■Updated November 2016
As the title implies, I’ll be writing about what it’s like being in a gay relationship and dating a Japanese guy. Of course, I don’t see him as my “Japanese guy”, he’s just “my guy”, but nevertheless, the cultures we were born into do have a hand in shaping who we are and the ways in which we interact with each other.
I can’t speak for every international couple, nor am I trying to generalize every Japanese man. But in any case, I hope that you’ll find this information to be interesting and useful.
Finding the Guy
If you’ve read my post Expat and Gay in Japan: An Introduction, you’ll remember that there are two main ways that gay men meet in Japan: at bars or online. Taku and I met through the latter. I was the one who reached out to Taku first. We exchanged messages for a short while before meeting in person for the first time. After several dates we became “official”. Other Japanese/non-Japanese expat gay relationships I know of have started similarly. It’s a sign of the times, as LGBT people often do not live openly here.
If you’re in Japan, the easiest way to access the gay world is by using a smartphone application. Applications like the Japanese-created 9monsters or others like Jack’d function sort of like a “gay Facebook”. Since gay men are hidden in Japan, it’s easier to find a variety of people on applications as opposed to in bars. You don’t even have to leave your couch (or get up off of the tatami)!
If you’re more outgoing, bars may be a good option, and they may feature a different set of individuals than smartphone applications. For finding gay bars in Japan, check out my post “Expat and Gay in Japan: How to Find Gay Bars (and More!)“.
In addition, if you speak some Japanese and are interested in helping out the Japanese LGBT cause, why not try volunteering with a local non-profit organization? More and more NPO’s catered towards helping the LGBT community are conducting activities across Japan especially in bigger cities.
◆Are foreign guys popular among gay Japanese men?
Back when I had a dating profile, I would occasionally get messages from Japanese guys who explicitly said they wanted to practice English and guys who were a little too enthusiastic about the fact that I was foreign. I don’t like that kind of attention, so I chose to talk with those who just treated me like I was a regular guy rather than an English machine or exotic foreigner.
In my consensus, I think that some Japanese guys are indeed attracted to foreign guys, whether it’s the desire to be with someone who thinks and acts differently than someone who was raised in Japan, or due to general curiosity or attraction to foreign features.
Japanese Studies scholar Thomas Baudinette gave a brief overview of how race plays into the gay dating scene in Japan in response to a comment on his article titled “Negotiating the fetishisation of youth in the gay male media of Japan” which I found to be interesting.
“…The gay male community of Japan loosely divides itself into three categories: “nai-sen” (those who prefer other Japanese men, representing the majority), “gai-sen” (those who prefer white foreign men) and “ajia-sen” (those who prefer East or South-East Asian). I would also point out here that Latino and Black ethnicities, as well as South and Central Asian, are rather invisible….”
“…Broadly speaking, there is an uneasy fetishisation of the white male in the gay male media of Japan…”
In my personal experience as a Latino in Japan, I believe that white men of any nationality do indeed have an advantage in finding Japanese partners and in navigating the Japanese gay world. By “white” I mean basically any man who looks white regardless of their actual heritage. This is probably because it aligns with the expectation of what a western foreigner is “supposed to” look like, and like Mr. Baunidette stated, is a fetishized image (not only in the gay world but in the straight world too) in Japan. If you’re not white though, don’t get discouraged! I’m Latino and found myself with Japanese boyfriend.
It also goes without saying that speaking Japanese is a huge plus when meeting Japanese guys. Keep in mind that since it’s already difficult to find Japanese speakers of English in general, when it comes to finding gay Japanese men who can speak English, you’re looking at a very small selection.
In Japan, male and female gender roles are strictly defined. But of course, the roles in a relationship change quite a bit when it comes to two guys. I’ll try to explain them while giving my personal experience in regards to our relationship.
◆Work Life Balance
Japan is infamous for not paying any regard to work-life balance. Anyone who has read anything about Japan is probably aware that men in Japan are expected to work dozens of hours of overtime and are always “on call”, so they may even be forced on a day off to come to the office or attend a work event at the drop of a hat.
Taku and I started dating right before he was set to start a new job. We lived far enough apart that it was impossible to meet on the weekdays when we are both working, so we spent time together on the weekends. He explained that his job would probably become very difficult, and there may be many times when he has to work on the weekends. Luckily for him, I was already well aware of how Japanese companies work, and knew what I was in for. Also, being a working man in Japan myself, I also had times when I needed to work on the weekends as well. Therefore, we understood the demands of each other’s jobs and planned our meetings accordingly.
Now, we live much closer together but still in separate apartments, so while we usually clear most of our weekends to spend time with each other, we also try to make time on the weekdays to meet up whenever possible.
◆Gender Roles in the Home
Since Japan’s modernization, gender roles in Japan have been severely split when it comes to matters of the home. For example, the man was considered to be the breadwinner while the woman takes care of…basically everything else. From managing the money and doing the housework, to raising the kids, to making sure her husband has a wrinkle-free dress shirt when he leaves for work and a hot bath ready for when he comes home, the woman of the household was expected to do it all.
Times are changing in Japan, and there have been some (halfhearted) efforts to get women out of the kitchen and into office chairs in order to better the economy. Prime Minister Abe’s policies notwithstanding, there had already been a trend over the past few years of men beginning to contribute in areas that used to be a woman’s domain. Japan absolutely loves portmanteaus, and the description for this new type of man is called ikumen (イクメン). It’s a combination of the word for “childrearing” (育児, ikuji) and the English “men”. These are men who take an active role in child care, which demands that they learn the same housekeeping skills as their wives.
