Lesbian Travel in Japan
Tokyo is an amazingly diverse city and you won’t have a problem finding the LGBTQ neighbourhood just a ten minute walk from Shinjuku Station. Ni-chome/2-chome (“knee-ko-may”) is everything you love about the Japanese bar scene – intimate little bars with great people – with the added benefit of not having to closet yourself while you enjoy a drink. As with most gay neighbourhoods, many establishments are geared towards men, but there is so much happening in Tokyo, you can find quite a few lesbian places as well.
While there are numerous LGBTQ-friendly bars, you won’t be able to find them all. And not all are foreigner-friendly. My suggestion would be to start at a more well-known location, like Bar Goldfinger, and make some friends. We were told about a couple of lesbian bars in the Ikebukuro neighbourhood where we were staying and ridiculously thought we would be able to find them ourselves. Knowing the name of a place doesn’t help you much in Japan – get the address if you can! Better yet, cancel your plans for the next evening and take your new friends out for drinks!
One of the great things about Japan is how friendly the people are. Laura and I are definitely introverts. Still, we managed to make friends even as we hid in a dark corner of a bar quietly sipping our drinks. The biggest difficulty you will face in meeting people will be the language barrier.
Outside of Tokyo, the gay and lesbian scene dies off. When I booked our accommodations, I specifically referred to Laura as my wife and had no issues. Private matters are respected as such in Japan, so it’s unlikely you will receive any comments or questions as to who your travelling partner is.
In Osaka, we met a young woman from Taiwan who recognised us from a restaurant in Kyoto (if you’re vegan or gluten-free, apparently you’re bound to run into the same people). We chatted about the usual tourist stuff and she gifted us with some stationary from Taiwan. Wanting to return the favour, I gave her the rainbow maple leaf pin from my jacket. She looked at the pin somewhat confused and asked us, “Does rainbow mean lesbian?” As I was emotionally preparing myself for our friendly repertoire to come to an end, she smiled as she held up the pin and said, “I support!”
LGBTQ History in Japan
Way, way back in the day (1200s – 1600s), there was a thing called shudo or nanshoku. This was a practice of homosexuality within the samurai tradition. It was mostly pedophilic, with young apprentices being sexually obligated to their senior samurai masters, but also included adult-to-adult homosexual relations. For some reason, it was believed that male-female intercourse would weaken the samurai, but they seemed to be ok with this other method. While these adult-youth, same-sex partnerships were encouraged, it seemed to be less to do with accepting homosexuality and more to do with misogyny. I’m no historian, but I don’t think there’s anyway to paint this picture pretty…
There also appear to be references in art and literature that similarly refer to lesbian relationships. With the arrival of Christianity in the 1800s, sodomy was made illegal, but this law was revoked again during the same century seven years later.
Modern LGBTQ Laws in Japan
Homosexuality is legal in Japan, but specific laws and support vary. Some governments, such as in Tokyo, aim to protect from discrimination when applying for jobs, but this protection is not widespread and some same-sex couples go without protections, such as from domestic violence, that are granted to heterosexual couples. Same-sex marriages are not legally recognised in Japan, though in 2009 the government allowed for same-sex marriages to overseas partners.
While political support has been very much on the quiet side of things, there have been political figures who have publicly announced their sexuality. In 2003, Aya Kamikawa, an elected official in Tokyo, came out as transgender. As well, in 2005, Kanako Otsuji, an assemblywoman from Osaka, came out as a lesbian.
Rei-Guimi Studio Tokyo was founded in 1987 as the first lesbian and feminist group. The objective of this group was to reclaim the lesbian identity from pornographic culture. In 1990, the Japanese Association for Lesbian and Gay Movement challenged and won the right for LGBT youth to use the Metropolitan House for Youth.
LGBTQ Culture in Japan
Despite the lack of political support, the people of Japan have generally shown a tolerance to, and continue to support, same-sex rights. Japan’s first pride parade happened in 2003 and Tokyo Disneyland added their support by hosting an LGBTQ day the same year.
Yuri, which means Lily, is a form of manga that depicts lesbian relationships. There is some argument as to the intended audience, but there are some publications such as Revolutionary Girl Uten, which are aimed primarily towards the lesbian audience.
You won’t see same-sex couples holding hands while walking down the street, but you won’t see any couples doing this. PDA’s are generally frowned upon and the closest you will come to seeing a couple being intimate in public is two people staring longingly into each other’s eyes. So at least you can take comfort knowing your affections are as closeted as everyone else’s.
Lesbian Bars & Cafés in Tokyo
Bar Goldfinger is the most famous place for lesbians and LGBTQ people to gather (even Ellen Page has been here). Once a month, they also hold an all-night, women-only party at a nearby club. With a slogan like short nails club, this is a great place to hang-out (or make-out;)). Women-only except on Friday.
Dorobune Another popular and comfortable lesbian bar in ni-chome with women-only nights on Saturdays. Bring your dog!
Motel #203 Women-only lounge except on Thursdays. The owner, Chiga, also runs Bar Goldfinger.
Adezakura One of the newer, and more popular, bars on the lesbian scene, Adezakura takes music requests and is women-only until 2am.
Las Chicas An arty, restaurant and bar with DJs. Activist lesbian gatherings happen here.
Bar GOSSIP Also a café and bookstore, LGBT events are sometimes hosted here. From their website, “’gossip’ is open for anyone. Nationality, sexuality, age, does not matter, needless to say!”.
Rainbow Burritos A lesbian bar that serves burritos! (not gluten-free, but they do also have nachos.).
Arty Farty A popular gay club with a mixed crowd. Women need to be accompaninied by a gay friends on Fridays and Sundays.
Campy! Bar Everybody is welcome at this aptly-named drag bar!
CoCoLo Café If you need break from the bar scene, but still want to be in a gay-friendly place, this café may be the place for you.
News Café An LGBT owned café in the Jiugaoka neighbourhood.
Hug Women-only bar catering mostly to a slightly older crowds (30s-40s).
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