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Women-loving Women in Modern Japan

by Erin Subramian

When one looks at the history of female-female sexual and romantic relations in Japanese history, the documentation is rather sparse in comparison to male-male relations. It is only in recent years that Japanese lesbians have begun to assert their interests as a group. They have formed communities, both virtual and real, have regular conferences, and participate in parades, some with gay men and some without, among other things.

In the 1980s, Teishiro Minami founded the first Japanese gay organization, ILGA/Japan (also known as JILGA—Japan International Lesbian and Gay Association). Later, some members left JILGA to form a youth group, OCCUR. A 1997 OCCUR pamphlet describes the group’s activities as "networking among homosexuals," "dissemination of accurate knowledge and information about homosexuality," "elimination of social discrimination and prejudice against homosexuals" and "development of lesbian and gay identity." (Mizutani 21; Miller 147-154)

OCCUR is also well known for having won an anti-discrimination court case in February 1990. This case stemmed from discriminatory conduct on the part of the superintendents of Fuchu Youth Activity Center in Tokyo. The assistant superintendent did not take action to redress complaints of harassment of OCCUR members by other users of the facility, and the chief superintendent refused to let OCCUR use the center for a study camp. OCCUR appealed to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Office of Education, but were denied:

Use of the Youth Activity Centers are to be in compliance with the rule that persons of the opposite sex are not to share the same room. If homosexuals stay at the center there is a possibility that they may indulge in sex with their peers in the same room. Homosexuals are therefore not permitted to stay at the center. (Summerhawk 207)

Because of this decision, OCCUR sued the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, and won. The Tokyo District Court ruled that:

(1) without any "concrete" possibility of sexual activity, it is illegal to deny use of the center. There was (is) no possibility that OCCUR was (is) to engage in such activities, (2) this means that the chance of there being others to witness such activities is almost non-existent, and that imagination alone is not detrimental (3) and most importantly, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s stance of denying access to the center to those who face harassment is illegal and in violation of Article 26 of the Japanese Constitution on the right to education and Article 21, freedom of assembly. (Summerhawk 208)

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government, unhappy with the decision, appealed to the Tokyo High Court under the argument that "the presence of homosexuals in the Youth Activity Centers will have a detrimental influence on youth." (Summerhawk 208) However, OCCUR won in this case as well, and was granted complete victory by the Tokyo High Court on September 9, 1997. (Summerhawk 208) Although JILGA and OCCUR are open to both men and women, they are male-dominated both in leadership and membership. There is a subdivision of OCCUR called LIO (Lesbians in Occur), but it is a small percentage of OCCUR’s total membership. The disproportionate number of women in these organizations may be partly due to membership fees that are too high for many women to pay. (Mizutani 21) Several women-only gay organizations also exist. The first Japanese lesbian organization, Wakakusa no Kai, was formed in 1969 as a place for lesbians to meet. One of the founders describes the reaction when their existence was announced in an OL magazine:

We got a flood of letters from all over Japan, mostly from middle-ages women in their 40’s and 50’s, explaining that they were married but had never felt in love with their husbands or any men and that they were hoping to someday have a woman lover. These letters were so full of longing. Through these letters, all kinds of women got together." (James 17)

This reaction exemplifies the need of women for this sort of service, and other organizations appeared later that served similar purposes.

Another well-known lesbian organization, Regumi (also known as RST, Regumi Studio Tokyo), was created in March 1987. The "re" in Regumi comes from the word rezubian, a transliteration of the English word lesbian, and the "gumi" from kumi, meaning "group" or "team." Regumi’s members are in their thirties, forties, or fifties. Younger women are deterred from joining partly because of Regumi’s feminist and political roots, and because some of its members have tried in the past to exclude bisexuals and married lesbians from the group. (Mizutani 25-28)

In June 1994, a member of Regumi, Miwa Machino, gave a speech at an Asian Lesbian Network USA party about Regumi and Japanese lesbians in general. At the time of Machino’s speech, Regumi had 400 subscribers, each of whom paid 50 dollars per year (those who wish to support the organization pay 120 dollars per year). Machino described the content of a typical newsletter (minikomi), which included stories, information on events, personal ads, letters, and articles about topics such as "coming out, herstories of different Lesbians, men's violence, abuse, social welfare system, other minority groups in Japan, information about Lesbian from other countries."