While I have a feeling that men’s gender roles will only keep moving in this direction, I’m also sure that there are plenty of guys who might find Japan’s changes troublesome.
Luckily for me, as Taku and I are both guys, we don’t have to worry about these kinds of strict gender roles. While we don’t live together now, I think that when we do, we’ll figure out a way to divide the household tasks accordingly.
◆Public Displays Of Affection
As a gay couple in conservative Japan, we can’t exactly hold hands or be generally touchy while in public. While I don’t think anything dangerous would happen if we were to do so, one can never be too safe. I have never seen two men holding hands or being romantic outside of queer spaces.
Here in Fukuoka City though, I have seen many lesbian couples holding hands and being cuddly in public, so I think it might be easier for women to get away with.
◆Hiding in the Closet, Isolation
As you may be aware, many Japanese LGBT individuals are reluctant to come out due to the negative impact it could have in all aspects of their lives.
When Taku and I began dating, he was not out to anyone, and in those early days, he was very cautious when we were together in public, in case we ran into one of his friends or coworkers. Luckily, we’ve never had a problem, and he’s become a lot more comfortable since then. (Though he’s still not out to any friends or coworkers)
That’s just one example. I’ve heard of other gay couples who have to be discreet when staying over each other’s apartments, just in case the landlord happens to see a “new tenant” always hanging around.
Or maybe you’ll find yourself in a popular date spot and it’s all male and female couples except for you and your boyfriend, which can be a little awkward if you’re self-conscious (as a non-Japanese person I’m always aware of people looking at me).
At first, I don’t think I fully appreciated how difficult things are for LGBT people in Japan. As an American, I took it for granted that non-Japanese are often not treated with the same scrutiny as Japanese people, and that it’s easier for us to come out in many situations. (Regardless of this I don’t talk openly about my relationships with most Japanese people because I’m just a generally private person.)
If you find yourself falling for a Japanese guy, you should be aware of the social stigma that still exists, and consider how it may effect your relationship. In extreme cases, it may feel as if you’re sleuthing around or like your boyfriend is ashamed of you, but it could just be out of caution, so try not take it personally. If having to take precautions or feeling like you’re being forced back in the closet makes you feel uncomfortable, it would be good to get a understand how open the guy is before starting anything serious.
There were times when I felt concerned about Taku, because I could imagine how hard it was not being able to talk to anyone about LGBT topics. Luckily, Taku was able to connect with Japanese readers of this blog and learn more from others who are or have been in interracial relationships. I think that he was able to gain a lot from hearing about other’s experiences.
While he’s still not out to his friends, he has met and hung out with my non-Japanese friends who live in Japan and those who have visited me from the states. We’ve also made new mutual friends with other gay Japanese/non-Japanese couples through this blog! I’m really happy for the progress that we’ve made and that we have become able to spend time with others as a couple.
◆Housing Discrimination and Job Transfers
Same-sex couples cannot get married in Japan, and because of this, there can sometimes be hurdles to living together. For example, there are some cases where landlords might refuse a same-sex couple on the grounds of them not being relatives. Recently, some municipalities in Japan have begun offering same-sex partnership certificates as a way to curb housing discrimination. Whether this has had any concrete effect has yet to be reported (possibly due to the low number of couples who are actually using the system).
There are also other hurdles. Most Japanese companies have systems where employees have to transfer their place of work. This means that men who don’t want to uproot their entire family must leave their wife and children behind and just send their pay check home every month.
Single men are especially at risk of being transferred, because in the eyes of their employer, they don’t have much to lose by moving. This business practice results in many long distance couples, opposite and same-sex, across Japan.
Communication is an important facet of any relationship that becomes more taxing when you mix in the fact that neither of us can fluently speak each other’s native tongue.
We speak exclusively Japanese in our relationship. Prior to meeting Taku, I had studied Japanese for several years. Even with that experience however, it’s still hard for me to communicate my ideas in the same capacity that I can in English. I recognize that I have a long way to go, and while I’m pretty good at self-motivation, being with Taku has lead me to study even more zealously, as I want to become able to speak to and understand him better.
There are times where I can’t express myself as clearly as I want to, and the meaning of what I’m trying to say can sometimes get misled. There are also times when I can misunderstand what Taku is trying to say as well. In those cases, it’s important to take a step back and work together to figure out where the conversation went awry before making assumptions.
As I currently stand, I’m able to speak Japanese comfortably and in a way that expresses my personality. Taku also takes care to speak in clear Japanese that I can understand.
Of course, communication goes a lot further than words. Being able to read the atmosphere is an extremely valuable skill in general, but is especially important in Japan where everyone is expected to be particularly sensitive to others in their group.
In the early days of our relationship, I didn’t realize how many signals I was subconsciously letting off until Taku was getting all sorts of reads on me, some of which that were correct, and some that weren’t. It took him some time to “adjust to my frequency” so to speak. He once told me that he thought I was bored on our first handful of dates because I often seemed uninterested, but I had to explain that I was having a great time, but I’m just really lethargic during winter!
If you’re with a Japanese guy, it’s a good idea to try to be direct and make sure that you’re completely on the same page. When we started dating, there was one thing that I made clear: I didn’t want any issues caused by simple misunderstandings. Taku agreed that it was best if we told each other things directly. That agreement, plus the fact that we aren’t argumentative types, have contributed to a smooth relationship.
I hope that this post gave you some insight as to what it might be like to be in a gay relationship with a Japanese guy. I’d love to hear comments and/or stories. If you have any specific questions that I’ve left unanswered, ask them in the contact form below and I’ll answer briefly or make a post addressing them in the future.