with ITS as their technical writer, as a lab assistant in the psychology department, and as a writing tutor. She enjoys writing, listening to 2000s emo music, and roasting her friends.