Building acceptance, slowly but steadily.
There are four ways in which my mother has made it clear she will disown me: Taking drugs, trying cigarettes, getting tattoos, and marrying another woman. Sadly, homophobic sentiments and regulations are a norm in Japanese society.
Homophobia was not a concept in Japan until the late 19th century. Before then, the Japanese were especially tolerant of love between men. Only when Japan entered the Meiji era (1868-1912) were they increasingly influenced by European (Christian) culture and norms. As a result, homophobia was adopted.
Presently in Japan, LGBTQ couples cannot exercise the same legal rights as heterosexual couples, for example, they cannot marry. A handful of districts and prefectures recognize LGBTQ couples as “partnerships,” but the benefits only include situations such as being able to rent a hotel room within that district. It is criticized as being symbolic rather than tackling the social issue.
Homophobia has remained in Japanese society over time, despite the vast majority of the population not subscribing to Christianity. A major part of the discrimination seems to not be stemming from overt hatred, but from ignorance. According to Masami Tamagawa’s research, 46% of people worldwide know of someone in their personal circle who identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. The number for this in Japan is 5%. Only 1 in 20 Japanese people even know of someone who is LGBTQ. Homophobia — fear of LGBTQ — may as well be fear of the unknown.
This suggests that LGBTQ individuals in Japan have a harder time coming out than in other countries. They may feel uncomfortable being their authentic selves at all or may only come out to a close group of people and act as someone they’re not in public.
From the cultural tendency to keep quiet about inner feelings that may upset others in a public setting, LGBTQ people are expected to not disclose their gender/sexual identities explicitly (“quiet homophobia.”) On the other hand, LGBTQ people are least likely to be accepted within their own family unit. Family members would react in fear of “queering the family home,” and one is more likely to respond negatively to a family member’s coming out (40%) than they would to a neighbor or co-worker (10% to 20%.) This phenomenon is called familial homophobia. Together, quiet homophobia and familial homophobia make it virtually impossible for one to come out in Japan.
As with many other countries, hope is arising with the new generation. In the most recent survey done in 2021, the youngest age group of 18 to 29 year-olds showed the highest acceptance of same-sex couples (86%) compared to the average over all ages (65%.) The average was only 41% at a similar, though not identical, survey done in 2015.
Representation in national media is gradually increasing and more and more Japanese celebrities are coming out on camera. There is, of course, the other powerful avenue of social media, through which the younger generation is gaining more information. As Japanese people become more familiar with LGBTQ individuals, they are steadily becoming more tolerant.
I don’t feel bad about being hopeful here. It’s only a matter of time until pride activism in Japan brings in a new, easier period for LGBTQ people to live in.