Sunday, May 18, 2014

From the Queer Frontier: What is the Tokyo Rainbow Parade and Why it Matters

On April 27, 2014 I marched in the 3rd annual Tokyo Rainbow Parade, an event which celebrates diversity and aims to raise awareness of sexual minorities. Many of the participants, attendees, and organizers identify as LGTBQ. I was lucky enough to participate in the parade, and witness this milestone of cultural progression in an otherwise unchanging society.

First, a bit about my story. 
I live in Shimane prefecture, a mere six hours away from Tokyo. That Saturday morning, I arrived by shinkansen from Hiroshima with hopes to make custom rainbow shirts at a friend’s house - shirts we would be wearing for the march. The day before the parade I met up with one of the event organizers in Shinjuku. Armed with white Uniqlo T-shirts, fabric paint, and a couple bottles of wine, we went to the home of a friend in Tokyo to drink and design (a dangerous combination).

This home, occupied entirely by queer women, is a rare and precious haven in what is otherwise a rather inhospitable country for LGBTQ people. This particular home in Tokyo was owned by a Japanese lesbian in her forties, whom I heard got engaged to her partner just days before I arrived. Two of the home’s three bedrooms were rented out to a queer foreign women. Renting out the rooms not only eased the financial burden of the homeowner, but also that of the  tenants. Rent in Tokyo is astronomically high, and landlords often ask for security deposits and fees worth 6 month’s rent. Apart from the financial benefits of living in a shared house, the fact that all women could be openly queer in this private space is  undoubtedly its biggest appeal. The two foreign tenants both had Japanese girlfriends who frequently visited the home.
On the night I painted my pride shirt, a lesbian couple – one foreign and one-Japanese - were cooking dinner together in the kitchen. The very fact that this was possible, that this happened, is a sign of changing times. 

To fully appreciate the rarity of this residence, one must know the dire circumstances facing queer women in Japan. As in other countries, women earn far less than men, and face financial obstacles to living independently. Many young women are financially supported by their parents until they marry. If a young woman lives with her parents, it is almost impossible for her to bring home a lover. On the other hand, women who are financially stable enough to afford their own apartments face other challenges from intrusive neighbors and restrictive landlords.  The privacy that is enjoyed by queer people in the west is not easily found in Tokyo.
I felt privileged to briefly enter into the private lives of queer  women in Tokyo. For one night I observed where and how they lived in the spaces they have created for themselves that would be so impossible in the countryside village where I reside. 

Japan, unlike the U.S., is not a country with a large population of people who actively discriminate against LGBT. Most Japanese people have no religion so the morality debate - which is largely centered around the Bible - does not exist in Japan. Rather, most Japanese people don’t even know that LGBT people exist. This is obvious is the low number of spectators at the parade, and even more so at the number of clueless onlookers staring from the street. For that reason, there are no social, economic, or political structures that support LGBT residents and their families. The Tokyo Rainbow Parade helps to reduce the invisibility of LGBT people and the social issues they face in Japan. If more and more citizens of Japan are aware of these issues, they can make collective decisions that help to reduce discrimination and improve the lives of all people in their country.

The parade is also an instrument in community-building. Many LGBT people all over Japan are isolated from each other, and have few resources or opportunities to connect. The parade is not only attended by Tokyo resides, but people from all over Japan. This reduces the feeling of loneliness that some LGBT people face in their lives in the countryside, and provides them with a rare opportunity to be “out.” Even in Tokyo, bar and clubs tend to be segregated into narrowly defined groups, so an event as inclusive as the rainbow parade is rare. Even at the Pink Dot Party, the kick-off event in Shibuya that was help the night before the parade, rooms in the club were divided into a “Gay Floor” “L (lesbian) Floor” and “T (transgender) Floor.” In the beginning of the night, groups self-segregated into this rooms, but by midnight everyone began to migrate and mingle so that the room definitions no longer matters.  I was surprised and happy to finally see the crowds mixing.

The Pink Dot Party: The author of this post is pictured actively conducting research
on LGBT life in Tokyo while dual-wielding two shots of tequila. 

    On Sunday I met the event organizers in Yoyogi park at noon. In the mere ten minutes it took me to walk from Harajuku station to the park I was stopped by three foreign people asking for information about the parade. No one seemed to know where it was, or when it would start. 
I didn’t even know and I was marching in it.
After lingering around the booths for an hour, I was called to assemble by other participants.  Around 1:30 we were herded into a line - which was really just a massive crowd whose shape was formed only by the edges of building lining the streets – and sent to march down the idyllic Omotesando Road through the bustling allies of Harajuku into Shibuya. Only half the road was blocked to allow for marchers, the other half remained open to car traffic.  Reports later documented the number of participants at 3,000, but I can guarantee there were more. In theory,  everyone who marched needed to register in advance. However, I didn’t register and neither did anyone who marched beside me. 

Of the fifteen floats present at the parade, my friends and I marched with the All Human Mix, behind two foreign women carrying a sign for Asexual Awareness, and in front of a giant stuffed garlic clove. Websites later reported that there were 14,000 visitors, though I'm not sure how the number was derived. Unlike pride parades I attended in America, the sidewalks didn't boast crowds of onlookers cheering at the floats. Instead, most of the people on the streets walked briskly as though coming from or going to work. Others stared blankly at us with shopping bags in their hands. They apparently hadn’t expected to see this sight while out running errands.

