Jenna M.- LGBTQIA in Japan

Name: Jenna M.
Pronouns: She/Her/Hers 
City, Country: Yokohama, Japan 
Program: Fall 2019, Global Studies, Japan (Meiji Gakuin University) 

  • Did you consider your LGBTQ+ identity when deciding where to travel? How did you choose your country and/or program? 

Yes, but it wasn’t the most important thing to me in my decision of where to study abroad. For me personally the most important thing in my decision was cost, so I looked at programs that were on the less expensive side and regions which typically provide a lot of financial aid and scholarships. I also really wanted to travel somewhere outside of Europe because I want to experience cultures drastically different from what I experience in the US.  

A lot of programs in Asia provide pretty substantial financial aid and scholarships to encourage students to study abroad in their countries, so I pretty easily narrowed down my decision to a program somewhere in Asia. I was lucky enough to find the program I eventually chose at Meiji Gakuin in Japan, which is a themed program focusing on Global Studies and fit my interests and ambitions perfectly. I was also lucky enough to get my program costs almost completely covered by scholarships and other funding that I applied for. 

Regarding my identity as a lesbian, I knew that realistically I could go anywhere and there was just the possibility that I’d have to hide my identity. I grew up in a pretty conservative area and wasn’t able to really be out until I went to college, so personally I didn’t want to go back to hiding who I am. While searching for a program, I did keep in mind what places I would most likely have to hide my identity, thinking about cultural norms and laws relating to LGBT+ folks. I think that a lot of LGBT+ folks think that they can only travel abroad while out in countries in Europe, which isn’t true. Not only are there places in Europe which are not safe for the LGBT+ community (like Poland), but there are also many countries outside of Europe that are very LGBT+ friendly, so I really want to emphasize that Europe isn’t your only option for studying abroad.  

  • How was your experience in your country? How was your experience in your country as an LGBTQIA+ person? 

To be honest, I felt much safer in Japan (both in general and regarding my identity) than in the US. As a disclaimer, I again grew up in a pretty conservative town where homophobia was pretty overt, so the bar of acceptance was really on the floor. Even in Santa Barbara there were times where I faced homophobia, but mostly microaggressions or more covert homophobia. I was never called slurs or felt unsafe while in Japan, all while being very open about my identity. In my classes (which were a mix of Japanese students and foreign students) we openly discussed topics related to gender and sexual orientation, and even had whole classes that were dedicated to those subjects. I had in-depth conservations with my fellow classmates about things such as the fetishization of LGBT+ people, something that’s prevalent in both the US and Japan. I never felt that people looked down on me because of my identity, and often I was asked about my opinions/perspective as a lesbian.  

From what I noticed, things like sexuality and sexual orientation aren’t as openly discussed casually in Japan. You rarely see any PDA from couples of any gender in public, no matter their sexual orientation. The most you’ll see really is hand-holding, so I’d say from personal experience LGBT+ couples are treated the same as any other couple in that any public affection is generally frowned upon. I was never asked by any Japanese locals if I was dating anyone, or about romantic relationships in general. Most discussions about dating and relationships I had were with other foreign students. By being pretty open about my identity I was also able to connect with other LGBT+ folks in my program and a lot of us formed a pretty tight-knit group in our dorm which was really nice. 

In Tokyo, like a lot of other bigger cities, there is actually an area that is known to be a ‘gay district’ kind of similar to West Hollywood in L.A. In Shinjuku there’s an area called Ni-chome that has a lot of LGBT+-owned restaurants and LGBT+ bars/clubs. They even had lesbian-specific clubs which were really cool and not something I had really seen before. It was a really nice area to explore around and it felt very cozy seeing rainbow flags and LGBT+ couples out and about.  

Some useful links about navigating Ni-chome!: 

  • What was a highlight of your time abroad? 

The main highlight of my time abroad was definitely my trip to Hiroshima. As part of the Global Studies in Japan program, all of the UC students were taken on an educational trip to Hiroshima for a couple days. I definitely had pretty strong opinions about what the US did in Hiroshima and Nagasaki before, but actually going to Hiroshima and seeing the lasting impacts of the atomic bomb really solidified my beliefs. We had the honor of actually talking to a survivor of the bombing and going to see the Peace Memorial Museum which was really intense but also (I think) really important. Aside from the WWII history of Hiroshima, the city in general is ridiculously beautiful and unique and has many amazing sights to see. Honestly for the Hiroshima trip alone I recommend to anyone and everyone the program I chose. It was, not even exaggerating, life changing for me and a lot of other people in my program.  

