Coming out in Japan

A survey of attitudes among university students

Robert Ó’Móchain, College of International Relations, Ritsumeikan University [About | Email]

Volume 15, Issue 1 (Article 4 in 2015). First published in ejcjs on 19 April 2015.


This study investigated the attitudes of 104 Japanese university students to coming out as well as evaluating the possible effects of coming out by an instructor at the beginning of term. Research questions included: ‘If LGBT identifying instructors come out to their students, does this have an effect on students’ willingness to engage with LGBT issues?’ and, ‘Is there a gendered component to this perception?’ 60 completed survey questionnaires indicate that many young Japanese approve of coming out under certain specific conditions. Young men seem to be less likely to engage with LGBT issues than are young women. However, if the instructor comes out, this seems to increase the likelihood that all students, males included, will engage with LGBT issues. More extensive empirical research is required to evaluate the extent to which younger people in Japan may or may not have increasingly positive attitudes towards individuals who make public affirmations of non-traditional sexualities.

Keywords: Coming Out, Japan, youth, education, prejudice, engagement.


This paper explores the issues raised by “coming out” in a university classroom in Japan. A review of the historical background focuses on expressions of male-male sexuality such as nanshoku (male eroticism)which still receive attention as elements in the historical narrative of Japanese sexualities. The next section reviews schooling and sexuality issues as a contextualization of the present pilot study. Before outlining the research questions and procedures of the study, I consider both positive and negative views of coming out, especially in educational contexts. A final discussion section acknowledges limitations in the study and speculates on how current societal changes may impact upon the quality of educational experience for LGBT participants in educational institutional life in Japan.

Historical Contextualisation

Male-male sexuality has a long history of representation in varied cultural forms in Japan (Reichert, 2006). Intergenerational relationships between monks and young acolytes know as chigo (page) were defended in some Buddhist tracts during the Heian period (794-1185) (Faure, 1998). The practice of nanshoku, whereby an older male would adopt and train an adolescent male in a relationship that allowed for expression of sexual desire,played a prominent role in samurai culture for many years, as is clear from the title of Watanabe and Iwata’s (1987) historical review: One thousand years of Japanese homosexuality: The love of the samurai. Ikegami (1995) argues that nanshoku was more than tolerated by the Tokugawa shogunate; it was the distinctive marker of the elite of the era. However, no other forms of male-male sexuality or indeed of female-female sexuality enjoyed significant degrees of cultural intelligibility or social acceptability in Japan during this period. Reichert (2006) clarifies that nanshoku began to decline in prominence from about the middle of the eighteenth century, and then faced processes of extinction with the advent of Meiji modernity with its medicalised stigmatisation of homosexuality in the name of “progress.” However, these processes did not succeed completely in abolishing nanshoku, which was still a part of the popular imaginary in the early Meiji period. The biography of Sawamura Tanousuke III—a reinterpretation of nanshoku for a kabuki audience—was hugely popular after its publication in 1880 (Reichert, 2006, p. 36). Many cases of intense nanshoku relationships among high school students, and military personnel were reported during the Meiji era (Roden, 1980). Reports in newspapers of love-pact suicides by nanshoku couples in the army and navy were published in many newspapers (McLelland, 2005).

This long history of acceptance of certain expressions of male-male sexuality in Japan, coupled with the fact that same-sex desire had multiple forms of expression in homo-erotic sub-cultures during the late 1940s and 1950s, prompts McLelland’s reflection that it is ironic for Western gay liberation activists to assume that all foreign locales have followed the same historical trajectory as they have, or that they alone can provide lessons on how future activism should unfold. While it is true that systematic processes of stigmatisation of same-sex love operated in Japanese society from Meiji on, one does not find an equation of homosexuality with evil in the same way as often occurs in Anglo-Saxon or Judaeo-Christian social and cultural contexts. The work of McLelland (2005), Lunsing (2003), Kazama and Kawaguchi (2003), and others remind us, then, that the foundational concepts of modern discourses of Western sexuality (“homosexual,” “gay,” “coming out,” “lesbian,” etc) evoke very different schemata and connotations in Japanese contexts; they bear new and originary meanings in translations and re-conceptualisations in Japanese language texts, and they exist alongside a wide range of “organic” conceptual categories of non-normative sexuality which can be drawn upon by participants within diverse textual and cultural forms in Japan. This historical overview can also serve as a reminder that “homophobia,” however we define it, exists in Japan in a way that is different from other locales, including those of Western cultural contexts. LGBT identifying individuals in Japan will evaluate the extent to which they want to employ or modify “Western” tactics to challenge inequalities wrought by homophobia, and to what extent they will draw on “organic” historical resources for the same purpose.

