Because of it’s heavy Western influence but unique cultural stylings, Japan often acts as a slightly warped circus mirror for issues in America. Depending on where you stand, the reflection might be spot on, or it might be nearly unidentifiable.
LGBT (Lesbian/Gay/Bi/Transsexual) rights are a flashpoint topic back in the States, it’s true. Japan lags a few years behind even us, however, in their treatment and consideration of LGBT rights and individuals; interestingly, it’s a direct result of Western influence that this is so. No, I’m not an apologetic for Western influence – this is simply a fact. Back before the Meiji era (before Commodore Perry arrived on Japan’s watery doorstep in his infamous ‘black ships’), homosexuality was encouraged, especially among monks and warriors – much like in Ancient Greece. The word for homosexuality in Japanese is “seikouruijikooi,” literally translated as “similar to sexual conduct.” It was seen as a way to develop closer relationships and let off physical steam, and there wasn’t any overt stigma attached.
However, with Commodore Perry came Western trading, and Western ideals; to comply with the strong Western belief at the time against homosexuality, sodomy was criminalized for the first time in 1873. That law only lasted seven years before being overturned, but the stigma proved interminable, growing stronger as Japan more fully embraced the West and moved away from some of its own traditions. There are no laws on the books either outlawing or protecting LGBT individuals; thus, public opinion is left to its own devices.
Yesterday was the Kansai Rainbow Parade, a Gay Pride extravaganza for the Osaka/Kansai area. Considering there are nearly 4 million people in Osaka city alone, the turnout wasn’t very high – perhaps 500 individuals in addition to a brass mix band and a traditional drum/dance tribe. In speaking to some of the marchers, I learned that most LGBT won’t march in the parade – they are too scared that a coworker or friend might see them, and that reactions will be severe. Many who do march wear wigs, masks, hats, or heavy makeup – not only to dress up but also to disguise their identity.
Those who did make it out spoke of Japan’s normally unfailing and legendary politeness having definite limits – a Japanese would never knowingly use a derogatory term for someone who was overweight, or slow, or had poor language skills, etc. However, out yourself, and you’ll apparently quickly hear some Japanese ear-burning terms for yourself. I was surprised to hear this not only from Nihonjin (Japanese natives), but also from gaijin (foreigners) – both experience vocal discrimination in addition to the additional difficulty of finding/keeping a job, making friends, etc. Same-sex marriage is non-existant, as are civil unions, and there isn’t any recognition of same-sex relationships for insurance purposes or hospital visitation rights either. America isn’t where we need to be on this issue yet, as it does boil down to (often un-)civil discrimination, but we are shockingly ahead of the curve set by Japan.
The parade itself was a nice event, a lovely walk down the downtown streets of Osaka surrounded by some ecstatic and gorgeous drag queens, more-than-a-handful of foreigners/ex-pats, and sadly, some Japanese in disguises with their heads down. I know it took great courage for them to be there at all, but it made me just want to hug them when they ducked from the cameras and looked so scared. There was, of course, also the bear contingent – three extremely outgoing, burly men dressed in leather straps. Only three, but they made enough noise for one hundred, you’ve got to hand them that; one even had an inflatable penis made out of a giant garbage bag wrapped around him. Surprisingly, he got a lot of attention from the older women who smiled and waved enthusiastically at him. Everyone laughed at his antics in the parade, too, and his crazy catcalls seemed to lift the spirits of some who had previously been marching head-down. Others seemed embarrassed by the three.
Nearly everyone we passed stopped and stared. Onlooker reaction varied tremendously – some were excited and waved. Some just stared. Some frowned, especially men. Most just looked a little confused. Almost everyone took pictures.
One marcher asked Rhys if he felt “guilty” marching in the parade. We never quite understood the question – was she asking because he wasn’t gay? Because he might be noticed? Because he was married? It wasn’t ever clear. We marched in support, because both of us believe that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a criminal thing to allow in our society. True – Japan is not our society; but these particular individuals were marching for change, and we wished to support them, as well as support those struggling for change back in America. We were welcomed into the parade with open arms (and cute balloons!), and we were glad to help.
Check out the video at the bottom of the post – this was amazing. The traditional drum band were exceptional, and performed for the parade-marchers before we began our march. They also marched and performed at every stoplight; we were exhausted at the end of the 5k, but I can’t imagine how tired they were!