Newsweek Japan 11/06/2015
Is it okay to ask “Are you gay?”
We ask a Japanese journalist in America why it is still difficult for LGBT people to come out in Japanese society.
■It is possible to say that modern Japan is a society where it is easy for LGBT people to come out?
On November 5, Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward began issuing “Partnership Certificates”, officially recognizing same sex couples. The news served as a symbol of the changing situation surrounding Japanese LGBT people for the first time in over ten years.
On the other hand, if one takes a closer look at Japanese society, the truth is that it’s difficult to say that the existence of LGBT people has received sufficient visibility. Compared to America, where 65% of respondents claim that “there are LGBT people among my close friends and in my family”, what’s the difference?
Journalist Kitamaru Yuji, who identifies as gay, immigrated to New York City 23 years ago and has been working at the Tokyo Shinbun New York Branch ever since. Ever since translating the the highly-acclaimed novel “The Front Runner”, he has covered LGBT human rights issues around the world while based in New York City.
Kogure Sato (Newsweek NY Branch) spoke with Kitamaru.
∴Is it currently easy to come out (in Japan)? Is it becoming easier?
In Japanese society, there is less debate and advocacy than in America. If one remains silent, they can continue to live their lives one way or another. Compared to America, Japanese society is kind to LGBT people, so they are able to live their lives even if they remain silent. However, for a society that is kind to gay people, it seems that it should be easy to come out. Despite this, everyone chooses not to.
As for me, I think that people shouldn’t have to live in hiding. Of course, everyone has secrets, but one’s identity, that is to say, the idea of not being able to accept yourself, has been constructed in America as something that is inhuman. With the American Gay Liberation Movement of the 60’s and 70’s and the AIDs epidemic of the 80’s, an opportunity was created for American society to develop and share a system of values regarding gay people. Thus, schools have been taught about prejudice towards gay people, and information and themes regarding gay people have increased in television, movies, and on the news.
20 year olds today, that is to say, those born in 1995, are part of a generation that was raised while surrounded with this kind of information. 1995 wasn’t a time for death from AIDs, but rather a time when it became easier to come out. The idea of “Anti-Gay discrimination” permeated society, and there were many more people who had come out. According to a 2013 public opinion poll, two-thirds of respondents, about 65% said that they knew gay of lesbian people among their friends and family. A society was created where people were well aware of real-life LGBT people around them.
∴I was raised in a all-girl’s high school environment, so there are several lesbians among my friends. However, when I ask my straight friends, they claim that they don’t know a single gay or lesbian person. It’s a bit unusual, isn’t it. Within ten or twenty of my friends, it would be expected that they know at least one (LGBT) person. Is it because they only tell close friends?
That’s because for gay and lesbian people, there’s no reason to come out to that person. Perhaps there isn’t sufficient reason or benefit to coming out to that friend.
Otherwise, they may find themselves scaring away a valued friend. Likewise, straight people may also be worried to ask if someone is gay or lesbian. If this situation doesn’t change, it will be difficult for people to choose to come out. However, in American society, there was the idea that someone must make a breakthrough.
∴It seems like Japanese people seem to get along superficially. As if becoming completely open with someone takes time.
While that may be part of it, another point is that Japan is said to be a collectivist culture. There’s family and friends, as well as those outside the group. Among family and friends, people are close and get along well, however, they don’t initiate conversation with complete strangers. On the other hand, America is a society where people are said to be more open in both the public and private spheres and able to interact with each other openly. Japan isn’t a country where people are open in public as in America, which makes it hard to come out. It can’t be helped that (Japanese LGBT) people don’t come out in the public sphere. They can’t come out and get support like in America, where people in the public sphere are also interconnected. This is the kind of difference in social structure that exists.
■I am not “homo”, but there’s still no definition of “gay”.
∴It is okay for straight people to ask, “Are you gay?”
Of course it’s okay to ask. However, there are (gay) people who are not ready to say it. In addition, when being asked, one also recognizes the reason why they are being asked. Whether it’s out of curiosity, because the person wants to become their friend, or because they’re interested in you. Among regular and work relationships, they (the Japanese LGBT person) knows what kind of person the inquirer is. Whether they are someone who discriminates or holds prejudices or not. It’s okay to ask if someone is gay, but how they respond will be based not only on the individual’s personality, but also how much the person asking is worth (to the gay person).