Sexualities and schooling in Japan

The amount of research which has been carried out on sexualities and schooling in Japanese contexts is quite limited, in spite of the efforts of individual educators. Lunsing (2001, p. 323) points out that, “until very recently, no gay scholars in Japan” have been working in the field of sexuality issues in education. A second problem is that foreign scholars who have explored LGBT lives in Japan have tended to “overemphasise positive features of homosexuality” in Japanese contexts. This allows for an implicit critique of the researchers’ own cultural backgrounds where manifestations of stigmatisation of queer people are often aggressive and overt, but does little to address the serious problems faced by LGBT people in Japan. The fact that over 600 of the 1000 men who responded to Hidaka’s (2001) survey of men-who-have-sex-with-men had seriously contemplated suicide at some stage in their lives, can hardly be romanticised. Some of the survey results included the following data:

Average age of respondent: 27.5 years
29% of respondents were students.

656 of the 1025 respondents had seriously considered suicide at some stage of their lives.
12.9% were given negative information in school about LGBT people
7.3% were told in school that LGBT people are abnormal
59.6% were bullied verbally in school

Hidaka adverts to the need for further research to investigate whether Japanese LGBT youth constitute a high-risk group in relation to teen suicide, dropout rates, substance abuse, and other serious issues within Japanese socio-educational contexts. 1025respondents participated in this Internet survey. It should be noted that this survey concerned homosexual males only. If those individuals who identify as lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered had also been covered by the survey, an even more worrying picture might have been revealed.

The provision of wide-ranging information on sexuality issues seems lacking in many Japanese schools (cf. Lunsing, 2001; McLelland, 2000). A reluctance to deal with these issues may reflect the powerful effects of discourses of stigmatisation. For example, up until 1991, a publication of the Japanese Ministry of Education, “Seito no mondaikoudou ni kansuru kisoshiryou” (“Fundamental information concerning delinquent activities of students”) classified homosexuality as “sexual misconduct” (Summerhawk, McMahill, & McDonald, 1998, p. 207). Kumashiro (2003) argues that, “In Japan, as in other countries around the world, schools are often places where students learn little to challenge the messages repeated throughout their lives about the deviancy of same-sex attraction and the cultural desirability of heterosexual marriage” (p. 74). Tsuzuki (2003), a Japanese language and literature high school teacher, includes his perception of the prevalence of negative notions about sexuality in Japanese cultural contexts: “We have the idea that ‘sex is disgusting, so it should not be brought up in the classroom, a public place’” (p. 81). While there seems little doubt that the guilt-ridden sense of sinfulness that Christian cultures often foment in social spheres does not exist in Japan, nevertheless, negative attitudes towards sexuality can be very strong. The subsequent sense of stigmatisation and shame among those who depart from dominant norms of sexuality can be just as harmful in non-Christian cultures as in Christian ones. Dankmeijer (2003) suggests that young LGBT individuals in Japan (and China) experience much the same fate as their peers in Western cultures: “They are isolated and lonely; they feel depressed and worthless; they have difficulty finding love and understanding” (p.47). This view is supported by Kazama and Kawaguchi’s (2003) account of telephone peer counseling by the organisation OCCUR. The organisation receives over a thousand calls every year from people who are coming to terms with their sexuality and whose greatest concern is isolation. Many of the callers are young people who feel totally alone and who fear that lesbian or gay sexuality is a condemnation to a lifetime of loneliness. “Many people look up ‘homosexuality’ in dictionaries and encyclopedias when worried about their sexuality only to find descriptions like ‘perversion’ and ‘abnormality.’ Their worries are thereby exacerbated rather than relieved” (p. 191). In addition to an individual sense of isolation, the authors also refer to high levels of social isolation for LGBT people in Japan who have limited opportunities and means for communication. Takakura, Nagayama, Sakihara, & Willcox, (2001) list health risk behaviours among high school students as: “cigarette smoking, alcohol use, thinner use, nonuse of seat belts, suicide ideation, sexual intercourse, weight loss practices, and physical inactivity.” It is unfortunate that “sexual intercourse” itself, rather than unsafe sexual practices, is listed here as a health risk. At least one Japanese academic, Kawaguchi Kazuya (Kazama & Kawaguchi, 2003), has also published articles in English on homophobia and AIDS in Japanese contexts. Kawaguchi is exceptional, also, in having the approbation of his university in Hiroshima, where he holds the position of associate professor of community studies and gender/sexuality studies.