Regumi and other groups like it are restrained in their activities by a lack of funding:

As a small non-profit group, Regumi is staffed only when volunteers have time to do so. This is very different from gay and lesbian centers in the United States who often have city or state funding to allow for a paid staff and accessibility during business hours. In Japan, lesbian organizations are extremely small and under funded. They often survive by volunteers pouring their own money into the group, or by holding fundraisers and collecting subscription money on newsletters. (Mizutani 26)

Groups such as Regumi also have trouble maintaining membership. Once women have used Regumi’s newsletter to network, they no longer need it and so may stop subscribing.

In addition to the aforementioned types of organizations, there have also been parades. The first Tokyo Lesbian and Gay Parade took place in 1994. The first Tokyo Dyke March took place three years later. The Tokyo Lesbian and Gay Parades are held every couple of years. The Tokyo Lesbian and Gay Parade 2002 website also lists several related events, including parties, a music festival, and a symposium.

Women also have weekend gatherings known as International Dyke Weekends, which occur three times a year and attract women from all over Japan. Their attendance ranges from 60 to 100 women, many of who are from Western countries. Because the event is English-dominated, many non-English speaking Japanese women hesitate to attend. (Mizutani 24-25)

Another source of conflict among the organizers and attendees of Dyke Weekends has been the desire of some lesbians to exclude women who do not identify as lesbian or who do not limit their sexual encounters to women (women who are married to men, for example). Some weekends, "Open Weekends," are open to all women, while "Closed Weekends" are open only to women who identify as lesbian. The tension between women on both sides of this issue is not limited to the Dyke Weekends, but exists in the Japanese women-loving women community as a whole. (Mizutani 25)

This problem also led to the creation of BiNet, an online community that welcomed all women-loving women. BiNet is one of many online communities for lesbian and bisexual women. Another well-known online community, Nihon Dykenet, another popular online community, was plagued by the "bisexual debate" as well; however, it still allows all women-loving women to join. (Mizutani 140)

The way that lesbians (and other women-loving women) refer to themselves also varies. Some of the terminology used to refer to lesbians is imported, the most obvious example being the word rezubian. The first part of the word, rezu, when used alone can have derogatory connotations and is used mainly by heterosexuals. Some lesbians also refer to themselves as bian, and the word kai is a euphemism for "female" or "lesbian," while kai awase refers to a lesbian relationship.

Japanese words for "butch" and "femme" also exist, in addition to versions of the English terms: neko ("cat") for "femme," tachi and onabe (also used for female-to-male transgendered individuals) for "butch." Tachi is derived from tachiyaku, or a player of male roles in theater. Onabe is derived from a term for an effeminate gay male, okama—okama is literally a kind of pot, and onabe is literally a pan or pot.

The word doseiai first came to be used around the beginning of the 20th century. It was initially used to refer only to female same-sex relations, although today it is used to refer to same-sex relations regardless of gender. It also referred to homogender relationships among schoolgirls, in contrast to ome no kankei, which referred to butch-femme relationships. These relationships were also called "Class S" or simply "S." The "S" stood for "shojo," "sex," "sister," "schöne," and "escape" (esukeipu, to skip class). (Robertson "Takarazuka" 19-68)

Articles written about these relationships in the early 1900s asserted that they were relatively platonic and non-threatening; they were seen as spiritual rather than sexual. (Robertson "Takarazuka" 69) This belief seems to hold true today as well—it is not unusual for two schoolgirls to hold hands or engage in other activities that could be considered intimate. Even if they engage in a homosexual relationship (or simply experience feelings of attraction for a member of the same sex) during junior high or high school, they are not considered to be lesbian or bisexual—Class S is seen as a phase, nothing more.

