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."
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."