Coming Out in the classroom

This study investigated the attitudes of Japanese university students to coming out as well as evaluating the possible effects of coming out by a teacher at the beginning of term. Coming out is understood here in the sense used by Strongman (2002) to describe a ‘speech act… a defining moment’ in which an individual makes an identification that lies outside the parameters of heteronormativity. Strongman notes that this is the accepted meaning and practice in the United States and other ‘Western’ sites, whereas in other cultural zones ‘coming out’ need not be an overt, once-and-for-all verbal or written declaration. Foucault (1978, p. 60) is one of the authors who takes a largely negative view of the prominence of Western cultures’ practices of coming out. He believes they form part of a discursive knowledge-power combination that incites social subjects to ‘confess’ aspects of self, such as erotic desire, in a public way. Coming out involves acceptance of being labeled in a particular way and can be seen as essentialist, part of a ‘self-limiting narrative of self.’ For Cameron and Kulick (2003), the urge to label and classify all aspects of sexuality in modern life can also be seen as lamentable. McLelland (2001) points out the dangers of promoting coming out narratives in Japan and points to texts that show an Orientalist tendency to depict Japan as ‘feudal’ or ‘repressive.’ However, the author does also acknowledge the value of hearing a plurality of voices from Japan.

Positive views of Coming Out

Other authors take a more positive view of ‘coming out.’ They form part of a politics of identity which views sexuality as an innate or socially acquired essential trait which denotes membership of a group with shared characteristics and a common cause in the political sphere (cf. Spargo, 1999). Epstein and Johnson (1998) and Gray (2013) detail inequalities within educational contexts in the United Kingdom, including the difficulties faced by students and teachers who choose to come out to their peers, while others make similar arguments in an exploration of the constraints placed upon lesbian and gay educators in the United States (Biegel (2010), deJean (2008), Harbeck (1992), McCaron (1997) Jennings (1994) Rhoads (1994). While her later work (Nelson, 2004) takes a more poststructuralist turn that focuses on the complexities involved in coming out issues, Nelson (1993) focuses on the right of lesbian and gay language educators to come out and have their identities affirmed by others, especially by work colleagues. She notes (2009, p. 96) that many queer educators find it difficult fielding marital status questions in the classroom when they do not want to come out to students. She does suggest, however, that such questions can be used by all instructors to promote stimulating discussion on “broader issues to do with family configurations.” Nelson goes on to provide some of the reasons why instructors in her study valued the notion of coming out: as a way to interrupt the dominant classroom discourse which is routinely heterosexual; as a way for LGBT instructors to be able to draw on their own lived experience in their spontaneous classroom interactions and so promote learning; and finally as a way to raise awareness of key issues among young people and to promote their critical thinking skills. Phelan (1994, p. 71) notes that many educators experience a ‘loss of self’ when they feel impelled to remain ‘in the closet’ while knowing that coming out may lead to rejection by family members, loss of work and economic benefits, and even threats of violence. The theme of the loss of self for a closeted educator is taken up, also, by Gregory (2008) who sees coming out as an essential element of his pedagogy. It allows for an honest presentation of self as a sexual, moral, intellectual, and political being. More recently, Goldman (2008) emphasizes the need for positive role models among lesbian and gay youth and she underlines the need for lesbian and gay educators to come out in their classrooms so as to fulfill this role.

