Is Japan LGBTQ+-Friendly? What Travelers Need to Know

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Japan’s cultural norms and its attitudes around homosexuality are difficult to interpret. LGBTQ+ travel expert Ed Salvato shows us around the gayborhood and shares his safety tips.

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Two women at Tokyo Pride Parade Photo © iStock/electravk

Is Japan LGBTQ+-friendly?

Japanese society places more emphasis on group identity and values than personal expression. Sexuality – homo or hetero – is considered a private matter; It’s not flaunted in public displays of affection or discussed. Because of this, much of local gay life is not just hidden – it’s inaccessible. This is even more so for lesbians in Japan, who remain invisible. 

That said, homosexuality is legal in Japan, with small protections for gays, lesbians and even transgender people enacted mostly on a local level. Japanese travel providers are also starting to recognise the gay travel market. 

Travel to Japan is perfectly safe for queer visitors, but just hard to find. Tokyo has hundreds of gay bars, but only a handful welcome foreigners. As openly gay travelers (who used the word husband, but didn’t hold hands in public), we felt completely comfortable and welcome.

Tokyo gayborhood

Tokyo is subdivided into 23 wards or districts, which are large areas with their own city governments. Although you’re likely to visit several wards, you’ll probably spend most of your time in the main areas of the city, including the city’s busiest and most diverse ward – Shinjuku. This is where you’ll find the gay neighbourhood and the most concentrated dose of queer travel Japan offers. 

Northeast of Shinjuko station is Tokyo’s red-light district, with numerous bars, restaurants, smoky and noisy pachinko parlors, love motels and nightclubs. Near the seedy red-light district is Ni-chome district, a cluster of older low-rise buildings with hundreds of establishments oriented towards gay men. 

Despite the hundreds of gay bars in Tokyo, there are only a few options for non-Japanese speaking customers. Our best advice would be to start at Aiiro Cafe Make friends here with a local or two, and they can help you explore some of the bars that are lesser known. 

Tokyo is a hard-working city, and the bar scene can be quiet on weeknights. Many locals clear out just before midnight to catch the last subway or train home. On weekends, the scene gets busy around 9 or 10, and can stay busy through ‘til 5am, when the trains start running again.

Bar crawls through queer Japan

OutAsia Travel offers night tours of Shinjuku — basically a gay guide to bring you to two or three of the bars that welcome foreigners, and generally show you around. 

Even with good directions, it’s not easy to find many places. Be sure to gaze upward for signs, as many bars aren’t on street level. 

At most bars, you’ll pay a cover charge with your first drink, and the bar master, or Mamasan (owner/manager), will be your genial host. They’ll make introductions, help guys meet and mingle, and generally ensure everyone’s comfortable and having a good time. 

Dancing was banned in Shinjuku’s gay clubs starting August of 2012, with signs and tables installed on the dance floor to deter dancing. Some dancing still occurs, but not a full-on dance scene.

You’ll also find many “Host Bars” in Shinjuku, where legal prostitution occurs. Here you pay for your cover and drink and peruse the young men (and most are indeed young, at 18-25). Find one you like, and you’ll pay a separate fee for an hour of his time. Most have rooms upstairs that are sometimes included in the host rental fee or charged additionally.

Japanese saunas and bathhouses

Saunas can be even less welcoming of foreigners than bars, for all the same reasons, combined with a prejudicial fear of HIV as a foreigners’ disease. If saunas are your thing, you’ll need to know the etiquette. 

Upon arrival, pop your shoes in a shoe locker, and change into a pair of slippers. Buy an admission ticket from the machine, and then take your shoe locker key and ticket to the front desk, where you’ll get a locker key, towel, bathrobe, and wash cloth. If you walk to the front desk in your shoes, your ignorance of the local customs will very likely result in denied admission.

For the most extensive and up-to-date bar, club and sauna listings, the best reference is TravelGayAsia.com. A printout of their gay map is also very useful.

Trip planning in Japan for LGBTQ+ travelers

You’ll need some assistance beyond these recommendations to plan your own ideal Japanese adventure, including:

Guided group tours: There are many tours offered by mainstream companies, but we highly recommend the tour offering by our friends at Out Adventures

Full-itinerary planning assistance: In our search for assistance and information, all gay roads in Tokyo led to Shintaro, the owner of OutAsia Travel. His insights and assistance in putting together a customised itinerary is highly recommended. Be sure to mention Ed Salvato when you contact him. 

Individual planning resources: The Japan National Tourism Organization provides a variety of resources that will be helpful to prospective visitors. The most impressive of these is a directory of Systematized Goodwill Guide (SGG) Clubs. These volunteer guides, mostly retirees and housewives, provide free guide services to tourists in their native languages. Budget travelers will appreciate the JNTO’s Affordable Japan recommendations. For hotels and ryokans in smaller cities, we found Japanican.com useful.

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