The Pride of Tokyo

By special guest blogger: Oliver Trapnell

Despite being a bit of a taboo subject in some countries, LGBTQ groups have become increasingly visible all over the world. Japan is no exception. In Japan, as more people come to understand and accept diversity in society, there has been a gradual  growth in both support for and acceptance of the LGBTQ community. One example is the popular Kanamara Matsuri.  The success of the ‘Tokyo Rainbow Pride 2018’ festival in Yoyogi Park—culminating in a parade on May 6–is another, and a very big one at that.


There was a wide array of stalls celebrating and showing support for Pride week, including stalls sponsored by major companies such as Nomura, Google, Suumo and Levis.  Each invited visitors to enter and explore their marquees and to participate in various activities at each.   These included photo booths, competitions, and educational activities.

The turnout for this event was impressive. The park itself was full to capacity with supporters. Lines of people crammed onto pedestrian footbridges as the parade passed by.

The highlight of May 6 was, without doubt, the parade. A variety of floats passed by, each with a cohort of rainbow flag-bearing participants. It was truly inspiring to see how many people supported the concept of an egalitarian world in which education, understanding, and appreciation for all people is paramount.


A woman marches proudly in the parade

An annual event, the Pride festival appears to have become increasingly commercialised and mainstream. However despite the great number of people who still do not take any particular stand in supporting gender and sexual minorities, the core reason for Pride’s existence could not have been clearer during the event. As I wandered through the site and interacted with other participants, it became clear to me that empathy and a willingness to learn are two of the most vital ingredients when participating in and learning about issues surrounding gender.


A man carries a rainbow flag in support of the day’s event

Japan is one of many countries that still do not legally recognise same-sex marriage, however this is gradually changing. In February 2018 the municipality of Fukuoka became the latest of a select few cities to recognise LGBTQ+ partnerships. This move allows couples to be placed on the same family registry, thus allowing them to rent city-owned housing or undergo surgery that requires of a family member.  It’s a positive trend that, in historical context, is arguably a natural one for Japan.

There are numerous elements of Japanese culture related to gender. One of particular interest is Kabuki (a traditional dance-drama), which is performed by men playing every role from samurai to beautiful geisha on grand, intricately decorated stages. Kabuki originated in the 17th century and was initially a women’s performance media.  When the art form becoming synonymous with prostitution, the women were replaced by all male actors (called onnagata). Nowadays kabuki is renowned as a cultural performance in which male actors can embody the feminine spirit. Actors such as Bandō Tomasaburō have helped to transform the medium into a beguiling method of expression by which the audience can begin to understand that gender is performative.

A modern example of performative gender is the Takarazuka theatre originating in Hyōgo Prefecture in which an all-female cast performs an array of scripts–original, folktale, Broadway-style, adapted manga, and well-known stage plays including ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘Rurouni Kenshin’.  Serious fans insist the women playing male characters do so far better than men ever could.

Another aspect of Japanese culture associated with gender is onsen bathing. Even though mixed bathing, long a tradition in Japan, largely faded away after World War II, hadaka no tsukiai (lit. naked relations) is still considered normal in Japan.  Thus, even entering a gender-segregated bath for the first time and observing the easy camaraderie of the bathers can be a bit of a culture shock to some non-Japanese. This too demonstrates that gender notions, including notions of modesty, are culture-bound; practices acceptable in one culture may not be acceptable in another.

Japan’s post-war constitution provides women equal rights including access to voting, inheritance and property rights. In spite of this “emancipation”, women came to be seen as ‘professional housewives’ who managed the family and household, while men became ‘breadwinners’ meant to focus solely on their work outside the home. Unfortunately, these gender roles have led to the stereotypes of businessmen having no life outside of their work while parenting and housework are done only by women. In the 21st century, demographic, social and economic changes make it necessary that these gender-based conceptions of role disappear.  Proactively shifting norms to enable all individuals to pursue the lifestyle that suits them and their families best is the challenge of our generation.

An interesting historical example of shifting norms (albeit not deliberate) is ‘high heeled shoes’, which originated as an item of European men’s clothing useful for keeping the feet in stirrups while horseback riding. Although high heels are predominantly worn by women in industrialized societies in our age, if heels ever return to the limelight of men’s fashion and are re-purposed for driving, could we then call men ‘drag’ racers…?

© 2018 and Oliver Trapnell
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