Tokyo’s most popular cruising spot for gay men is a seven-story building tucked off a back street near the Shinjuku business and shopping area.
On Friday night, a steady stream of salary-men files quietly inside the 24 Kaikan bathhouse, where pretty much anything goes.
Soak in the sauna then walk semi-naked through the dimmed communal sleeping areas, where futons await.
Sample the sights or lie back and wait for someone who likes you, instructs a guide. Signs posted throughout dictate the only constantly visible rule: “gentlemen who chew gum” will be evicted.
Gays in Japan have suffered less outright repression than in Britain or Ireland
Tokyo has a reputation for being one of the world’s more uptight capitals but it hosts one of its most diverse concentration of gay clubs and bars: Shinjuku’s 2-Chome, home to the 24-Kaikan.
The area has coexisted for decades side by side with the straight world beyond its borders.
Lack of activism
This arrangement is, in many ways, very Japanese: discreet, compartmentalized; fastidiously careful about order and details.
Live and let live as long as the outward appearance of things is maintained.
Though tormented by the familiar agonies of personal identity and secrecy, gays in Japan have suffered less outright repression than in Britain or Ireland.
When police there were arresting men in toilets and public parks, Japan didn’t even have an anti-sodomy law.
Nor did it have what Mark McLelland, author of Homosexuality in Modern Japan: Cultural Myths and Social Realities, calls the “anti-homosexual rage” of many Christian cultures, the lethal fuel for homophobia and the “hyper violence” of gay-bashing incidents.
But if Japan has been easier going about its sexual preferences, it also lacks the political and social activism that helped transform the lives of homosexuals elsewhere.
There are still just a tiny handful of openly gay lawmakers
Homosexuals are still not legally recognized in Japanese civil law, and civil unions are prohibited. Gayness is still largely seen as a personal lifestyle choice, not something to be flaunted or argued over on the streets and in parliament.
A group of people is now challenging that status quo.
Thirteen same-sex couples across Japan have gone to court to demand the right to marry. If they win, Japan will be the first Asian country to grant that right.
Suitably enough, they began their claim on Valentine’s Day.
They include a Japanese citizen, Ai Nakajima, who married her German partner, Tina Baumann, in Berlin.
The lack of legal status for their marriage in Japan makes life difficult, laments Baumann. For one thing, she said, if either one gets sick they may be blocked from hospital visits.
This legal fight is backed by a group of corporate lawyers who fear that Japan’s lack of sexual diversity while lagging behind the rest of the developed world, could also be bad for business.
“For the Japanese economy, it is very important to legalize the right (of gay people) to marry,” said Miki Sakakibara, president of the Japan In-House Lawyers Association.
“If you have a diversified environment it will be productive and competitive. This would be great for Japan.”
Signs of a shift in public perceptions are growing.
A small number of local governments across the country recognize same-sex partnerships. Last year the Tokyo government banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Yet, while most Japanese people support more LGBT rights, political representation is strikingly low.
There are still just a tiny handful of openly gay lawmakers.
Some politicians, meanwhile, seem stuck in the homophobic past.
Last year, Mio Sugita, a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and considered close to prime minister Shinzo Abe, called LGBT people “unproductive” because they do not have children (apparently oblivious to Abe’s own childlessness).
Sugita questioned the use of taxes to support gay couples.
The backlash was swift, forcing the LDP to reprimand her.
Shincho 45, the magazine that published the article later apologized and ceased publication.
That suggests the popular tide has turned and that the 13 couples may win their legal fight.
“We’re not demanding anything special,” one of the plaintiffs, Kenji Aiba, told journalists at the launch of the lawsuit. “We just want to have a chance to stand at the same starting line in our lives.”
Yet, courts in Japan move slowly and have a reputation for quixotic judgments. In the meantime, says Sakakibara, Japan’s LGBT community will live in hope.
“This is the right thing to do,” she says.