Women’s Stories: LGBT Edition (English)

Image credit: yesjaoui artworks cc

Interviews and English translation by Annie H Jones


Following in the footsteps of the western world, Japan has recently seen a rise in the awareness of the term LGBTQ+ (or LGBTQIA – Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Intersex Asexual). While Japan is still in the early stages of acceptance, it has been said that the country is currently experiencing an “LGBT boom”. This year’s Tokyo Rainbow Pride, which took place over the first weekend of May, was a promising sign for the LGBTQ+ community with around 108,000 people attending, a massive increase from 70,000 last year and just 12,000 in 2015. Eager to learn more about what it’s like to be out in Japan, Women’s Stories has spoken to a selection of women of all ages to hear about their experiences.

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Image credit: yesjaoui artworks cc

Miu, 20, artist and student

After catching a glimpse of the impressive LGBTQ+ artwork of student Miu on the Stonewall Japan page, we got in touch to find out more about what inspired her to start portraying issues of gender and LGBTQ+ through her art.

I’m a 20-year-old majoring in visual communication design at Musashino Art University. I learn about how to communicate through means other than words, whether that’s with lines, colours, or shapes.

I never had that moment of realisation that I was a lesbian. I went out with a boy at high school but we ended up breaking up because his general attitude was “I’m a guy and you’re a girl” both physically and in terms of gender which didn’t work for me when I’d started liking him just because I thought he was a great person. After that, while searching on the internet about gender and feeling out of place, I realised that it was alright for girls to like girls and I started being more honest with myself about my feelings.

“It’s important to remember that everybody is part of a minority, whether as a lesbian, an otaku or an art student”

I’ve only come out once by saying “I’m a lesbian!” We did a class assignment that involved introducing a partner instead of the usual self-introduction so I told my classmate I was gay. They replied, “We’re at an arts university. Aren’t there quite a few people that way inclined?” I’m sure they didn’t mean it in a malicious way but I was a bit disappointed.

I upload my artwork onto the internet so I guess friends that see that must know that I’m queer but I haven’t come out at home. Whenever the subject of same-sex marriage comes on the news my Dad laughs at them and makes comments like, “That’s gross” and uses words like “homo” and “lezza”. On top of that, one of my friends ran away from home because he’s gay. His Dad said to him, “If you’re gay then I don’t care if you die.” That really scared me and it’s made me think I definitely won’t tell my parents. Since I haven’t come out to them it also means I don’t show them my art. I’m sure they must wonder what on earth I’m actually making.

Most of my friends around me are straight but they don’t treat me any differently for being gay. They’re the kind of people that think it’s important to remember that everybody is part of a minority, whether as a lesbian, an otaku or an art student, and they treat everyone equally. It makes me really happy when I talk to them about girls I like and they reply with, “Aw, I’m jealous!”

Image credit: yesjaoui artworks cc

I started making LGBTQ+ art because I was struggling and failing to get rid of this horrible anxious feeling. I kept thinking about having this femininity ideal forced upon me by my ex-boyfriend. This one time in a long queue for the girls’ toilets, I was looking in the mirror at the reflection of the pink toilets and a group of girls who seemed to have mastered the “feminine look” then I looked at myself and thought, “Wow, I’m completely different to the “ideal girl””. Moments like that have inspired a lot of my drawings.

Although when I started out my drawings were focused on gender, it was actually after I started expressing myself through art that an internal conflict with my sexuality became apparent. At first, I was really just trying out drawing things that I couldn’t get my head around in society as a way of releasing stress but when other people experiencing the same kind of problems commented on my pictures on Tumblr I decided to start drawing for them too.

When in everyday life turning on the TV you see men and women falling in love, magazines separated into women’s magazines and men’s magazines and convenience stores displaying pictures of naked women, I think it’s easy for some people to feel isolated or that they’re somehow strange. That’s why I feel like if I can tell a story with a message that says, “You’re not alone, there are other people that feel the same”, maybe I can offer an escape for some people.”

Check out more of Miu’s artwork at http://yes-ja-o-ui.tumblr.com/

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Shibatani Sōshuku, 63, monk and journalist

Although Buddhism is often recognised as a particularly open-minded religion, it’s not every day that you meet a transgender monk. So, when we heard that Shibatani Sōshuku was coming to Shōdai Temple in Tokyo to tell her story about her younger years as a man in the world of journalism and her discovery of Buddhism later in life followed by her decision to transition at the age of 56, we couldn’t turn down the opportunity to go along to hear more.

