Yuki Keiser Sheds Light on Japan’s Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage

yuki keiser

via her Instagram

It is in a quiet café in Montreux, Switzerland with its breathtaking view on mountains and the lake that we meet Yuki Keiser. She is a contributing writer for the LGBT section of Timeout Tokyo and a correspondent for the Japanese non-profit organisation Nijiro Diversity. Since 2014, Yuki has been settled in San Francisco and travels several times a year to Japan and Switzerland.

Yuki was born and raised in Switzerland by a Japanese mother and Swiss father. The Land of the Rising Sun has always been an important part of her life. “I would speak Japanese with my mum all the time. Every summer, we would go on holidays to Japan. I was fascinated by the country and wanted to live there,” she tells us. She moved to Japan in 2001 to pursue her post-graduate Japanese Studies and eventually worked as a PR and sales manager in the fashion industry. It was not before her second year that she took her first steps into the Japanese LGBT scene and years later that she decided to write about lesbian and queer culture.

In 2015, Japan started to address LGBT rights such as same-sex marriage. Shibuya, followed by Setagaya, were the first municipalities in Japan to issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples. These certificates are not legally binding, however they do make it easier for couples to do things such as register for a lease or visit each other in hospital for instance. It appears to be a first step towards gay marriage or, at least, greater acceptance and inclusion. The same year, a group of lawyers started to prepare a case in order to legalise same-sex marriage.

Yuki tells us a little bit more about the evolution of the LGBT scene in Japan, especially Tokyo where she has lived principally.

How was your first contact with Japan LGBT scene?

My first year in Japan I didn’t explore the scene at all even though I considered myself bisexual. During my second year, I took my first steps into the scene but it was only years later that I wanted to do something about queer and lesbian culture. I wanted to do interviews. At that time, I was dating a Japanese photographer and she had contacts in the publishing industry. So, we thought about a project and that is how I wrote my first interviews which were published in two Japanese magazines. This was in 2005 and 2006 and at that time it was very difficult to write about lesbians. You never saw that word or heard it in the media or it was derogatory. In the 90’s, there was indeed a gay boom but it was quite particular. It looked more like a show and lesbians were not mentioned. In 2001, there was nothing. In 2005 it was very hard to publish. I had 5 pages in Marie Claire but I thought I couldn’t say everything I wanted. That is why I decided to start “Tokyo Wrestling” with my friends. Until that time I was not an activist and it may have surprised some people. Then, in 2008, the tv-show The L Word arrived in Japan and we heard more about homosexuality for a while. Since 2015, we hear much more about broader LGBT issues.

How did you shape Tokyo Wrestling?

Magazines such as “Girls Like Us” and “Cut” were a source of inspiration. I was inspired by After Ellen as well. I like the concept of mixing interviews, arts, elite. On the other hand, I wanted to avoid communitarianism. Tokyo Wrestling was not something about girls who like girls only. It was something about queer culture and lesbian queer. It was international and universal. It was not thinkable to have something about the Japanese only. While doing Tokyo Wrestling, I didn’t consider myself as an activist, but rather an editor. I wanted to change the image of lesbians from the hetero point of view and also from that of lesbians themselves. Many people, including heterosexuals, were reading Tokyo Wrestling thanks to The L word. In fact, for the TV production company Fox, the marketing Idea was to create a “post-sex and the city era” which really worked in Japan. If the L word was just presented as a lesbian series it would have not been successful. That is why it was shown as girls who talk about sex, some are lesbian others not. So when people in Japan would search for The L word on the web, they would find Tokyo Wrestling because we wrote a lot about it. At the time, I was traveling a lot to do interviews in person. I hoped that “Tokyo Wrestling” would inspire others, like the magazine “Girls Like Us” did. This magazine made us feel like we belonged to a group, that we needn’t be ashamed of being lesbian. It was very positive. There were a lot of girls with talent. It was more than positive. They didn’t care about what others said. I wanted to do that in Japan because many Japanese girls felt guilty about being homosexual. For me, I wanted to use culture and have fun at the same time. But since I’ve moved to the USA, the project is on pause.

