Sometimes English speakers ask us what we call "Lesbian" in Japanese. We answer we call ourselves "Lesbian." (Actually we pronounce "Rezubian" in Japanese.) We have no Japanese words that mean "Lesbian". They ask us again we must have some bad names for Lesbians. Yes, we have some bad names like "onabe". "Onabe" means stone butch or drag king. But actually it has no meaning.
In Japanese "okama" means transgender gay man or drag queen. Originally it refers to a special iron pot to cook rice. It is round and looks like hips. So in Japanese "okama o horu" (to dig a "okama") means anal sex and "okama" is derogatory name for gay men. And "onabe" means originally pan or pot. Just because "okama" means gay men, Lesbians are called "onabe." It has no meaning. So we don't want to use this word. In Japan we are an invisible people without an original name.
To compel women heterosexuality and to cover this compulsion, society needs to hide other choices. Society denies many Lesbians in Japanese society, and hides possibility of choosing Lesbianism from heterosexual women.
If I asked a woman on the street in Japan, "Are you a Lesbian?" perhaps she would be frightened and say no. And if I asked her, "Do you know some Lesbians?" again, perhaps she would deny this, too. For them, Lesbians are abnormal people in pornography or strange people in other countries. They don't think they can be Lesbians.
And even in women's movements and women's studies in Japan, Lesbian issues are also invisible. Of course recently some Lesbians come out in women's movements and women's studies. Perhaps most of women in movements in big cities have seen some Lesbians. But most of them don't know that heterosexuality is a compelled system. They think Lesbian issues are just for Lesbians. They don't consider heterosexism, or that sexuality can be chosen. When we claim them to consider heterosexism as their own issue, they are angry and refuse to. Some of them are very discriminatory against Lesbians.
Sometimes Lesbians from other countries or heterosexual feminists in Japan say Lesbians in Japan aren't discriminated against so heavily. In Japan, men and women have separate social cultures, instead of couple cultures in Western countries. Lesbians from other countries or heterosexual feminists think such social cultures are good for Lesbians. But I think the social cultures in Japan are just gender segregation, not women's cultures.
Japanese society seem to tolerate physical contacts between women. We often see 2 girls walking on the street holding hands or sitting and hugging each other. And no one minds them at all. I know one white Lesbian English teacher from the USA. She had a Japanese woman student, and the student sent her presents and wanted to go to on a trip with her. She wonders if the student was also a Lesbian who was romantically interested in her. But the student wasn't.
The student and the girls hugging on the street don't identify as Lesbians. They don't think their feelings and relationships are sexual or that they can prioritize to these relationships over men. And because they don't recognize their feelings as potentially sexual, society tolerates their physical contacts.
Japanese society segregates women from men. And by hiding Lesbian existence carefully, society intends to obstruct women from recognizing that their relationships in their social cultures are sexual. Even if girls or wives have intimate relationships, it is no problem for society. Because society thinks girls will be married and wives won't divorce. Women are not supposed to be able to break the marriage system. Men see women as sexual objects, not subjects. They think that even if girls love another girl, soon they will love men and be married.
Hiding the possibility of sexual relationships between women, society spreads bad and extreme sexual images of Lesbian as stereotypes. Some of them are pornography for men and others are stereotyped images with sexual desires to women like men. They are often very ugly so women hate the idea of sexual relationships between women and can't choose them. And many Lesbians internalize these ideas and hate themselves and lose their self-esteems.
Recently we see some Lesbian pornography for women. They are not ugly and some women like such pornography. But even if they are soft and beautiful images, they are just pornography. Recently some Lesbians and gay men come out, so ugly pornography lose their reality and it is possible for women to recognize their relationships sexual. But because of soft porno media for women, women consider their sexual relationships not seriously but just like pornography.
Actually Japanese society is intolerant of Lesbians at all. When we come out as Lesbians, we are attacked heavily. They laugh at us, slander us, turn the cold shoulder to us. Or they deny our coming out by saying, "You don't seem that kind of person." (What is "that kind of person"?) Sometimes we lose our jobs, are raped by men or are sent to mental hospitals by our parents even in '90s.
Why are Lesbians discriminated against so heavily? Of course society intends to compel women heterosexuality. Society denies Lesbian existence, spreads stereotyped pornographic images of Lesbian and attacks Lesbians. Heterosexual women who think they are normal, are compelled by this social system. And joining into the system, they affirm the system without consciousness.