There is a reason that the Rainbow Parade takes place in Tokyo. Apart from conveniently being Japan’s largest city, Tokyo is home to LGBTQ people who want to distance themselves from their families and lives in the countryside. Most people who live and work in Tokyo were neither born nor raised there. Most people come from small cities, towns, and villages in prefectures all over Japan (like the one in which I currently reside). Often times, the promise of a better job brings them to the capital city, while others simply want to experience an urban lifestyle. More often than not, they are not “out” to their families friends in their hometowns. In the countryside, they would be too afraid to be affectionate with a lover, or walk down the street in a rainbow shirt, let alone march in a parade, because “that’s too close to home.” In Tokyo, they are a safe distance from the people who don’t understand them. They are a safe distance from the countryside mindset, which offers no privacy and a burdensome expectations for marriage and family.
Even today, many queer Japanese people are not out to their families. They don’t need to be. If they live in Tokyo, there is almost no chance that their families would ever find out by accident. Also, even among heterosexual couples it is not common to introduce a boyfriend or girlfriend to one’s parents unless a proposal of marriage is imminent. Appearing single, and never discussing romantic life, is all too easy for Japanese people in Tokyo.

The author of this blog is pictured narrowly escaping arrest for drinking alcohol 
while participating in a public demonstration. Ooops. 

However, this is only my perspective, and even as I attempt to make the argument that it's easy to be out in Tokyo, I am coldly reminded that it's not easy to be out anywhere in Japan. It is worth mentioning that photography was reportedly prohibited in certain parts of the 2012 Rainbow Parade, and anyone publishing photos was required to blur the faces of those people who hadn’t given photographic consent. Although people were marching to raise awareness of LGBTQ residents in Japan, they did not want themselves personally identified as belonging to this group. Participants in the parades preceding 2012 were reportedly wearing large sunglasses and hats to hide their identities. As one reporter commented, “they might as well be shouting ‘we’re queer, but pretend we’re not here!’ (Dellios, 2011).

However, in the last decade I have noticed that the number of people who identify openly as LGBT is increasing. 
Many are out to all their friends and some even to their coworkers. 
More and more, I am meeting people who are out to their parents. 
A few  are out to the world. In recent years there have been several memoirs published by famous people who identify as LGTBQ. I started tracking this trend with Otsuji Kanako, Osaka Prefectural Assembly’s only openly lesbian-identifying woman. Her memoir, "Coming Out: A Journey to Find My True Self" (カミングアウト~自分らしさを見つける旅 was nothing less than groundbreaking. 
More recently the memoirs of "Life in a Lesbian Marriage" (レズビアン的結婚生活) by Higashi Koyuki (who famously married her partnerat Tokyo Disneyland in 2013 and  "Real Yuri" (百合のリアル) by Makimura Asako (who married a Frenchwoman in 2013 and now resides in Paris) have been released to the great anticipation of queer readers. 
Months ago, I journeyed to a bookstore in Hiroshima - two hours from where I live - to accompany a young college student who wanted to buy these books. She had just come out as a lesbian (and by come out, I mean that she told only me and the internet that she was gay), and she wanted to read these memoirs, which were not even being sold in our home prefecture. 
She wasn't able to go to the parade, but she messaged me from Tottori to ask for my impressions. I told her that the most profound and inspiring thing about the parade was the surprising diversity in the ethnicity, gender, and age of attendees.

The parade, like many things in Japan, is a foreign import. I heard from an older generation of Japanese activists that the parades of the 1990s and early 2000s were almost entirely foreign-attended. In following years, more Japanese people joined, but foreigners still nearly outnumbered them. After a decade long hiatus, the parade returned  in 2012. When I marched in 2014, non-Asians were the minority. Finally the demographic of the parade represented the demographic of Japan. 
Another amazing feature of the parade was the diversity in  gender. There were fairly even representations from males and females, as well as a sizable number of transgender and genderqueer-identifying people. My previous parade experience in America (Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland) left me with an impression that parades were a gay man’s festival. This is not a unique sentiment. At the Tokyo Rainbow Parade I met Two German expats who told me that the gay pride parade in Koln, Germany was also almost exclusively man. These expats, one a queer-identifying female, and the other a transgender man, expressed the same surprise and appreciation that gender seemed to be more evenly represented at the Tokyo Rainbow Parade.

I was also impressed by the wide range of ages in attendance. As expected, the bulk of the crowd was in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, but there was a notable number of elderly participants and spectators (and they were almost always the more festively dressed) in addition to small children. It was great to see families with babies and young children marching and observing the march.  Having multiple generations involved with the Rainbow Parade legitimizes it. It resonates that acceptance and respect come at any and every age. The presence of families shows that the event about sex or sexuality, rather it is about identity and humanity.

Today I bring you my photos from this event, with no faces or identities hidden, not even my own. I have been queer-identifying since I came out at age thirteen. 
As someone who was lucky enough to meet the love of her life at age 22, I want to see a world where everyone has the freedom and opportunity to experience love and companionship.
 As a queer woman, and as a partner in an interracial marriage, I believe in education that is woven from the respect for others, and of social enrichment achievable only through diversity.

Bonus Material:

In addition to increasing visibility and community-building, one of the many benefits to attending the parade and festival is to gain exposure to the variety of services, groups, and events specifically serving LGBT people. For example, a Japanese travel agency provides tours of Taipei once a year during their Pride Week.

Many of the groups with booths at the pride fair operate on a very grassroots level. Few organizations have the funding or status to sponsor large-scale projects, but this year I was very surprised and glad to see GAP sponsoring the parade.

For a different, and albeit, better, photographic perspective, I invite you to look at this website. As an apology to my readers, I've never been much of a photographer. 

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