This paper aligns itself with a politics of identity approach or “focus on inclusion” (Nelson, 1993, p. 145). It assumes that value can be attached to coming out speech acts by instructors principally because this can provide a sense of solidarity with students who feel isolated or marginalised because of their sexuality. While one may feel misgivings regarding the use of a broadly essentialist approach, this can be justified as an exercise in “strategic essentialism” (Spivak, 1990). Obviously, an identity politics approach, if it is seen as useful, needs to be adapted to particular social and cultural conditions in Japan, in the same way that educators have taken elements from Western-based feminist theory to promote gender equality within Japanese education (see Kawana, 2009, for an analysis of the latter set of issues). There may be many LGBT identified individuals in Japan like Ito (1998) or Kaito—a high-school instructor interviewed for my doctoral study (Ó’Móchain, 2010)—who feel that instructors should not have to feel obliged to wear a mask in the workplace and who believe that they can act as role-models for marginalised young people who experience same-sex desire. It may also be the case that an instructor’s coming out prompts greater reflection by young people who are otherwise unconcerned about issues of equality for LGBT people. Another reason for this type of study concerns the lack of visibility of lesbian-identifying women in Japanese society. In Ó’Móchain (2010, p. 74), Naomi, a young Japanese woman describes her first realisation in her mid-teens that she identified as a lesbian, the experience was traumatic as she felt that she was “the only lesbian in the world… I didn’t know that in the world there are very many gays and lesbians.” She had never seen or heard about women who love other women. While it is true that a rich literature in lesbian themed manga exists in Japan (Nagaike, 2010), this genre of manga is not widely disseminated and for Naomi, at least, it could not help allay her feelings of profound isolation. Seen from a broader perspective, Naomi can be seen as another member of a minority group who fails to find representation or visibility in contemporary social or cultural life in Japan. Burgess (2004) argues that a great deal of change will have to occur before transformations are made towards an environment that welcomes multicultural forms of social life, especially as the ideological tools that maintain the idea of Japan as mono-cultural, homogenous, and unique are still very strong. The minority of women in Japan who identify as lesbian may be happy to see that the survey in this study provided a vignette representing the scenario of a young Japanese lesbian experiencing difficulties in her workplace. Comments by students may provide some indicator of levels of awareness of lesbian identities in Japan. Finally, there is a dearth of information available in English regarding the implications of coming out in educational institutions in Japan. Hence the need for this pilot study which may allow for some tentative conjectures regarding these questions. It may also stimulate greater interest in more broad-based, comprehensive, long-term research projects to provide more definitive answers on the value or otherwise of coming out in educational institutions in Japan.

Coming out in Japan

Most of the scholarly research on coming out issues has been confined to Anglo-American or European sociocultural spheres (notable exceptions include Carrier, 1989 and Tan, 2011). Few researchers have taken a stance on the necessity or otherwise of coming out within educational contexts in Japan. An educator in Kyoto, Takatori Shoji (Takatori & Ofuji, 2007) wrote of his, mainly positive experiences with coming out in a high school context during the 1990’s. Hirano (1998, p.2) reports on presentations being given by a gay couple to high school students in the Kanto region to “nip prejudice in the bud.” Ó’Móchain (2010) recorded interview data with two high-school instructors of English, Kaito and Naoki, and with one university instructor of Japanese, Dono, and these interviews included reflections on coming out. Kaito expressed a desire to be able to come out to work colleagues and students but also believed that life would become intolerable if he were to do so. In contrast, the other two instructors who identified as gay, Naoki and Dono, had both come out to some work colleagues without experiencing any particularly negative consequences. Neither felt a strong need to come out to their students. Another interview participant, Reneé, a North American lesbian who has worked in universities in Japan for over 20 years came out to some of her students, as well as many of her work colleagues, and she had not experienced any major difficulties because of this. Ito (1998) did experience difficulties as a high school teacher due to his affirmations of gay identity in the workplace and felt it necessary to resign his position. However, he was permitted to make presentations in many junior and senior high schools in the Kanto area during the late 1990s. During these presentations he came out to the students and informed them on a wide range of issues regarding LGBT identities in Japan. At present, then, only a small body of research literature in English provides some answers on issues surrounding coming out in Japan. This paper may help to enrich the current body of relevant literature and stimulate further interest in issues that affect many stakeholders in education.