  • Did anything challenging occur while you were abroad? Anything challenging related to your LGBTQIA+ identity? 

The most challenging thing for me was adjusting to the language barrier, which was more a me-problem than anything because I went to Japan without knowing any Japanese. It was my first time being in a place where I didn’t speak the language, and it was very jarring not being able to read any signs or talk to anyone. Though I pretty quickly got over the initial shock and started to take initiative and learn useful phrases, and eventually started taking my Japanese language courses which, even though very basic, helped me quite a lot in daily communication. 

There were also a few cultural adjustments that were difficult at first. Americans are notoriously loud compared to Japanese locals, so having to adjust my volume even as someone who isn’t typically considered loud was new. Another adjustment that was the difference in dress compared to the US. In general wearing tank tops and other more ‘revealing’ clothing isn’t super common in Japan. Very rarely will anyone in Japan actually say something or approach you about the way you dress, but you might get some stares. If that doesn’t bother you though, you are perfectly fine wearing pretty much whatever you want. I have the addition of also being pretty well-covered in tattoos (another thing that is a bit taboo in Japan), so anytime I wore something that showed off my tattoos I got quite a few stares but again I never had someone ever say anything negative to me, and even got a few compliments and got a tattoo done while I was abroad! There are some establishments where showing tattoos are not allowed, such as some gyms and public baths, so it’s important to do your research before you go (this website is super helpful! 

I didn’t personally face any difficulties regarding my identity. There were times where maybe I was little more hesitant to openly talk about my identity or uncomfortable, but I didn’t face any unique challenges or anything that I didn’t already deal with in the US. Most of my difficulties were related to my own anxiety and not any negative experiences I actually had while in Japan. Most of the issues I had were actually with other study abroad students who would maybe be insensitive or make microaggressions toward my identity.  

  • Looking back now, is there anything that you wish you had thought of prior to your experience? 

I would say that my biggest regret is not starting my scholarship search earlier. As I said earlier, I was lucky to get my study abroad almost fully covered, but there were still many scholarships that I missed because they had earlier deadlines. So I’d definitely suggest starting your scholarship search as soon as possible. 

Looking back, I also wish that I didn’t take as many classes as I did. I ended up taking a class load equivalent to about 30 UC units, and was pretty busy keeping up with schoolwork. While I loved every class I took and was able to transfer basically every credit, I wish I had let myself have more free time to do longer trips and excursions. 

One regret that I have specifically relating to my identity (that as a disclaimer isn’t that serious) is not going out to the Ni-chome clubs. I wanted to make sure I was settled in before I really participated in the Tokyo night life, but the problem about studying abroad during Fall quarter is that the weather quickly changes from ridiculously hot to ridiculously cold. I personally could not justify going out in the freezing weather at that point, and I definitely wish I would’ve hit the clubs earlier in my program when it wasn’t in the 40s at night. 

  • Were you out during your time abroad? Who were you out to – program peers vs. home-stay families vs. etc.? How did you explain your identity? 

I was out during my time abroad, but I really only disclosed my identity when it was topical. No one ever asked me if I was gay or anything that explicit, but I also didn’t actively hide my identity. As I said before, there were quite a few other foreign students who identified as LGBT+, and I was very open about discussing my identity in my classes and LGBT+ related topics. Most of the time I didn’t shy away from being open about my identity, I never really felt the need to. At the same time, I was also never asked or expected to explain my identity. When I was open about being gay it was pretty readily accepted with no further questions, which was a nice change from what I’ve experienced quite a lot in the US. 

  • How am I able to find queer resources or get connected with the queer community in my region of choice? 

I would definitely suggest doing research about your region/program of choice before you go. It’s very possible that like Ni-chome, your area could also have a ‘gay hub’ near by and in general I think it’s important to know what LGBT+ life is like in your region. There are many blogs and resources online of LGBT+ travelers documenting their own experiences abroad that can be really helpful in navigating your identity and studying abroad.  

You also can also talk to your on-site support staff. At least in my experience, your on-site support staff really cares about your safety and comfort and are a great resource if you have questions or concerns. By the end of my program our support staff really felt almost like a second family, so I’d definitely utilize them as a resource.  

In general, this link has useful general information for LGBT+ students wanting to study abroad:

And a resource on that page that I would especially like to highlight is this ranking of countries from low-moderate-high risk for LGBT+ students, along with explanations behind the rankings and risk mitigation strategies along with other resources. I referenced this page a lot when I was making my decision on where to go:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s