Japan is famous for its political and social conservatism. Family – in the traditional sense – comes first, and even the country's ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party, aren't all that liberal; they staunchly oppose same-sex marriage. This kind of prejudice means being LGBTQ in Japan can come with its share of difficulties – not always out-and-out homophobia like you get elsewhere in the world, but the feeling for gay and trans people of being othered, what the Japanese call "the nail that sticks out".
In a new photo book, Edges of the Rainbow: LGBTQ Japan, French-American photographer Michel Delsol and his wife, Japanese-American writer Haruku Shinozaki, explore the nuances of the LGBTQI experience in Japan. Following the lives of nine people – including a gay Episcopal priest, an all-gay male pop band called Apotheke and trans pop phenomenon Ai Haruna, as well as a centre called Akta that is dedicated to HIV/AIDS awareness – the pair show how Japan's LGBTQ culture is emerging from the shadows.
Here, Michel and Haruku share what they learnt about the shifting face of Japan's LGBTQ culture while researching the book.
VICE: To begin, with, what drew you to the project as a photographer, Michel?
Michel: It was a confluence of two areas of interest of mine: I'm a portrait photographer, but I've always been interested in civil rights, and very interested in Japan. I've been 15 times at least, photographing pop stars and actors – Kabuki [Japanese theatre] as well. So when we were approached to do this it felt like the perfect commission.
There's a very broad range of subjects, right across the LGBTQI spectrum. How did you find them?
Michel: Without being too mechanical about it, we wanted to have a range of male couples, female couples, intersex people, people who are celibate or in couples, a range of age and various working class backgrounds, through to people with office jobs and artists and people from the religious order. Haruku had a lot of friends and we started by asking them. We did Google research, and then once we were in Japan, one person just led to the next person. Lots of people were activists, so knew of each other. The LGBTQ community's not that large, although it's getting larger and larger.
Haruku: Some LGBTQ people told us that intersex is not really LGBTQ, but we wanted to bring Tatsuki [an intersex person featured in the book] in because he said he was always thinking from the minute that he was born about who he was in terms of gender. Michel and I don't like to categorise people for who they are, and I think the charm about this book is the people in it are defined by the richness of their lives.
Gay marriage is not yet legal in Japan. How widely available are civil partnerships?
Haruku: It's not national. It's only allowed in a few districts – and districts are smaller than cities. For example, in Tokyo, Shibuya and Setagaya were the first [in 2015] to issue certificates. By next year the whole island of Hokkaido should have civil partnerships, on the northern island of Japan. Japan is very conservative, so many people aren't really campaigning for marriage yet. If you're in a same-sex relationship, it's not possible to marry, and difficult to have children – it feels like they're three or four steps away from that in the law. But if a partner is transgender, you could officially get married, even if the relationship was same-sex at the beginning.
So if you're trans it's possible to have your gender changed by law?
Haruku: Yes. In the Japanese system, when you're born you have a register, a personal history, like a letter from the city. It is now legal for governments to accept transgender people to change that written personal ID form, if you get the operation [sexual reassignment surgery].
It seems like trans people are quite accepted in Japanese society, given that you photographed a trans celebrity, Ai Haruna?
Michel: It's getting there, yes. Her personal life is widely known – it's the subject of a 90-minute documentary has aired on primetime television. On the day we went "shopping" with Ai Haruna in Harajuku, a district popular with teenagers in Tokyo, within less than five minutes she was surrounded by fans three to four layers deep, mostly teenagers. I think her appearances on other TV and radio shows has educated people's understanding of and for diversity.
As an example, the mother of one of the subjects in the book was able to better understand her daughter's sexual orientation after having watched Ai-san's show and listening to other parents of gay and lesbian children talk about their lives. She said it made her feel less isolated. Also, Fuyumi and Makoto [who also feature in the book – Fuyumi identifies as queer and Makoto is trans, female to male] were once interviewed on her Sunday show, and the next day at work, Makoto – who had remained private at his job – was asked by his colleagues if it was him that they saw on TV the day before. He answered "yes" and his colleagues didn't treat him any differently afterwards.
Who is it that generally opposes LGBTQ rights in Japan?
Michel: Well, traditionally there's been same-sex love in religious orders and samurai orders, so this has been in Japanese culture a long time. Today, it's a general conservatism that goes against it. It's not like Western cultures of strong Judeo-Christian morality; it's more social. It's the breaking conformity that's the biggest issue.
There are safe havens, though. You photographed an area called Shinjuku – is that the gay district?
Haruku: Yes, the LGBTQ nightlife is concentrated in the Ni-chome area of the Shinjuku district. It is actually said to be the largest concentration of gay nightlife in the world. There are, of course, a few individual bars in various districts – a cafe in Shibuya, for example – but not another neighbourhood as such. Ni-chome is about 90 percent gay male bars, and fewer lesbian bars. The woman club owner, Chiga, who we photographed, was the first to open a lesbian bar in the district, and everyone was shocked. It's just not a huge market. Population-wise there are a lot more gay men.
What are the most urgent things the activists you met are fighting for?
Haruku: Maika Muroi, a member of the steering committee for Tokyo Rainbow Pride, thinks the community's first priority is to set up information networks through the school system and to legalise same-sex marriage. Akta, the non-profit organisation, is doing an education campaign in schools about HIV/AIDS through dramatic and musical performances.
Michel: Nori, the manager/producer of [the gay band] Apotheke, is not interested in marriage or in most/all "bourgeois" conventions. The songs of Apotheke are, in his words, like "a Trojan horse" to society, to question gender and sexual standardisation, and also to question the present political structure. The subjects we profiled span different lifestyles, from traditional aspirations of marriage and upward mobility to more radical subversiveness. But they all share the belief and knowledge that sexuality and gender self-identification are political agents and are connected to issues of class, history, ecology, world peace or war. Everyone is different because of age, character, the happenstance of each individual life.
'Edges of the Rainbow' can be purchased from The New Press or from Amazon, available from the 9th of May.