Research Background

I worked as a part-time instructor in a large university in Tokyo for more than a year. For one term, I taught the exact same course—‘Learning English through U.S. short stories’—to three different groups. None of the excerpts from the stories dealt with themes of same-sex desire, though issues of gender inequality and hegemonic masculinity were prominent in excerpts from Kate Chopin, Charlotte Gilman, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. All of the students were full-time, first-year undergraduates in the university and were of a similar age (18 to 20). Only one of the 104 students was non-Japanese and only 28 students were female; while gender imbalance remains a problem in many Japanese universities, it is particularly imbalanced in more high-status national universities with strong academic traditions in science and math subjects. The university in question falls into this category.

The relative homogeneity of these 104 students allowed me to consider them as a cohort. I taught this cohort in three groups on the same day of the week: First, Second, and Third Periods. I came out to First and Second Period students (Group A) but not to Third Period students (Group B). The fact that I was teaching the exact same content to three subdivisions of the same cohort presented itself to me as a valuable opportunity to investigate issues surrounding coming out in the classroom, a key theme within LGBT studies in education.

Research Questions

Two questions of interest within LGBT studies in education are the value or otherwise of coming out by LGBT instructors and how attitudes toward coming out relate to more general attitudes toward LGBT people: ‘If LGBT instructors come out to their students, does this have an effect on students’ willingness to engage with LGBT issues? Is there a gendered component to this perception?’ In addition, this study researched how students feel about individuals coming out within educational institutions and in workplaces. If young people have more accepting views than previous generations, it may be possible for LGBT youth and adults to come out in an ever-larger number of social locales whenever they choose to do so. A second question of interest is: ‘If an instructor comes out, does this have noticeable effects, whether positive or negative? The former would apply if coming out helped eliminate homophobic attitudes or prompt less heteronormative ways of thinking. Negative effects would apply in the opposite case, as would the prompting of overt expressions of homophobia in the classroom or elsewhere.

A final more general research question was: ‘Does coming out have any visible effects on classroom discipline or any other factors of concern to the instructor in question?’The latter question was necessarily broad because I had never come out overtly to a large group of students before and I had little idea what to expect.

Survey Procedures

Students were giving the option of responding in either Japanese or English to the questionnaire (see Appendix B (English language version) and Appendix C (Japanese language version). Survey handouts were placed at the head of the classroom during our penultimate session. I asked students to participate in the survey, pick up a questionnaire on the way out and return the forms to me the following week. I emphasized that participation was completely voluntary, anonymous, and without relation to final grades. The following week, students dropped completed forms into a cardboard box at the back of the classroom before or after class.

Survey Findings and Student Comments

If we consider the levels of willingness to engage with survey issues we see a clear contrast, with 64% of Group A returning questionnaires, and 45% of Group B. In addition, the average number of lines provided by Group A was 4.95, considerably larger than the 3.00 lines of Group B. A striking gender differential was also apparent as almost 63% of Group A males submitted responses, while that figure dropped to 27% for Group B.

Another noteworthy finding concerns levels of support for individuals who come out in educational institutions or in the workplace. Both groups showed similar patterns with comparable figures for negative or ambiguous responses, as well as for support for those who come out. Highest levels of support were indicated for LGBT youth, those who come out in junior high or senior high school.

A sample of student comments are provided here to give readers a sense of the particular framings of LGBT issues by the participants. While the notion of ‘rights’ did not appear in the transcripts, the term ‘prejudice’ did appear ten times, usually in response to the question ‘Will ‘coming out’ have a positive effect on Japanese Society?’:

No.5(I) comment: they need support; easy to experience prejudice. Still I think if we treat them as special that makes them alien (i-sshitsu) and others will think they are alien and lead to more prejudice.

No. 9 (I) comment: Soc. Is prejudiced for douseiai (same-sex love). To come out as ‘rezu’ (lesbian) means you maybe can’t stay in your job. So why not to cancel any kompa (dinner for dating) invitation with white lies or excuses. If you cannot bear that, change your job.

No. 14 (II) comment: sometimes I see people who hate LGBT. It is their prejudice. LGBT people are the same as us; there are only certain people we want to have sex with. It’s natural that we should all be friends with each other.

