We learned about being gay in Japan from our interview with Issei, a gay student from Osaka, who lives in Tokyo. He was our gracious CouchSurfing host and loves travels as much as we do.
Traveling in Tokyo can be expensive and confusing. It has one of the busiest, most extensive rapid transit systems in the world and while English is seen and spoken often enough, the language barrier is bound to cause a problem at some point. But when you have someone who knows the city helping you out, it becomes much more navigable so you can make the most of your trip. This is why we felt very lucky to have been invited to stay with Issei, a 20 year old Japanese student (on hiatus) living in Tokyo, through CouchSurfing.org.
He lives in a small, typical Japanese-style apartment with a roommate in the Roppongi district, an area well known for its nightlife and popularity with foreigners. We stayed for two nights on a futon on the floor of his bedroom. To offer up what little free space he had in his room so that two strangers could have a place to stay during their first trip to Japan speaks to Issei's good nature and we are continually grateful to CouchSurfing (CS) hosts who so willingly give of their time and space.
We were his first surfers and he says invited us to stay with him through CS because we “seemed fun, cool people” – an opinion we won't argue! His view on CS is that “It's nice to meet local people, to know local culture and it's saving money.” Though he hasn't ever surfed himself, he says he's willing to do it on future trips to Europe and the USA.
As for Issei's past travels, he just recently visited Europe for the first time having the opportunity to see London, Berlin, Belgium, and Amsterdam – which was one of his favorites because “everything is so small and the buildings and canals are so beautiful.” We shared his enthusiasm for those famed European locations having just been there ourselves this past summer. His worse travel experience, however, was getting his iPhone stolen while in Nollendorfplatz in Berlin after a night of drinking. But he looks on the bright side. “I think it's lucky because I got [an] iPhone 5 instead.” Good thing he had travel insurance! Doubly lucky since the one thing he says he can't travel without is his iPhone – another sentiment we share.
A few months before his European trip, Issei moved to Tokyo to earn money so that he could continue to pay for his university education in Kyoto, which is about 300 miles west of Tokyo. His current job is in customer relations for a little known company called Hulu. That seemed like a good enough reason as any to relocate, but as we continued our discussion other factors became apparent.
Issei grew up in Osaka, Japan and is an only child to a single mother as his parents divorced before he was born. He's asked about his father, but his mother will not tell him anything and for the moment, he seems to have accepted that from her. Yet he still hopes to know about his father and intends to look into government records. He tells us, “After I turn twenty-one I can access a government database so I want to know details.” As it so happens, his twenty-first birthday is approaching this month.
Still, his mother is not the only one keeping secrets. He has not been completely honest either. The truth is that Issei is gay and has yet to tell her. In fact, he has yet to tell anyone, friend or family, from his home in Osaka or school in Kyoto. Back home, he says “I have to pretend to be a straight guy.” But Issei isn't entirely in the closet either. In Tokyo, he's out to his friends and his roommate. This makes for an intriguing and undoubtedly onerous double life – one we're sure is not unique to him.
Gay in Tokyo. Straight in Osaka.
We found this surprising because Issei is a confident individual. He's social, outgoing and genuine. To keep any aspect of his true self from others is a shame. When questioned about coming out to his mother, he says, “It's scary,” and explains in Japan, what “most parents understand about gay people, it's like a stereotype is [a] go-go boy.”
Coming out can be an agonizing process as we well know. Yet, we thought at least he could tell his friends in Osaka or Kyoto. Surely they're young adults with open minds. Issei responds, “It's scary. People joke about gay people a lot. So it's kind of scary to do it. Maybe one day.” Referring to his school in Kyoto, he explains, “We don't have any opportunity to meet gay people.” There's no gay coalition or group for him and others in the LGBT community to connect with one another.
In an attempt to find friends he could relate to, he bar tended at a gay club in Osaka when he was eighteen earning an “illegal salary” as you have to be twenty to enter and work at a bar in Japan. Unfortunately, his experience wasn't what he was looking for. “I think it's going to be a good opportunity to meet gay people. Maybe I can make a […] gay friend in there. But it's not. It's customers. I was expecting too much.” Although he was living at home at the time, he never told his mother he was working there – sly guy. Even so, again referencing coming out to his mother, he states, “One day I have to do it.”
Issei may no longer be working at a gay bar, but he still likes to go out on the weekends. One Saturday night he took us out to Shinjuku Ni-chome, where the Tokyo gay bars are located, even though it's not his preferred area. The bars are small, some minuscule. Therefore they can't get the permit required to allow dancing because there are space requirements to obtain it. Even if the bar has a little nook of space sufficient for the hippy-shake, it's woefully still a no-go.
That's why Issei prefers to go out in Roppongi, where the bars and clubs are larger and dancing gets the legal go-ahead. He took us out with him the following weekend to check out that nightlife. And when having to choose between standing in a gay bar or dancing in a straight one, we have to say we're torn! These are difficult life decisions that people just shouldn't have to make! Aside from the bars, Issei also took the time to show us around the Shibuya area, a popular shopping district where the fashion conscious youth of the city congregate, and pointed out some restaurants in the area that we should try.
Anyone can see that he enjoys living in Tokyo (who wouldn't?) and we are thankful to have seen a glimpse of it from his perspective. He tells us, “I want to have a real life in Tokyo. It was my dream to live [here].” Once he finishes school in Kyoto, he plans on returning. By then hopefully he'll have the chance to live his “real life” in any city, including his home in Osaka.