One’s closest friends might be gay, but there are also people that one must be cautious of. In Japan, it’s difficult to eliminate that cycle of thought. When someone says “gay” in Japan, the image of “onee” and comedy springs up. But the truth is, it’s not just that one image. In New York, when one says “gay”, there are handsome men, fathers, sexy older men, and various types of people, just like among heterosexuals.
Because the visible sample of gay men is wide and varied, the idea of “gay” is able to be defined correctly (in America). In Japan, there is no opportunity to learn in this manner.
If we look at Japan a few decades ago, there was no internet, and and there was no information about gays and lesbians. The media didn’t cover the events of Stonewall and the gay liberation movement. When I first became a newspaper reporter, I wrote about Stonewall while rummaging through old resources from the reference room.
After that, it was reported how the New York gay parade was like a “a homo festival” or “homo parade”. I used the information about the AIDs epidemic of the 80’s as a pretext to write more (about the gay community). At that time, I suggested we stop using the word “homo”, and replace it with (the more appropriate) “gay” instead.
∴Kitamaru-san, when did you realize that you were gay?
I accepted that I was gay in the 80’s when I was a bit over 30. At the time I didn’t have the language with which to define myself, so in the case of living in Japan, I had to create my own. The term “homo” was in circulation in Japan, but the term “gay” was not. I absolutely didn’t consider myself “homo”, but it was still a period where the term “gay” hadn’t been created yet.
I understood that I liked boys during puberty. In Sapporo during my high school days, I started to like boys while I was dating girls, but I didn’t know any other boys like me. I had a lot of good friends, so I told them that I liked boys. I never told the boys I liked though laughs. There was almost no information about homosexuality. Only that it was abnormal and linked to sexual deviancy. So I thought, “This is what homosexuality is,” and didn’t come to the conclusion that I was gay until I was over thirty.
Even when I was working for the newspaper company, I came to tell my coworkers, such as the copy editor and my seniors, that I was gay. It was because I was writing a lot of articles about those kinds of topics. Those days, I was writing about the AIDs epidemic and other topics, which were issues that I wanted to present to readers. The gay image was associated with not being masculine, so many male reporters were reluctant to write about those kinds of topics. This is because they might be mistaken for being gay themselves. Therefore, reporters writing about gay issues at the time were overwhelmingly female. This was because as women, they could relate to being burdened and stigmatized.
However, among young reporters today, including many males and returnees to Japan, there is almost no prejudice due to their exposure to current information (about LGBT issues). Things have quite changed in the past five years. It feels as if the cogs have finally begun to turn.
While it can’t be said that all of American society has changed, the majority of people have changed due to being exposed to current information. The younger generation that elected President Obama are raising American society to new levels.
■This is the time when we must come out.
∴Is today’s society easy to live in for LGBT people?
In order to make it more comfortable, LGBT people should come out. I wonder if they can truly live happily while putting up with the oppression by society. I think it’s happier to live boldly and openly. That is my raw and honest opinion. However, being able to hold that view of life changes depending on how one was raised, what kind of friends one has, and so on. Maybe one can live in silence and be happy, but if one starts to doubt that happiness, it would very unfortunate.
Coming out isn’t something you can recklessly do, like proclaiming “I’m gay!”. There’s talk about to what extent one should come out. Young gay people today, like before, are inviting gay friends to their homes and throwing a party without having to hide their identities. That is also a fine way to come out. Now is a time when people must come out, and there’s no chance of Japan regressing back to a time where one is unable to do so. Coming out within the community is good, and coming out outside of the community is appearing as the obvious next step. Whether or not one an come out outside of the community is up the individual.
What could you say coming out is? First is accepting yourself. You must come out to yourself. Having done that first step, next is wanting to tell someone else, and once telling others is fine, rather than just telling people, the desire to date someone also develops. It automatically happens in this way. Having pride in yourself and being open, that’s what coming out is.
Coming out confidently and being accepted. The steps it takes to reach that state of mind are varied. For example, in Christianity, where homosexuality is a sin, it’s possible one may first have to permit themselves to be this way. Then, they must take the steps to accept themselves. They accept that it cannot be helped, and positively accept themselves. Once they do so, they can eventually become proud of themselves and raise their self esteem.
These steps vary depending on the person, and if one is bullied along the way, we must make a society where the one who bullies is considered wrong, rather than the one being bullied. Eventually creating a society where this kind of campaign is unnecessary is the ultimate goal of the LGBT human rights movement.