The word “courage” also appeared frequently (eight times) in each case to express admiration for the instructor’s courage in coming out publicly or to advise the young woman with a lesbian identity in the proposed scenario to come out with courage:

No. 4 (II) comment: I will advise her to come out with courage. Bet that they will understand if you come out courageously. If they still hate her, she should quit.

No. 1 (II) comment: I accept this without any surprise but as a teacher I could understand he had a lot of courage. I could understand more; it made me think about what being gay is.

No. 6 (I) comment: lately douseiai (same sex love) are making progress around the world but not in Japan because of conservative people. They suffer by mistrust. We can respect and have a positive attitude for people who come out with courage.

In contrast, the term “pride” which often plays a key role in Western discourses of LGBT rights only appeared in two contributions:

No. 9 (II) Comment: Better to come out in a serious moment not in a drinking space. Otherwise things are hard for her and may have to quit that workplace. Maybe workers will be distant at first but if she keeps a proud attitude they might understand her some day.

Interestingly, there were no expressions of condemnation for those who hold views often regarded as homophobic within discourses of “gay pride.” In three instances, the word attitude or level (“teido”) was used to say that if work colleagues reject the scenario figure who comes out in the workplace, then she should just accept that they are people of that level, or people with that attitude. This suggests a mild condemnation of others as lacking in maturity as members of society but could not be interpreted as a strong rejection of those who express homophobic attitudes.

Other comments indicated a need for greater efforts to promote understanding of the difficulties faced by LGBT people in Japanese society. For example, the No. 12 (II) participant commented on the scenario of a young lesbian having difficulties in the workplace and said: ‘It is strange if they ask her if she has a boyfriend.’ In fact, various sources (Lunsing, 2001; Ó’Móchain, 2010; Summerhawk, 1998) indicate that LGBT individuals in Japan often feel pressurised by questions asked by co-workers and comments that stigmatise non-married individuals. The comments from participants no. 17 (I) and no. 19 (I) indicate a need for education on LGBT issues and a raising of awareness of the presence of LGBT people in all walks of life in Japan: ‘I felt that douseiai is becoming acceptable for regular people. Personally I feel resistant to that yet. Just because no homosexual people around me and I don’t understand it’ and ‘Japan not ready. Many confuse gay, bisexual, and okama.’ The latter term ‘okama’ used by participant no. 19 is controversial and difficult to translate, though it is most usually translated as ‘faggot,’ and, as the student indicates, many people in Japan are unaware of more positive representations of non-traditional sexualities. However, no other comments by participant no. 19 indicate an awareness of the stigmatising work done by the very use of the term as an unmarked vocabulary item. Two comments by a male student (participant no. 4 II) could be seen as overtly homophobic in their consideration of the scenario regarding a young lesbian in the workplace and on the question of coming out in Japanese society: ‘I have negative feelings. If she came out I would distance myself from her’… I don’t want to be targeted as a sexual partner by a man. I have a negative idea about sexual minority. It’s free to come out but I don’t like if society accepts that.

However, no other overt expressions of homophobia were made by other participants and survey findings do not indicate large majorities expressing strong support in favor or against coming out by LGBT individuals. This indicates a need for more extensive and nuanced sociological research, as individuals might express positions more clearly under contrasting conditions. However, certain data results are worthy of some attention.

Corpus analysis shows, then, that some of the key concepts one would expect to encounter in a discussion of LGBT and coming out issues were not prominent here. This may reflect the fact that cultural norms regarding atypical sexualities in Japanese social and cultural contexts vary considerably from non-Japanese or other east Asian locales, indicating the need to avoid the mapping of incongruent, Western shaped expectations in the analysis of coming out issues in Japan.


