Gays and Lesbians in Japan Get the Cold Shoulder

As his weekend winds down, Masaru removes his wedding band from his left-ring finger. It's a weekly ritual for Masaru, a Japanese "salary man" in his early 30s and the oldest son of a Buddhist priest in central Japan.

Masaru has worn the ring for nearly three years, ever since he and his male partner, Ryuta, married in a civil wedding that is not legally recognized. Witnesses included 20 of their close friends but no family members, which explains the ring swapping.

"I would love to tell everyone Ryuta is the most important person in my life," Masaru said, glancing at Ryuta, a 30-something who works at a nonprofit organization and who also prefers not to reveal his real name.

"But my Japanese bosses and even co-workers would probably find it difficult to understand my way of life. My company is sort of old-fashioned," Masaru said, shrugging his shoulders. "So I just take off my ring and put on the face of a single Japanese salary man as Monday comes. I do not necessarily want to live this way, but for now that is my reality."

Their experience is emblematic of what critics say is Japanese society's benign neglect of gays and lesbians and the issues that are most important to them. Possible effects include isolation and uncertainty that can contribute to psychological and financial stress, experts say.

Neither Masaru nor Ryuta, who live together in Tokyo, has told his parents about their relationship. Neither has told his parents he is gay. "My father is in his 80s, and I just don't think revealing my sexual orientation and introducing my partner will bring a big smile to his face," Ryuta said.

"Growing up as gay was something I was shameful of for a long time. I felt I could never share that part of me with anyone. It took a long time for me to accept who I really am. I do not expect the same for my father. He may end up pitying me or even blaming himself for what I have become."

Toshiaki Hirata, a clinical psychiatrist who also teaches a course on gay, lesbian and transgender issues at Kyoto Bunkyo University in western Japan, said, "We do not know the exact number of gays and lesbians in Japan because most of us do not want to identify ourselves as such. But some calculations show there are at least a few million of us living in Japan. Most of us are leading a double life, living as a heterosexual in society while hiding our true identity as gays or lesbians. This can cause tremendous stress on some people."

Hirata offers counseling to Japan's gay and lesbian community as part of a group of medical specialists at the Association of Gay Professionals in Counseling and Medical Allied Field in Tokyo. He has seen more than 50 gay clients at AGP in the past few years.

"It is difficult to draw a direct linkage between one's sexual orientation and depression, but being gay in present-day Japan can cause stress of different degrees, leading up to depression.

"Some may find it difficult to accept themselves and fight a self-loathing homophobia within them. Some cannot reveal their true identity to people close to them, including their families. They often come to me saying they feel empty or lonely; they find themselves isolated in society as making friends or meeting a partner is not as easy."

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