Text and Photos by Kimberly Cecchini
In search of last-minute memories for our expiring holiday in Japan, we stumbled upon one in a small corner of the Shinjuku district on our last night. We joined the street festival just as they were just about to kick off the festivities; at the end of a countdown, the participants cheered and created a rainbow in the late afternoon sky as their colorful balloons drifted upwards.
It was the 14th Tokyo Rainbow Fest. Gay pride, Shinjuku style. Tucked away from the tall buildings and neon lights of the business district, we learned that the Ni-Chome neighborhood is home to a plethora of bars, restaurants and shops catering to the capital’s sexual minorities. The male and female revelers, who were dressed in everything from contemporary and traditional clothes to drag and anime costumes, started roaming and mingling along the narrow streets after the opening event.
Attendees, as you might expect at a pride celebration, appeared to be out and comfortable with their sexuality. However, I figured that homosexuality might play quite a nuanced role in Japanese society, so I’ve done some research. In 2008, the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center posted a piece on sexual minorities in Japan that noted the country to be “more accepting” than many others but detailed how many live in the “hikage” or shadows of Japanese society. Additionally, a 2012 article on the Japan Daily Press (JDP) site reported that many Japanese were able to at least envision the idea of gay marriage after Obama announced his acceptance of it in the United States, but that Japan’s more rigid social norms have yet to be really softened with public debate, “Japan is a country where homosexuality may be tolerated, but it is not to be openly discussed in almost any way.”
A more recent Kyodo News survey, as cited by the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, reflects the slow progress towards legal recognition for same-sex couples. Fifty-two percent of respondents said they were either against or not completely comfortable with gay marriage. Even more telling, were the near 75% who felt, despite their personal opinions, that their society as a whole would not be entirely welcoming of same-sex marriage. As the post states, though, the attitudes towards sexual minorities may be evolving. The Japanese business market may be proof of this evolution as illustrated in another JDP piece from January entitled, “Top brands target Japan’s gay population, acceptance growing.”
Whatever the boundaries of the Japanese society at large, Tokyo residents certainly celebrated their sexuality that night at the Rainbow Festival. Some people played carnival like games while others started drinking in the traffic free street. As the sun went down, most people started to slip inside the tiny bars that populate nearly every meter of the tiny precincts. The “Gay Shinjuku” guide at japanvisitor.com, shares information on the foreigner friendly establishments among the variety of bars in Ni-Chome because a number of bars in the Ni-Chome are not quite open to foreigners as can be true at other spots in Japan. It is a bit of an irony, but real estate is at a premium in 15-seat bars and maybe us visitors can forgive bar keeps who tend to reserve them for regulars that have found a home there outside the “hikage”.
“Gay Shinjuku.” JapanVisitor. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2014.
Hofilena, John. “Top Brands Target Japan’s Gay Population, Acceptance Growing – The Japan Daily Press.” The Japan Daily Press. N.p., 23 Jan. 2014. Web. 22 Mar. 2014.
Shoushi, Sam. “Japan and Sexual Minorities.” Japan and Sexual Minorities. N.p., June 2008. Web. 22 Mar. 2014.
Warnock, Eleanor. “Majority Oppose Same-Sex Marriage in Japan.” Japan Real Time RSS. N.p., 18 Mar. 2014. Web. 22 Mar. 2014.
Westlake, Adam. “Gay Marriage Debate: Japan Next, Hope Equal Rights Activists – The Japan Daily Press.” The Japan Daily Press. N.p., 30 July 2012. Web. 22 Mar. 2014.