LGBTQ lives in collective societies- the case of Japan

identity_by_kidchanBeing LGBTQ is hard not because our sexuality and gender identity walk hand-in-hand with instability in mental health (it doesn’t), but rather because the people around us validate their way of living by perpetuating hate speech and violence against us. Because some societies and people still view the others as commodities for their self-gratification. This is especially true in collective, mostly non-Western, societies. In this post I’ll examine through manga the societal pressure LGBTQ individuals face in Japan. 

Although manga is art and as such doesn’t hold 100% validity as depiction of reality, it might let us get a glimpse into the society that created it. Let’s take a look:

Girl's_End_11In Girl’s End (Fujio, 2008) the woman who runs a lesbian club tries to make clear to the newbie employee that it’s not all fun and games. While she says she couldn’t possibly hide eternally, just by loving the same sex she is a source of sadness for others. She’s making a point that she shouldn’t forget it and work seriously while carrying the burden of her choices.

I can't tell anyoneIn the final chapter of I won’t tell anyone (Shigisawa Kaya, 2010) two co-workers are in relationship but they aren’t out. The parents of one of the two women have send a melon, a pricey gift, to their daughter’s lover as a thanks for taking care of her and probably to implicitly create an obligation to spill out the truth. When they come into town their daughter leaves her lover to deal with them alone. It’s quite distressing how the parents are afraid of such a romance and how the lover bends under the stress, lies and decides to break up. Beyond the problems their relationship had the emphasis is put in how the parents are hurt and how inappropriate it would be to make these people ‘suffer’.

img000017In Kyou Kara Yonshimai (Nanki Satou & Akira Kizuki, 2013) the three sisters reunite with the person they considered their brother only to hear that their precious sibling feels a woman and wants to proceed in hormone treatment and sex reassignment surgery. This doesn’t sit well with them since, in a sense, they lose their ‘brother’. The whole thing is played for laughs but what one could pinpoint to is that, once again, LGBTQ individuals need approval to live their lives. The way the situation is presented, the focus is not on the individual’s feelings but to their surroundings.

All three examples are from fairly recent publications. This might work as a reminder that group consciousness (shuudan ishiki) is still very much present in Japanese society. This mentality pushes for conformity, something which is reflected succinctly in the proverb “The nail that stands up will be pounded down” (deru kui wa utareru). Many people in Japan think that it is better to say nothing than cause misunderstandings or trouble. On top or perhaps as a result of this reasoning, there’s a strong sense of obligation towards family and people on the upper levels of social hierarchy (giri). The creation of family for the reproduction of society seems to be one of those obligations.

As time passes by, more and more people accept LGBTQ individuals if a video by Rachel and Jun (25/11/2013) is to be believed, but this acceptance is one shrouded in silence and prejudice. There’s no real understanding of what gender identity and sexual orientation are (which, to be honest, isn’t exclusive to Japan) and stereotypes still rule. Although Japan has a history of homosexuality, yuri and yaoi magazines, a big LGBTQ shopping and bar district, and pride parades are organized and even honored by the presence of the PM’s wife, that doesn’t mean that they share the same civil rights as heterosexual cis folks. A quote from the start of the video is very telling:

[…] Homosexuality was never a sin or vice—it was just something that was always naturally there. So why should people have to say they’re gay? I’m straight but I’ve never made a declaration out of it. ~bign8153


I’m not trying to make Japan the black sheep since I think it fares a bit better than many Asian countries; I’m just using her as an example since I can access parts of her culture. The same can be observed in some American states and European countries (I don’t have any picture about Africa) among devout Christians, Mormons, Muslims etc. where the moral rules are quite strict and there’s a sense of belonging to a superior being. Of course there are other cases, too, of parents in the countryside who put emphasis on what the village will say and/or see their children as wish fulfilling dolls.

As I mentioned in the introduction, generally, lgbtq individuals’ feelings continue to be treated as non-important or being put second as priorities. I hope this will change in the future both in Japan and elsewhere.

