Lesbianism in Japan is a topic on which little has been published. Lesbianism is indeed something which has been represented in art and literature, but when compared to homosexual male love in Japan’s history, for which there are considerably more written works available, one gets the impression that lesbianism has been denied and even recently some still regard lesbians as invisible, but why?
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Hegemonic ideas of women
In Japan, one can only be considered an adult once married with child. As the Japanese law doesn’t acknowledge homosexuals, marriage must occur between a man and a woman. The image is to suggest that a women isn’t whole without a man, a child and involvement in a traditional household (ie) system.
Hegemonic notions of the Japanese woman are that she is the ‘good wife, wise mother’ (ryosai kenbo) as idealised during the Meiji era. These pressures on women are underlined by social and traditional practices; the ie assumes a male-female partnership, with the central authority figure being the male head, ‘duty marriages’ and arranged marriages are common place to uphold the tradition of the ie. Japanese women are not considered to be sexual beings beyond the boundaries of child-rearing so defining a woman as a lesbian makes it apparent that she has sexual interests, something which is stereotypically a male characteristic.
Defining a lesbian
In comparison to the somewhat wide range of Japanese terms defining a homosexual man (terms ranging from negative, to neutral, with various terms depending on the age of the partner) the use of language to define a lesbian is more limited.
Until recently the word ‘doseiai’ was used for both male and female same-sex love when the loan word rezubian was introduced, sometimes abbreviated to rezu, and nowadays daiku (dyke) though these may all hold negative connotations.
For most Japanese, the first image they have when encountered with the word rezubian is pornography, in which the portrayal of lesbians can be a little unrealistic. Because of this image women may refuse to call themselves lesbian as it is so linked to a stereotype.
In pornography where lesbian sex may be over exaggerated, women are viewed as ‘crazed’, crossing the boundaries of ‘normal sex’, far from the good wife, wise mother ideal.
The government seem to pressure women on how they should carry out their lives. Employment and housing are both very much influenced by ‘paternalism’; the workplace being its own ‘family’ with a male ‘head’. Companies may assume that all employees have the same sort of familial relationships, therefore lesbians are assumed as single, heterosexual and currently looking for a male partner, this is re-enforced by the fact that over 90% percent of women in Japan will marry at some point, leading most employers to assume a female worker will eventually need to leave the company which in turn may leave her discriminated against.
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It is hardly surprising that the pay gap between the sexes in Japan is one of the largest and so access to housing is more limited to a lesbian couple than it would be to a heterosexual or gay couple. The Japanese Public Housing Law applies only to married and unmarried opposite-sex couples, as lesbianism is not officially recognised lesbian couples have to list themselves as ‘single’ when applying for houses, which will imply their financial situation as unstable. In fact, as most public housing is reserved for family units, singles may not even bother to apply. Being married in Japan secures privileges and rights.
As being homosexual has never actually been against the law in Japan, just ignored, they were happy to be left alone and pursuit their own homosexual lives in private rather than to ‘force’ it onto the rest of society and face discrimination.
Since the 1970s there have been plenty of lesbian activist groups but almost all of them lacked member support and were forced to shut down. The most enduring of these groups, Regumi, is still intact today but their website stresses the importance of public interest as people are still reluctant to come forward and show support to the group.
It is difficult to assume that the hundreds of years of patriarchal importance that has been ingrained into Japanese society can be undone with just thirty years of on/off LGBT movements, nor can it be assumed that Japanese LGBT even want it undone.
However, it is clear that lesbians are very discriminated against and the choice to be a lesbian in public is one that may cause difficulties in almost every aspect of life; work, housing, family. If making the choice to ‘come out’ were to disturb a life so dramatically then it can be understood that those lesbians who want to come out, probably wouldn’t.