ASIA - Jun 4, 2006
In the 1760s Japan had guidebooks in circulation detailing the homosexual pleasures to be found in its famous "floating world" of geisha and kabuki courtesans. Three centuries later a bold new publication is unveiling the vibrant contemporary gay and lesbian scene, not only in Japan, but in two neighboring countries often assumed to be rigidly conservative.
The just-published Utopia Guide to Japan, South Korea & Taiwan opens a window into gay and lesbian life in 45 cities including Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Seoul, Pusan and Taipei, revealing a vibrant gay scene in unexpected places.
Japan's homosexual sub-culture is ancient and sophisticated. References to same-sex relationships appear in 11th century diaries and even the womanizing protagonist of The Tale of Genji, one of the world's earliest novels, discovers his beloved to be outcharmed by her brother.
But modern Japan's gay scene, while offering a staggering variety of sexual outlets, can also be frustrating, discriminatory and oppressive. Gay liberation and activism have only recently emerged from the shadows.
"To make the lives of homosexuals happier in Japan, a major overhaul of attitude is needed for society to simply be aware that we exist," laments Sarichan, owner of Frenz, a funky Osaka bar. "There are many famous homosexuals and transvestites on TV and in the news, yet somehow they are perceived as an object rather than as a person with a life."
"I often introduce myself as the owner of a gay bar and, although I don't get any shocked responses or rejection, I am asked what kind of dress I wear or something unenlightened like that."
In a country where 98% of the population gets married, young gays, lesbians and transgenders have begun to push beyond such stereotypes, becoming decidedly more visible and participating in public pride events. To build awareness some have even coined a novel national holiday -- New Half Day -- on April 4, midway between Girl's Day and Boy's Day.
In South Korea, long in denial about its homosexual sub-culture, gays actually benefit from the strong separation of church and state, with legal rulings overturning attempts to institutionalize homophobia.
"Korea is not a closed society as the world often imagines," says Ted Park, a passionate entrepreneur who opened Seoul's first publicly promoted gay bar. "Koreans are very open minded and friendly, yet quite conservative sexually, whether straight or gay. Legally we are well protected. Children are taught about homosexuality in elementary school and we have laws against discrimination based on sexuality."
Taiwan also defies expectations of social conservatism with its very progressive government programs to end discrimination against homosexuals. In spite of Confucian underpinnings, gays and lesbians have government support and protection, hold visible public events, benefit from public educational programs, and enjoy plenty of role models in the cultural arena.
Ashley Wu, Director of Public Affairs for the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association, helps his nationally registered LGBT association work towards the eradication of prejudice against queer people from their large offices in downtown Taipei.
"Here is a brochure about homosexuality produced by the Taipei City government for distribution in secondary schools," he explains, flipping through a large, glossy and beautifully designed booklet. Inside are dozens of LGBT organizations, the history of Taiwan's gay movement, as well as safer sex information designed to reach young tongzhi (this former Communist title "comrade" has been wittily co-opted by the Chinese queer community).
"Our in-school programs have increased acceptance of young tongzhi who tell us they suffer much less teasing and bullying as a result."
Government support is vital, but it's up to gays and lesbians to become visible and define their communities. Reflects Park, "Since we are well protected legally, our future depends on how much we take advantage of this freedom. We cannot expect the government to show or teach us how to enjoy life."
The Utopia Guide to Japan, South Korea and Indonesia compiles contact details for organizations and businesses that are popular with both local and visiting homosexuals, including accommodation, bars, discos, spas, and restaurants. A special section of the book highlights groups, clubs, and spaces that are especially welcoming for women. Dozens of tips and warnings from locals and visitors provide first hand insights for both frequent visitors and armchair explorers.
The book is available for sale now in printed and electronic form at and in bookstores internationally and from popular online book resellers.