Many Japanese women do not consider the possibility that they might be attracted to other women. One reason for this is the expectation that most women will get married when they reach the right age, regardless of what kind of relationships they might have had in the past. Some women who are attracted to other women think that they can only be happy if they live a "normal" life with a husband and children, while others yield to pressure from their parents and society in general to get married. Another reason for this inherent heterosexism is the negative lesbian stereotype that exists in Japan. Minako Tsuruga, during a speech on lesbianism and feminism, said "most of Lesbian images on mass media are ‘women who have sex with other women’, ‘women who always want to have sex with women’ and ‘women who rape women’. We can find them pornography especially." Ayako Hattori, in a similar speech, described what straight women think of lesbians: "For them, Lesbians are abnormal people in pornography or strange people in other countries. They don't think they can be Lesbians." Homosexuality is often linked either to pornography or to the West; Japanese are hesitant to believe that homosexuals can be "normal" Japanese people.

Despite this negative image, there was a period in the 1990s known as the "gay boom" in which gays and lesbians received more media attention. The television drama Dosokai, for example, featured a gay man, and homosexuality became a common topic on talk shows. This "gay boom" focused more on men than on women, however.

Decades before the "gay boom" occurred, Yoshiya Nobuko was writing fiction about female same-sex relationships. In 1920, she published Yaneura no Nishojo, a romance about two boarding school girls, and her earlier Hana Monogatari short story series also included references to Class S relationships.

There are also homosexual, bisexual, and transsexual characters in many manga and anime, including a subgenre aimed at girls and women focusing on romantic and sexual relationships between males (known as shounen ai, yaoi, June, etc.). Although gay men are often used as a source of humor outside of this subgenre, they are also sometimes seen in a positive light. The same could be said of some lesbian characters, although there are also manga and anime that portray Class S relationships, usually in a positive light. Even the immensely popular manga/anime Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon features a lesbian couple. This couple could be described as butch-femme, and is portrayed in a positive light.

Another manga and (and its corresponding anime) that deals seriously with lesbian relationships is Ikeda Riyoko’s Oniisama e, a story focusing on students at an all-girl school. Most of the female characters in Oniisama e have romantic, and in some cases obsessive, feelings about other females. Some of the main characters have many "fans" among the other students, while others are themselves "fans" of the aforementioned characters. Lesbian double suicide is also mentioned on several occasions, in a serious light. Although some of the relationships portrayed in Oniisama e are depicted as obsessive and unhealthy, the overall portrayal of same-sex love is positive, and is not limited to Class S relationships.

Another of Ikeda Riyoko’s creations, Rose of Versailles, centers on a woman who is raised as a man, and includes depictions of same-sex romantic feelings, although not to the degree of Oniisama e. The androgynous Oscar, the main character, is the object of many women’s crushes, both before and after they know her true sex.

Oscar is similar to the otokoyaku of the Takarazuka Revue, which has performed Rose of Versailles multiple times. Because the performers in the Takarazuka Revue are all females, they are divided into two groups: otokoyaku perform (mainly) male roles, and musumeyaku perform female roles. The otokoyaku have an androgynous image that is popular with women, and so the Takarazuka Revue has been associated with lesbianism for many years, despite efforts on the part of the Takarazuka administration to distance Takarazuka from it.

Jennifer Robertson describes the appeal of otokoyaku for women:

From the beginning, the Revue management has sought to limit female fans’ infatuation to the ideal man performed by an otokoyaku. My archival research and interviews suggest that, on the contrary, female fans of all ages, class, and educational backgrounds do not see a prototypical man onstage; rather they acknowledge and appreciate a female body performing in a capacity that transgresses the boundaries of received femininity and masculinity ("Takarazuka" 82)

Although the Revue was initially thought to appeal mainly to adolescent girls, its audience is actually comprised mostly of married women. Some of these women claim that they turn to Takarazuka because they are neglected by their husbands—Takarazuka creates a dreamworld in which men can be kind, sensitive, and attentive, because they are really women underneath.

