Vivienne Sato

Time Out Tokyo recently ran a feature about the lack of a proper Gay Pride parade in Tokyo. The event began in the 1990s, but has withered away in the last decade. When it does happen- rather erratically- it is rather subdued and many of the participants wear masks to cover their faces, or hover around the float that doesn’t allow photos.

To many, Pride is the stamp of a progressive, tolerant society. Its absence is therefore problematic, and hints at the presence of homophobia.

This is why I was surprised by some comments made by Vivienne Sato, a drag queen and an infamous character on Tokyo’s gay scene.

“We don’t need a gay parade in Tokyo. Japanese people don’t hate gays,” he said when I interviewed him a few months ago. “The gay rights movement in America followed feminism and other social rights movements in the 1960s. We didn’t have any of that in Japan, but despite that, I think that attitudes here are actually pretty loose and accepting.”

Vivienne Sato

To Sato, Pride never became fully established in Tokyo (there are annual events in Osaka and Nagoya) not because gay men felt too scared to come out in public, but rather because they do not feel so oppressed that they have to launch a rights movement.

“Look at me!” he said, gesturing towards his glittery eyeliner, hooped skirt and towering Pisa of hair. “No one ever blinks an eye when I walk down the street here. I never see any violence committed against gay people, either.”

Sato thinks that some aspects of Japanese society make it easy to be gay.  He suggests that most people embrace a ‘live and let live’ attitude, and few people care what other people wear or do. There is also a great respect for the line between the public and the private, allowing people to get up to whatever they like behind closed doors.

Sato also noted that gay men are not usually at risk of being attacked or insulted in the street, unlike many other countries.

This might be because visual signifiers of homosexuality are less obvious in Japan. Like in many other parts of Asia, concepts of masculinity here are not as “macho” as their Western counterparts. Rather, the word “macho” is often reconstructed, as in phrases such as “hoso-macho,” meaning to be muscly but lean, or even skinny.

“Metrosexual” isn’t so much a swearword as a bible for 20-somethings. Pink sweaters? Entirely acceptable. Plucking your eyebrows, moisturising, wearing skin-tight pedal pushers? De rigueur. Liking Disney, dancing and keeping your finger nails a little bit long? Standard. No wonder my gaydar often sounds like a car alarm when I’m on the train.

Sato also thinks that Japan’s history of homosexuality- it was acceptable for men to sleep with other men in the Edo period “as a hobby, just as people now train for marathons or play guitar”- has engendered a general lenience that persists today. Ironically, it was the introduction of Christianity and puritanical American morals that helped to construct modern Japanese sexual mores. Before the arrival of the Black Ships, social mores were a lot looser: in addition to casual same-sex intercourse, public bathing was mixed, and nude.

Finally, Sato argued that gay men did not come up against much institutional homophobia, pointing to the recent appointment of two openly gay candidate, Taiga Ishikawa and Wataru Ishizaka, to the Toshima ward assembly in Tokyo.

Yet I wasn’t convinced by Sato’s argument, however much I wanted to be. I subscribe to a form of cultural relativism that rejects the projection of a Western moral compass onto a vastly different culture, so I would prefer not to assume that gay Japanese men are so oppressed that they do not realize it, and that a swift introduction to Western norms would enlighten them to their real feelings. I wanted to accept Sato’s point of view as authentic, and one justified by a different cultural tradition.

I’d also be wrong to assume that I, a straight English girl, know more about homosexuality in Japan than a gay native.

Yet it’s possible that Sato underestimates the struggles suffered by other gay Japanese men and boys in less accepting environments than his own. His outlandish appearance endows him with both the confidence to withstand judgment, while his various occupations- artist, events organizer, party fiend- permit his sexuality as just another aspect of an eccentric, even freakish, personality.

If Sato’s argument were true, there would not be the vast number of Japanese men who remain in the closet, too afraid to come out to their parents, friends, or colleagues. Many enter into ‘sham’ marriages in a bid for social or familial acceptance, and even those who frequent gay bars use pseudonyms.

The low frequency of physical or verbal aggression towards gay men can also be better explained by Japanese manners than true tolerance of homosexuality. While homophobia might not be expressed through public confrontations, it often comes out through non-violent outlets instead, as do racist and misogynistic sentiments. Passive discrimination is just as dangerous as overt violence.

Arguing that the spectrum of masculinity is wider and more forgiving than many Western countries is also disingenuous. That men are allowed to look more “feminine” (from a Western perspective) has little to do with homosexuality, and more about prescriptions for heterosexual men. Tolerance of homosexuality is not about allowing men to wear pink sweaters.

If anything, identifying all gay men as “camp” does a disservice to the diversity of the community. Some say that the only ‘acceptable’ homosexuals in Japan are comedians and entertainers, such as Sato himself. Supposedly, their theatrical sarcasm and ability to make people laugh somehow “soften” the threatening edges of their sexuality, making it more palatable to the general public.

The notable absence of ‘outed’ gay men outside of showbiz suggests that institutional homophobia is still rife. While the election of two openly gay politicians might be significant, it pales in comparison to the appointment of gay mayors in Paris and Berlin, or of a lesbian Prime Minister in Iceland. By comparison, Tokyo’s mayor, Shintaro Ishihara, sparked controversy by calling homosexuals  “abnormal”.

Furthermore, although Christian ideas of homosexuality being ‘sinful’ has not exerted much influence on Japanese society, Confucian ethics have, and with them comes another set of problems. Homophobic attitudes—particularly those of fathers—are often driven by a fear of familial breakdown. Simply put, gay men don’t breed: they’re considered “anti-social” because their only contribution to society is themselves.

I don’t feel that a society is only progressive or tolerant if it has a Pride event. Some gay men in Western societies dislike the parade because they see it as a celebration of a narrow stereotype, or else because they don’t think that they need to flaunt their sexuality at a festival any more than straight people do.

An example of yaoi, or gay manga.

Yet in Tokyo, the conspicuous lack of Pride is symptomatic of a larger, more insidious problem. Some of my foreign gay friends are angry and frustrated at the number of gay men in Japan who are afraid of coming out of the closet and have issues with their gay identity. Many are also reportedly uncomfortable about sex.

It’s a great shame that in a country with great potential to be open and tolerant so many men still feel unable to fulfill their sexualities, and choose to live in the shadows instead. Unfortunately, drawing them out will take more than just their own courage; it requires a vast re-education of the public too.