The night starts by asking a cab driver to take you to a school. It’s 11 p.m. and you have no business going to a school at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night, so the driver heads toward the school and then discretely stops a few blocks away.
“Why don’t I let you out here?”
The whole thing feels a little shady and suspect, like you’re dealing with yakuza. But the secrecy dissolves when you wander through neighborhood ramen shops and come to a door with a hand-made sign. In bold, magic-markered capital letters surrounded by stars: “This is a GAY BAR.”
Credit in the Straight World
By the 16th Century, Japanese Buddhists had decided same-sex relationships were totally OK. Women were a distraction, the story went, but men having sex with men? Fine.
When Catholic and Christian missionaries came in from Portugal, they reacted predictably. One Jesuit Priest “commented that ‘this evil’ was ‘so public’ that the people ‘are neither depressed nor horrified.’”
In contrast to 13th Century Jesuits, Shinto is a sex-positive religion, which is why you will sometimes see pictures of enormous phallus statues being carried through streets during festivals.
For Japanese Zen Buddhists, sex isn’t necessarily a problem until it’s a problem. If you’re staying clear of delusions and seeing the truth for what it is, then you can have all the sex you want with whoever you want. Presumably, though, “all the sex you want” is going to reflect a healthy, mindful awareness of what you’re doing.
Zen is about moderation. And so, even in 1236 AD, you have a 36-year-old monk taking this oath: Having already f–ked ninety-five males, I will not behave wantonly with more than one hundred.
They’re sort of like – hey, 95 guys? You better slow down. How about just 5 more?
Shame didn’t reach a particularly paranoid social foothold in most of Japan’s religious community. Meanwhile, in Italy, Pope Gregory IX was debating whether the Inquisition should burn gays or merely castrate them.
By the time of the Tokugawa Shogunate, samurai were spending a lot of time together. A book for the ethical conduct of same-sex samurai relationships was delightfully titled, “A Record of the Heartfelt Friends.”
If you stick around Japan for a bit, you can see the difference in the cultures. Japanese men wear hair barrettes and give other men neck massages. American men frantically shout “No Homo” after complimenting a straight friend’s shoes.
Born This Way
But while modern Japan is not knee-jerkingly horrified of gay overtones, it’s not exactly a Gaytopia.
In Japan, being gay isn’t a shameful sin. It’s a huge social inconvenience.
Unfortunately for Japanese gays, social inconveniences are a shameful sin.
The pressure to marry and have children in Japan is enormous – despite trends against it – and anyone who “opts out” of that social expectation is acting selfishly. As the Japanese say, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”
As a foreigner in Japan once accused of acting “selfishly” for essentially trivial reasons, the hammering down is an intense and debilitating process. There’s shunning, the willful infliction of self-doubt and passive-aggressive guilting. And that’s just what happens when you misunderstand paperwork.
I can only imagine the full hammer being brought down on a “selfish” individual who tries to live a life true to themselves, rather than their obligations to society and family.
A 2006 survey shows some of the effects of that hammer on gays and lesbians in Japan:
Of the 1025 respondents, 154 (15%) of the men reported a history of attempted suicide, 716 (70%) showed high levels of anxiety and 133 (13%) showed high levels of depression. 851 (83%) experienced school bullying and 615 (60%) were verbally harassed because of being perceived by others as homosexual.
So while “gay sex” is tolerated, the absence of straight, procreative sex isn’t. Gay men and women end up swept into closets of convenience marriages while having secret same-sex relationships on the side.
You know, for the family.
When My Boy Walks Down The Street
There were two bartenders in a room the size of a van, with four customers and seating for about 16. You get the sense that the reason this bar is here is so the bartender can meet men.
There are tiny two-person tables on one side of the aisle, directly across from the bar. There’s no dance floor, or dancing at all for that matter, but there’s karaoke. You get full service and interaction from the staff, who act as coordinators. The patrons are mostly regulars, and strangers from out-of-town can mess up the vibe.
I’ve heard of women who arrived at a bar and were asked their names and what other lesbian bars they had been to. When they answered, the bartender called and verified with the other bar. Once given the nod, the bartender called some other women in and they would come into the bar to chat them up.
Gay? Lesbian? Bisexual?
You can’t go into a gay bar as a straight man. They’re going to ask.
You can’t say “Oh, I’m an GLBTAUPI ally!” and be welcomed into a Japanese Gay Bar. If they wanted to find GLBT allies, they’d hang out at Starbucks. Real estate is expensive and these bars cater to a certain clientele. Having square straights like me infiltrate the place is counter-productive.
So they hang signs on the door and they ask you not to hang out unless you’re looking to meet people.
It’s not hostile. I had visions of skeptical men peering at me with annoyed eyes, trying to trip me up with lots of confusing trivia questions about gay sex. Instead, a short guy behind the bar asked, “Gai? Bi?”
I felt bad about lying. I weaseled around, said I was bi, mumbled a bunch of qualifiers in katakana English even though they were for my benefit, and that was it.
My one-night foray into gay courtship in Japan was limited to a paranoid gin-and-tonic spree while my inner, nervous fat kid relentlessly ate chocolates out of a tray.
Turns out the language barrier, my foreignness and my newness to the bar was more of a problem than my real sexual preferences. I didn’t have to deal with being outed as a straight man because nobody was interested in me anyway.
But you know, chocolate and karaoke is always good.
You can “like” This Japanese Life on Facebook and still be into girls, you know.