This logic is also used to explain the desire of heterosexual women to go to "Miss Dandy" clubs (clubs staffed by crossdressing androgynous women). A customer at one of these clubs "I can talk to them about anything because they are females underneath, yet I can flirt with them because they are also men" (qtd. in Robertson "Takarazuka" 144). These "Miss Dandies" are appealing because they are able to be both men and women, similarly to the Takarazuka otokoyaku.

This does not, however, explain the appeal of musumeyaku. Musumeyaku lack the androgyny of the otokoyaku, yet have many fans. One musumeyaku in the 1930’s had an affair with a female fan and attempted double suicide with her. The press sensationalized and ridiculed both their relationship and their suicide attempt, encouraging readers to submit satirical songs about the suicide. Lesbian double suicide was not uncommon at that time, accounting for around thirty percent of all suicides between 1932 and 1935. The media tended to either ridicule or downplay the significance of this suicide, claiming that lesbian double suicides occurred for trivial reasons. (Robertson "Dying")

At that time, homosexual desire was seen as a mental illness, although Class S was seen as normal provided it occurred only during women’s adolescence. To a point this is still true today, with adult female lesbians or bisexuals being seen as strange rather than mentally ill. This belief may discourage lesbians from coming out, although, thankfully, violence against them is rare. They may also face difficulty in finding housing together, both because they are two women living together and because their incomes are often low in comparison to those of men. Because of these and other problems that they face, the communities that they have formed are invaluable, giving them support and information, as well as forums for discussion of important issues.

Works Cited:

  • Bornoff, Nicholas. Pink Samurai: Love, Marriage & Sex in Contemporary Japan. New York: Pocket Books, 1991.
  • Charlton, Sabdha. "Club Luv+: Performing Gender and Sexuality in Japan." Diss. University of Melbourne, 1999.
  • Friedman, Erica. "Yuricon Guest Shrines." April 21, 2003.
  • Grossman, Andrew. "Japanese Film." glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. February 13, 2003. April 21, 2003.
  • Hattori, Ayako. "Lesbian Feminism in Japan." April 21, 2003
  • Hattori, Ayako. "Heterosexism and Women’s Lives in Japan." Off Our Backs 1 November 1999.
  • International Lesbian and Gay Association. "World Legal Survey: Japan." April 21, 2003
  • James, Mary. "So Full of Longing." Connexions 10 (Fall 1983): 16-17.
  • Machino, Miwa. "Lesbians in Japan now." Trans. Ayako Hattori. June 1994. April 21,  2003.
  • Miller, Neil. Out in the World: Gay and Lesbian Life from Buenos Aires to Bangkok. New York: Random House, 1992.
  • Mizutani, Kristine A. "Lesbian Tokyo : identity, sexuality and community." Diss. California Institute of Integral Studies, 2001.
  • Rahim, Chris, Cat Renay, and Margaret Matsuyama. "Report on the ALN conference: Asian lesbians speak." Kinesis Sept 1992: 9+.
  • Robertson, Jennifer. "Dying to tell: Sexuality and suicide in Imperial Japan." Signs  25.1 (1999).
  • Robertson, Jennifer. Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
  • Summerhawk, Barbara, Cheiron McMahill, and Darren McDonald, eds. Queer Japan: Personal Stories of Japanese Lesbians, Gays, Transsexuals and Bisexuals. Norwich: New Victoria Publishers, 1998.
  • Tokyo Lesbian and Gay Parade 2002 Representative Committee. "Tokyo Lesbian and Gay Parade 2002." April 21, 2003
  • Tsuruga, Minako. "Lesbianism and Feminism." Trans. Ayako Hattori.1994. April 21, 2003.
  • Valentine, James. "Pots and Pans: Identification of Queer Japanese in Terms of Discrimination." Queerly Phrased. Ed. Livia, Anna and Kira Hall. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 95-114.