This pilot study had a number of limitations. It is possible that Group A students interacted with Group B students at some point outside of the classroom and spoke about the instructor who had come out in class. However, fifteen years of experience as an instructor in Japan prompted me to think that this would not be a factor of overwhelming importance or magnitude. The clear contrast in engagement levels by Group A students compared to Group B students seems to support this view. The number of completed questionnaires (60) was rather low. It is difficult to make firm conjectures on the reasons why 44 students chose not to respond. At the very least, it seems to indicate a lack of support for or interest in LGBT inclusivity. In addition, the students were being surveyed by their instructor, the one who would give them a grade at the end of the semester. No matter how many clarifications the instructor makes, some students may provide answers that are unlike the ones they would provide under different circumstances. A study that asks, “What are the implications of coming out in the classroom?” requires that students experience an instructor coming out, but this also means they will conjecture that survey issues have strong personal significance for the instructor in question. Again, there is a danger that students—wanting not to offend—will modify their survey answers accordingly. Final limitations regard numbers of participants. Only about a quarter of the survey participants were female, a striking gender gap. Future studies should have gender equality to constitute a more genuine sample of the student population. In the present study’s sample, there was also an imbalance in numbers between the control group and other participants. A more effective method would survey even numbers as well as drawing on larger numbers of participants.

However, in spite of these limitations, it seemed worthwhile to conduct this pilot study as so little research has been done in this area heretofore. This type of study can still provide very tentative indicators of how most young people in Japan approach LGBT coming out issues. It may also promote interest in more in-depth research analysis. It is also worth noting that this survey takes place at a time when shifts in attitudes towards LGBT issues may be occurring in Japanese society on a substantial scale.

Turning to coming out as a feature of contemporary mass media presentations, it can first be noted that coming out was rarely seen as an attractive option by queer-identifying individuals in Japan, but there are some indicators that a change may be taking place. The number of male television celebrities (tarento) who speak openly, though usually humourously, about their same-sex desire, has increased in recent years (much to the chagrin of ex-governor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintaro). Transgender tarento such as Haruna Ai and Matsuko Deluxe have gained an almost ubiquitous status within popular television productions in spite of their frank, if usually humour-laden, accounts of queer sexualities. The marriage of a lesbian couple—both Japanese nationals—at Tokyo Disneyland garnered considerable media attention (Bogos, 2014), as well as inspiring a new manga entitled “Lesbian-teki Kekkon Seikatsu” (Lesbian Married Life).A final indicator of possible change concerns radio shows in Japan. In recent years, call-in advice shows have sometimes addressed LGBT issues, including one ( heard by the author in June, 2013. On this show, young people, usually in their early teens, ring up the presenter and discuss some personal issues that are causing concern: bullying at school, poor relationships with parents or family members, stressful workloads, and so on. During the broadcast, a young junior high school female student came out during her call-in for advice. The young presenters in the studio seemed quite surprised by the admission and unsure of how to respond. One male presenter expressed support, stating that he was surprised that such a person would sound perfectly normal! As well as indicating that a great deal of education needs to take place for understanding of diverse sexual identities, the fact that the young woman could come out during the broadcast indicates that young queer people in Japan may be more inclined to come out than their older peers.

Positive interpretations of data might highlight the following figures: only 7% of respondents indicated a negative response to their teacher coming out. Similarly, the numbers indicating a belief that coming out by students or work colleagues is a negative thing were uniformly low (Appendix A). Support for classmates who come out in junior high and senior high school were surprisingly high, as support was lower for university students and workplace colleagues who come out. This contrasts with many other locales where the most relevant message for LGBT youth is ‘It gets better.’ The latter case refers to an overall social climate where high levels of overt homophobia generally taper off as the LGBT individual reaches adulthood. This paradigm may not apply in social and cultural contexts in Japan. This is an aspect which deserves greater attention in the future.

While assertions of negative attitudes towards LGBT individuals were low in this survey, clear expressions of approval for those who come out in educational or work institutions were also relatively low. For example, regarding question number three, the vignette of a young lesbian who wants to come out in the workplace, large majorities (Group A, 83%, Group B 80%) either said that the young woman should not come out or that she should only come out if certain conditions were met (she only comes out to one or two trusted friends at work, she makes certain that nobody will react negatively to her coming out, she comes out to men only, and so on).