How would describe the current Japanese LGBT scene and community?

There are different scenes. It is quite fractured. The LGBT area, called Ni-Chome is very small and very lively during the night. During the day nothing special happens. There are many bars, but the bars are usually very small. Some can take up to 10 guests. There are around 30 lesbian bars. It seems like a lot but in reality it is not much. You end up going to only two or three bars. However, when I started to go there, for me it was fantastic because in Switzerland there was nothing like that! Also, there are lots of lesbian nights in clubs. At least every weekend there is one lesbian night in a Ni-chome club. It is quite incredible. For example, in San Francisco, there was only one lesbian bar for the entire city and now it shut down. Even Los Angeles do not have that many bars and you do have lesbian nights in some gay-friendly bars. So, we can say that there is quite a scene in Tokyo. But it is changing; there are more day-time cafés in Ni-Chome and other areas. People are trying to create LGBT-friendly spaces during the day. Also, the last 3 years LGBT activists have become more visible.

How did you experience homophobia in Japan?

There is a kind of homophobia in the media, which is insidious, yet not aggressive. It is just not pleasant for someone who is openly gay or not yet out. When I was working in Japan I heard a lot of things. It is not focusing on homosexuality. In a regular conversation, you could hear “Oh, this man looks so gay!” Once, I asked a colleague where she lived in Tokyo and she said that she lived in an infamous place; it was the gay area, which is even more safe than somewhere else especially for a woman. So, it is not pure homophobia, but it happens on a daily basis. It is as hard to fight as real homophobia. Even for me who was quite out, making a website and a magazine, at my kickboxing class, our coach was mocking a guy who couldn’t do the movements correctly, saying that he was gay. I would not stop the class for that, but I was really upset. Homophobia is something latent and insidious. Sure when you feel good about yourself, you can get over it but for someone who is trying to come out, I think that hearing these kinds of comments isn’t easy. Also, I believe that homophobia in Japan is due to a lack of education. Homophobia is expressed through childish comments. So it could change very quickly. At work, once one of my colleagues said something mean about homosexuals and I stood up. Then my colleague changed and understood. He was sorry. I think that for mostJapanese, it is not a deep and pure homophobia. It is simply ignorance. Nevertheless, about 10% of the population is really homophobic. They see the man and the wife. They have a real traditionalist vision of life. For them it is impossible to see a family made of two mothers. Otherwise, homophobia is not related to religion at all in Japan.

Is coming out common?

Maybe fewer people come out because usually people don’t really like to talk about sexuality. It is hard to tell. It depends on the generation. People over 40’s are probably less out than people in their 20’s. In Japan, in fact, most people in their 40’s are in the closet. I know people in their 40s who have not told their parents yet even though they get along well with them. In the US or in Switzerland it is not really common to not be out after the age of thirty. However, I believe that there is an evolution. We should point out that Japanese usually do not talk about sexuality. So, it may explain why there are less coming-outs. What struck me when I started to venture into the LGBT scene in Tokyo is that people were in the closet all week and during the weekend they would free themselves. At that time Ni-Chome was really a gay only area unlike today. Heterosexual people have always considered this area a mysterious underground, scary zone, so there were not many heterosexuals there. There was a strong energy. It was the only place where LGBT people could be themselves regarding their sexuality. Some had nicknames. They would not give their real names. Now, it is changing. You see stuff on TV. It has changed since I left in 2013.

Why is it difficult to come out?

