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."

Japan's Legal System: Silent but Unfriendly

Japan's legal system does not ban or regulate one's sexual orientation. But marriage is allowed only between a man and a woman. Although courts nowadays examine the details of civil or common-law marriages for heterosexual couples, including shared assets and duration of relationships, they give no such consideration to gays and lesbians.

There are a few gay spots or hangouts across Japan, mainly in big cities. The district known as Shinjuku 2-chome in central Tokyo is the most famous. It houses a few hundred gay bars and stores, making itself known as the hub of gay subculture.

"Unlike in some countries, gays and lesbians in Japan do not get a death penalty or get punished in a court. But that does not necessarily mean the country is friendly toward the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community," said Kanako Otsuji, an LGBT rights activist in Japan, whose office sits in the middle of Shinjuku 2-chome.

Otsuji became Japan's first lesbian politician when she revealed her sexuality in 2005 while serving at the Osaka Prefectural Assembly in western Japan. She still remembers the reactions of her supporters when she made the decision to announce her sexual orientation. "Many people thought it was a private matter," she said. "They told me they did not need to know what type of people I like. But respecting one's sexuality is a public matter. It is a human rights matter.

"If people saw two women or men holding hands, they usually will not go up to them and beat them up," Otsuji said. "But that does not mean people have no feelings toward us.

"We are not punished by law but most people choose to disregard us. It is a silent punishment. Many people do not mind us being somewhere in society like Shinjuku 2-chome. Yet it becomes a totally different matter once we are near them; they do not want to see, touch, talk or hear about us."

Psychiatrist Yoshihiro Hayashi said that although no punishment is meted out to gay and lesbian couples because of their sexual orientation, the social system becomes a source of obstacles for them. "Various issues arise from medical to social security as they cannot receive the same benefits as heterosexual married couples," Hayashi said. "There have been cases where a man was not allowed to see or care for his long-time partner in a hospital as the patient's family banned him. The next time the man saw his partner was after he passed away.

"Matters like medical proxy are so dire for us as the current system does not even recognize gay couples in any shape."

Living a Double Life

Lesbian couples face similar concerns and battle financial worries. "Women's salaries are less than 70 percent of men's, on average," Otsuji said. "More than half of Japan's female work force is not full-time; many are part-time or contract workers. In today's labor market, they are very vulnerable. Their employment will not be secure as they age."

Such financial insecurity often leaves lesbian women with no choice but to live with their parents, according to Rie Kinjo, a U.S.-educated and -trained psychotherapist. "We hear about lesbian women who cannot come out, since they fear getting kicked out of the house," Kinjo said. "Many are also expected to find a husband and raise a family. Some women choose to have a double life to relieve themselves from such societal pressure, get married and have children while they keep a relationship with their lesbian partner."

Activist Otsuji said, "What we are up against is the public's perception, what people think of," Otsuji said. "That means all we need is to change the perception.

"Getting pregnant before marriage was unthinkable 30 or even 20 years ago," she said. "But when one young female pop singer came out and proudly said in the late '90s that she was getting married and she was pregnant, that almost became a catalyst and changed the public's perception. Many thought that was even cool. And look what happened."

One out of four pregnancies in today's Japan are premarital, according to a recent government survey.

According to psychiatrist Hirata, many Japanese "seem to have some level of tolerance so long as gays and lesbians are out of their sight. What they do not know is we are just like them. We are active members of society, we study, work and seek partnership, just like them.

"Heterosexuals have their prefixed notion of us being somewhat weird or abnormal, because they do not know us" Hirata said. "Gays and lesbians do not want to speak up because they fear how society would treat them. We have no systematic support for gay and lesbian teenagers, and they are left behind as a very vulnerable and fragile part of our community."

The government says more than 30,000 Japanese commit suicide each year. It is not clear, however, how many of those cases involve gays and lesbians. "We have no official numbers, but suicide is not a foreign concept among gays and lesbians," Hirata said. "As they live a life of loneliness, isolation and rejection, they could carry higher risks but hardly anything has been done to save them."

For Ryuta and Masaru, it is not thoughts of suicide that bother them as they consider their future, it is worries about the realities of daily life. "Our bond means nothing in the eyes of the law," Masaru said. "Ryuta and I cannot even open a joint bank account. Our household means two single men living together. If something happens to me, I cannot leave anything for Ryuta under the current legal system. We do not think about these things every day since we are young, but it does give me a chill when I think of a what-if scenario."

As for Ryuta, he said, "I never considered society to be on my side, and I just do not know if it ever will be in my lifetime. Things may change in the future, but I just have to figure out the way to protect Masaru and myself. Now I have my own family, my own place where I do not have to pretend to be anyone. I will not trade this for anything."