This study was also motivated by a curiosity about the effects of coming out by an instructor. As mentioned earlier, this was my first experience of making sexual identity an explicit part of my self-introduction to students and the prospect made me somewhat anxious. Would it mean an instant loss of respect and disruptive behaviour by students during class time? Would I experience catcalling as I walked along corridors in the building? Would I suddenly find that no-one wanted to sit beside me in the staff-room? In retrospect, all of these concerns seem faintly ridiculous because there was no noticeable change in anything for me as an instructor in that institution. It is possible that a lot of teachers and students were talking about the Teacher of English who came out to his students but there was certainly no overt expression of either disapproval or support by anyone other than those who gave questionnaire responses at the end of term. It should be remembered also, that this was a new experience for me and fear of the unknown can often incite us to imagine the worst.

Concluding remarks

In conclusion, this survey indicates that a ‘politics of identity’ approach may have a positive role to play, in some respects at least, in educational institutions in Japan. There may be a considerable level of support from young people in Japan for peers who come out during high school years. Attitudes towards instructors who come out to their students seem to vary considerably but it seems likely that the very act of coming out by an instructor prompts many students to engage with LGBT issues in a way they had never done previously.

Many of the questions raised in this paper still merit further attention, especially in broad-based empirical studies: How many students or teachers come out in Japanese educational institutions every year and what are the implications of their actions? How do individuals integrate coming out into the narrative of self as Japanese and how does it affect experiences of subject positioning? Is there a strong correlation between positive attitudes towards homosexuality and positive attitudes towards individuals who come out? The present study may help to arouse interest in exploration of these issues.


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Appendix A


Age ____

Gender ____

(Answers for this survey can be made in Japanese, English, or both languages)


Watanabe Momoko San is a young Japanese woman who works in a large pharmaceutical company in Tokyo. She likes her work, but experiences difficulties because she has a lesbian identity. Work colleagues constantly pressure her to speak about her “boyfriends” and to participate in “Kompa.” She lacks confidence in her workplace because she can never feel at ease there. She is thinking about “coming out” to some of her work colleagues, but feels unsure. What advice would you give Watanabe San?

(Lines for providing written feedback)

“Young Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) people who come out in Junior High school should be supported by other students and teachers.”

Strongly Disagree Strongly Agree


Number ______

(Please choose the appropriate number for you)

“Young Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) people who come out in Senior High school should be supported by other students and teachers.”

Strongly Disagree Strongly Agree


Number ______

(Please choose the appropriate number for you)

“Young Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) people who come out in University should be supported by other students and teachers.”

Strongly Disagree Strongly Agree


Number ______

(Please choose the appropriate number for you)

“LGBT people who come out in their workplace should be supported by other employees and management”

Strongly Disagree Strongly Agree


Number ______

(Please choose the appropriate number for you)

“If LGBT people are able to come out freely it will have positive effects in Japanese society”

Strongly Disagree Strongly Agree


Number ______

(Please choose the appropriate number for you)

Do you have any other comments you would like to make?

(Lines for providing written feedback)

Appendix B


CO アンケート調査 3

年齢 ____

性別 ____




「中学校でカミングアウトするレズビアン、ゲイ、バイセクシャル、トランスジェンダー (LGBT) の若者たちは、他の生徒や教師たちからサポートされるべきである」

強く反対する    強く同意する


1から5までの数字を記入してください。 ______

「高校でカミングアウトするレズビアン、ゲイ、バイセクシャル、トランスジェンダー (LGBT) の若者たちは、他の生徒や教師たちからサポートされるべきである」

強く反対する    強く同意する


1から5までの数字を記入してください。 ______

「大学でカミングアウトするレズビアン、ゲイ、バイセクシャル、トランスジェンダー (LGBT) の若者たちは、他の学生や教師たちからサポートされるべきである」

強く反対する    強く同意する


1から5までの数字を記入してください。 ______

「職場でカミングアウトするレズビアン、ゲイ、バイセクシャル、トランスジェンダー (LGBT) の人たちは、他の従業員や経営陣からサポートされるべきである」

強く反対する    強く同意する


1から5までの数字を記入してください。 ______

「LGBT の人たちが自由にカミングアウトできれば、日本の社会に対しポジティブな影響を与えるだろう」

強く反対する    強く同意する


1から5までの数字を記入してください。 ______



About the Author

Robert Ó’Móchain has lived in Japan for the past 15 years. He works in the College of International Relations in Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto. He is co-editor of the GALE (Gender Awareness in Language Education) Journal.

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