In Japan, it is not as dangerous as other countries to come out. You will not face the death penalty. Still, it is not as open as in the US or Europe. Yes, there is less physical violence, but hatred is more insidious. It is a less visible homophobia. Homophobia is placed in small daily comments such “That’s so gay” . Why is it so hard to come out? Because there is probably not much information in Japan. For instance, in France, in Switzerland, in Europe, I feel like when you come of the closet either we accept you either we do not like it, but we understand what it is. In Japan, when you do a coming out you have to explain all, so you need a lot of will. For me, even for me, I am more out in the US or Switzerland than in Japan. In the US I can say “my wife is coming later” and people understand the concept. In japan, if I say “my wife”, they will think I used the wrong word. Small coming outs are hard in Japan, so you need more energy. Otherwise, they will see it as a sex practice, just like S&M. Actually, when I told my friends in Japan that I will get married they didn’t understand at first. They didn’t see it as a civil right; it was more as something extraordinary and extreme.

On the other hand, there are not many people out in the media. Most of the gay people are very cliché. Now there is a statistic that is circulating which says that 5% to 7%” of the population is gay but people say that they don’t know anyone gay. So they are convinced that the 7% of gay people in Japan are the 50 people they see on TV. They see it but they say I don’t know anyone in my entourage. In the show business industry, you do not have many out people. On TV you do have lots of gay men and transgender women, but they play the cliché and make money from that. They are referred to as onae, they aren’t everyday people.

Usually people are more shy, more discreet. There is so much pressure from the family to be like everyone else that some gays and lesbian arrange marriages. On one side you have some people who are completely out. On the other those who aren’t. For instance, the gay pride in Tokyo reunites 4000 to 4500 individuals and Tokyo concentrate 14 million people. Even in Switzerland, it can reach 10’000. People don’t want to be out. Well, there are also other factors – people are busy and don’t pay attention. But also, Japan is not a “protest culture”. After the parade, they set up a closed space where you are not allowed to take pictures. This is contrary to the concept of pride, which is to shout out and be out, be proud. It shows that the Japanese are still more in the closet than elsewhere. The coming out is important. If everybody would come out, everybody would be more tolerant. Homosexuality is normal. Hopefully, it is changing slowly.

What has influenced Japan?

There was a bigger change in 2012 and 2013. I think that gay marriage in France and the abolition of the Doma Law in the US, which was big news in the US and Japan, both had an influence. It stoked discussion in Japan. TV shows talked about families, there were more positive programs and educational programs. In 2014, I noticed that people were starting to talk about LGBT people as families suggesting that it is more accepted and that LGBT people are considered normal, more genuine, and more integrated. Same-sex couples would get married at Disneyland. Mentalities seemed to have evolved a lot at least in the media. I really saw another image in the media, which resulted in the recent 2015 rules in Japan that recognised same sex couples (symbolically in some prefectures). So we are hearing about LGBT issues all over.

Do you think that Japanese LGBT activists’ approach may inspire neighbouring countries or other countries?

I do not know what is happening in neighbouring countries. I am not sure that Japan has some influence. But, I think logically there should be an influence. Everybody learns from everybody. It might inspire the activists on the ground, but not necessarily the governments. For example, for a long time the US did not influence Japan. Activists said that the US was a faraway country and would think that their action would not be successful in Japan. The activists always considered the US as something so different. Since, 2015 and the Shibuya marriages they’ve changed their minds. They realise that in the US it also started like this. In fact, the US has not always been a gay-friendly country. It was a step-by-step process, state by state until it suddenly reached all the states in 2015 after more than 10 years of activism. So, whatever happens there is always an impact. It becomes a snowball effect. In Japan, there are only two districts, Shibuya and Setagaya who have a rule, not even a law, to recognise same-sex couples. Maybe, in five years most districts of Japan will have gay-friendly approaches.

Just like in the USA with the DOMA, a group of Japanese lawyers filed a complaint in order to legalise same-sex marriage. The complaint may bring up the discussion. It will be difficult. You can’t change everything all at once. The DOMA complaint was successful because it was done at the right moment. There was a public debate and one-third of states had allowed gay marriage during the past 10 years. I think that it is too early, but it is a good move. If a small complaint can change everything I would be surprised because there are a lot of conservative people in the government.


Translated by Vanessa Esteves from French to English

For More on Yuki:

Web www.yukikeiser.com

Insta @YukiKeiser