Inside I felt like I’d always been a woman. I was living my life pretending to be a man. When I moved away from my hometown to study at Waseda University, I went to the supermarket and bought a dress to try on. I was so happy. When I put makeup on and went out in town I felt like I’d been released from the act I’d been putting on.

As there wasn’t much choice I hid my real self and applied for a job at a newspaper. The paper was a typical male company so I kept up the act without outing myself once. The only time I really felt free was when I was talking with friends at gay bars. But my first job was in Okayama where there weren’t any gay bars so I ended up traveling all the way to Kobe for the gay bars.

“The only time I really felt free was when I was talking with friends at gay bars”

To become a monk you had to do 100 days of training. This was impossible to do while I was still working. At that time my company happened to be looking for people happy to take early retirement so I decided to quit my job at the age of 51. So I promised myself that from then on I would live the rest of my life following my heart.

At that time the only places offering GID [gender identity disorder] medication were Saitama Medical University and Okayama University Hospital so I went to Okayama University Hospital. I was instantly recognised as having GID so after six months I started hormone replacement therapy but getting the surgery took a bit longer.

At the age of 56, I finally managed to get my sex reassignment surgery. I managed to get a special change specifically for priests. It was the first transition they’d had at Kōyasan Shingon-shu [Shingon Buddhist group] and there were a lot of people with an old way of thinking so I was worried that they wouldn’t let me go through with it. Women weren’t even allowed in the Kōyasan group until the start of the Meiji period [1868]. However, there were people in this temple that understood and thanks to them I was accepted without too much difficulty.

Kōyasan is a male-dominated society so I had people say to me, “That’s pretty dumb to want to become a woman”. Even today there are places on the temple grounds that women can’t enter or rituals that they’re not allowed to attend. Even so, I was able to take back my true self by becoming a woman.

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Photo credit: Yū cc

Yū, 30s, owner of nail salon and bar

Nail artist, bar owner, and part-time DJ, Yū is the kind of person who when she has a good idea does everything she can to make it a reality. Her own experiences in a less LGBT-friendly ’80s Tokyo have inspired her to create a safe space for girls to be true to themselves as part of a comfortable LGBTQ+ community, all the while running her own nail salon in the day and playing party tunes at clubs at night.

My main job is as a nail artist. I have my own salons, one in Tachikawa and one in Shinjuku Sanchome. I also own a bar called Woodyland in Shinjuku ni-chōme (Tokyo’s gay area). Woodyland is a kind of café/bar especially for meeting new friends or love interests. I want to plan and organise events for girls that have never been to ni-chōme or that aren’t sure how to meet new people. In order for everyone to be happy. I didn’t have that kind of place to go when I was growing up so that’s why I decided to start my bar.

I’d also like to start my own club event in the near future. That’s my dream at the moment. I was interested in DJing from a young age but I was so caught up in going to clubs, dancing and hanging out with friends when I was younger that I didn’t get round to it. I first tried out DJing thanks to the influence of one of my LGBT friends who taught me the basics. After that, I taught myself.

“I feel like the old way of thinking [about sexuality] is disappearing and I think that’s a great thing”

I was born and raised in Shinjuku in Tokyo. At the age of five, I liked a girl but it was unrequited love. Without telling me, one day she just moved schools, which was pretty rough [laughs]. I came out to my friends at 12. Since I had a lot of LGBT friends in my sports club, I was able to come out naturally. I told my parents when I was 28 and they accepted it. They’re the kind of parents that say: “It’s your life so you take responsibility for your own actions”. You know, a laissez-faire attitude. The day after I told them they said, “We didn’t want grandkids anyway so don’t worry about it.”

I feel like the old way of thinking is disappearing and I think that’s a great thing. I feel like that dark image has disappeared. In the past, it seemed like people used to have to hide it. Now, in the same way that every person has different hobbies and preferences, people are starting to think that it’s fine to have different types of sexual interest. I think it’s becoming easier for people to come out.

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Read previous interviews:

LENA on Being Mixed Race in Japan


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