[The book that I consulted in writing this post is Osamu Ikena, Ed. Roger J. Davies (2002), The Japanese Mind, Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture, Tuttle Pubblishing.]

P.S.: Happy Coming Out Day!


10 thoughts on “LGBTQ lives in collective societies- the case of Japan

  1. Three other moments in media dealing with similar attitudes came to mind:
    1. There was a short boom in K-dramas of girls going undercover as boys and their male love interests undergoing gay panic as a result. If you jump down to the end section of this post, they talk about how collective societal pressures (or the lack thereof) may have affected the difference in said love interests’ gay panic, and their reactions to the truth after they had come to terms with their feelings.

    2. In Glee, the character Santana casually mentions that her coming out to her parents went okay. The actual screentime is given to her coming out to her grandmother, who judges her not simply for being gay, but for breaking the unspoken DADT policy. You can see the relevant quotes in this recap, and the poster mentions on the first page of the recap a similar moment that occurred in The L Word.

    3. The movie Saving Face is all about how collective society has shaped secret-keeping in the New York Chinese-American community, especially with regards to slut-shaming and homophobia, based on the director’s own experiences. In particular the protagonist’s mother has been pushing her towards boys the entire movie, when it’s revealed that she had found out about the protagonist being gay years ago. But the mother is still obligated to act in denial of her knowledge in order live up to the movie’s title.

    4. The entirety of the K-drama special “Daughters of Club Bilitis” is about this. I had a few conversations with my friends when it was broadcast about how much this issue pervaded every storyline, to where it seemed to infuse the entire special with a very bittersweet-at-best outlook.


  2. I think LGBTQ issues in Japan are hard to deal with because the culture in Japan is very compartmentalized. For example, Japanese people still eat with women on one side and men on the other from elementary school through adulthood. People aren’t allowed to deviate from this cultural sameness, so being gay or bi or feeling opposite your sex is considered “non-Japanese”. I think if you’d like to look at the issues for LGBTQ in manga, I.S. deals a lot with breaking genders and gender roles in Japanese society.


      • I.S. deals with intersex (when people are born with testicles and ovaries or their bodies change from one gender to another during maturation), and a lot of the story follows different characters who want to fall in love and live regular lives. Because they are born with unique bodies and Japanese society always puts people into perfectly-trimmed, gender-specific boxes, the characters face bullies and obstacles that straight and single-gender people don’t face.


        • I remember the general premise. I actually have it reviewed here . I even remember the characters becoming ‘gender educators’ of sorts for other classmates/coworkers, but I don’t remember a particular moment that I thought ‘ah this is particular Japanese’ besides that red/black school bags incident :/


          • I’m going to have to go back and read it. I read it before I came to live in Japan, so maybe there’s something I missed, but it came to mind for a reason. Anyways, LGBTQ issues in Japan are really skewed–there are entertainers like Hard Gay and Yoshio Kojima but everyone’s scared of real gay men. I have stories…


  3. I never thought about homosexuality in African countries, myself – a cursory glance on Wikipedia indicates a low acceptance towards LGBTQ in Africa, with three countries (Sudan, northern Nigeria and Mauritania) even imposing a death penalty on same-sex sexual activity. South Africa is rather progressive with it, as it passed laws recognizing same-sex marriage and prohibiting discrimination.

    With Japan, it’s still an uphill climb – the video you linked to did mentioned the historical aspect to this, but obstacles persist. Is conformity a major factor here?


    • I had a very vague idea but I hadn’t delved deeper myself so I didn’t want to talk about something I had no idea about beyond the Uganda laws perhaps. I’ve heard all too often that part of the blame is the missionaries and westernization.

      Yes, conformity is an outcome of group consciousness. As for the uphill part, it’s relative and I don’t live in Japan of course, so the level of hardships people face there is something I can’t really evaluate. But consider that there’s been a transwoman politician elected for 2 consecutive elections and other lesbian and gay politicians. Perhaps the toughest is how family faces the whole thing if they ever learn about it.


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