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Lesbians in Japan, Part III: Today

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


The term “kamingu auto,” a borrowed term from English, first appeared in Japan in the 1990s during “gay boom” (source). Coming out is often fraught for those in the Japanese LGBTQ+ community, especially as far as parents are concerned. While the younger generation tends to be more accepting, older generations including parents and grandparents often react in a hostile manner. Coming out can be incredibly dangerous, especially for those who are underage or still depending on their parents financially. In general, the father is perceived as a less important figure to come out to, because of the general phenomenon of absentee fathers. Additionally, they are perceived as being harder to come out to. Mothers, on the other hand, are generally considered easier to come out to, but also have a more important reaction. Unfortunately, mothers often have harsher and even abusive reactions to certain identities, including lesbian. These reactions often center on the daughter’s prospects, which are perceived to be damaged by their identity. Additionally, some lesbians report hesitancy in coming out because of potentially sexual connotations from the cultural saturation of lesbian pornographic films (source). 


Despite these familial attitudes, Japan’s popular culture contains a variety of LGBTQ+ content. For example, Kabuki has historically had an all-male cast who cross-dressed to play female characters (source). Additionally, some storylines feature mentions to nanshoku, such as the play Narukami Fudō Kitayama Zakura, which features a bisexual main character who flirts with both men and women. While this is played somewhat for humor, like his innuendo-laden speech to a young warrior about how to “ride horses,” it is nevertheless representation in a popular art form. Japan’s television programing is surprising liberal, more so than American television (source). The eleven-o-clock news is primetime for sexual jokes, men ogling women’s cleavage, and reviews of sex toys. These segments may mention homosexuality, but this is usually as a joke. Primetime television, on the other hand, is generally much more reserved. The most notable LGBTQ+ programming during this time was a soap opera called Dōsōkai, which aired for ten weeks in 1993. This show portrayed its gay characters unapologetically, but in the familiar form of the melodramatic serial, at once pushing Japan’s permissiveness and providing a comforting form of storytelling. This show may be considered somewhat of a marker of the LGBTQ+ community in Japan; the screenwriter claimed that “Many gay men in Japan perceive their lives in terms of pre-Dōsōkai and post-Dōsōkai” (source). Shonen-ai, or boy’s love, a genre of manga and anime featuring a relationship between two men, has proven to be quite popular amongst adolescent girls, and despite being mainly consumed by heterosexuals (source), some young lesbians report viewing this media for need of some homosexual content, often when in the closet (source). This is likely because of a lack of accessible female/female content (source). Shojo-ai, or girl’s love, is the less common lesbian counterpart to shonen-ai which focuses on a relationship between two women (source). However, popularity appears to be growing in the past few years, with a recent anime adaptation of Citrus, a popular shojo-ai manga (source).  


Unfortunately, the place where same-gender relationships, particularly lesbian ones, have thrived best is in pornography, from the Edo period (source) to now (source). The terms “rezu” or “rezubian,” the Japanese translation of the English “lesbian,” has been used nearly exclusively in pornographic films until recent movements to reclaim it. These films, called “pink films,” are soft pornography which may feature woman/woman content, aimed at heterosexual men (source). While there are a subsection of pink films aimed at gay men that has man/man content, there is not a similar category of women/women content for lesbians (source). 


Despite the perception that intimate partner violence is a non-issue amongst the LGBTQ+ community, research indicates otherwise (source). Additionally, this is an issue plagued by non-reporting. Certain groups, including lesbians, bisexual women, and transgender individuals may be at a higher risk of experiencing intimate partner violence as compared with gay or bisexual men. It is suggested that men may be more likely to break up with a partner in the event of abuse, while women may be more likely to stay in the relationship (source).  


As with the LGBTQ+ community in America, mental illness runs rampant amongst the community in Japan (source). This is only worsened by Japan’s incredibly high rates of suicide (source). While the exact ratio of suicides done by LGBTQ+ individuals is unknown, some research amongst men who identify as gay, bisexual, or questioning indicate rates of attempted suicide to be around 15%. This study does not include a comparison of heterosexual peers. No apparent research has been done on suicide rates amongst lesbians, but amongst the entire LGBTQ+ community, 46% of participants surveyed reported fatal suicides amongst their friends in the community, including two cases of lesbian couples committing suicide together (source). Only 5% of participants reported suicide attempts themselves. Ten percent of participants reported engaging in cutting behavior as a coping mechanism, including a lesbian who reported using self-harm as a method of coping with both academic stress and the rejection of a heterosexual girl with whom she had fallen in love. Other participants reported engaging in other self-harm behaviors, such as breaking objects against themselves, burning themselves, and consuming excessive amounts of drugs and alcohol (source).  


Despite these disheartening statistics, Japan’s lesbian community is thriving in some spaces. Shinjuku ni-chōme, Tokyo’s gay district, is home to many lesbian bars, including the infamous Goldfinger (source). Tokyo holds a pride parade called Tokyo Rainbow Pride each year (source), which just celebrated its twenty-fifth year with 10,000 attendees (source). While smaller than pride parades in the United States’ big cities, is nevertheless a home for the LGBTQ+ community to express themselves (source). As of April 2019, thirteen LGBTQ+ couples are pursuing a court case against the central government for equal marriage (source). Things are looking up. The community is slowly gaining acceptance. But although there is very little outright hatred for the community, Japan still has a long while to go when it comes to lesbians gaining acceptance and visibility.

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.