Queer Tokyo, Lost In Translation

Walk through the narrow streets of Ni-Chome on a Saturday night, and you’re forgiven for thinking you’ve stumbled upon a massive impromptu gay-pride festival. That’s because Ni-Chome (pronounced knee-chomay) boasts the highest concentration of gay bars in Asia, if not the world.

When I first started coming here 30 years ago, much of the action centered on only a few key spots and was largely underground. Nowadays, Ni-Chome’s 300-some bars, lounges and dance clubs make it one of Tokyo’s most vibrant nightlife districts, attracting both a gay and gay-friendly crowd that fills the narrow streets and makes for a party atmosphere until the wee hours of the night.

But while first impressions suggest that Ni-Chome is an open-arms love fest, Japan’s long history as a closed society plays out even here. The vast majority of the establishments are no larger than walk-in closets, with room for only a dozen or so regular customers. . Many are also strict adherents to a specific scene catering to certain physical, fetishist or hierarchal attributes, whether it’s an attraction to “kuma” (literally bear, or hairy) types or gays on the heavy side.

In some bar, you might be asked to pay an exorbitant cover charge to discourage entry or be turned away by the “master-san,” whose main objective is to guard the tiny enclave for the benefit of regular clients. The language barrier may also be an impediment.

Ni-Chome’s rise as Japan’s premier gay nightlife area began in the 1950s, when American Occupation forces banned prostitution and forced Ni-Chome’s red-light establishments to close, freeing up cheap rentals. Japan has no laws forbidding homosexual activity. Indeed, with no prohibitions imposed against homosexuality by Buddhism or Shintoism (Japan’s indigenous religion), same-sex relationships have been well documented through the ages in Japanese literature and ukiyo-e woodblock prints, including those involving members of the royal court, samurai warriors, monks and Kabuki actors. On the other hand, while gay celebrities and drag queens are ubiquitous on talk and TV shows, gays have no legal rights in Japan. Some local governments, however, including Tokyo, have laws that ban discrimination, and in any case, discrimination is uncommon.

By Beth Reiber
Source – Element Magazine