Rural Queer Associations

Metropolitan Homonormativity & Gay Communities in Rural Japan

Alex Benkhart [About | Email]

This article was written under a Fulbright Fellowship and in affiliation with Oita University, Japan.

Volume 14, Issue 1 (Article 1 in 2014). First published in ejcjs on 31 March 2014.


The advent of online social-networking has in many ways defined how communities of interest, in particular those of marginalised groups, form and interact. By most accounts, such networking is an important tool for Japanese queer communities as well, especially those located outside the queer cultural capital of Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ni-chōme. As John D’Emilio has argued, however, urbanity is the birthing ground of privileged homosexual identity, and the association between the two has created, following Lisa Duggan’s definition of homonormativity, hierarchies of worthiness and authenticity. By removing certain barriers of entry into the gay imaginary, Internet forums have created a contact zone between the sub-cultures of rural and metropolitan gay, a space where gay-cultural symbols, particularly those regarding the long-standing association between homosexuality and the metropolitan, are simultaneously created, opposed, and redefined. Through examination of these arenas of self-determination we can see the discursive forces that contribute to the idea of a monolithic queer identity in Japan, as well as the artifice and undermining of such forces.

Keywords: Japan, Kyushu, queer, homonormativity, rural, metropolitan, Internet.


Boasting the highest population, highest gross income, and the greatest number of media outlets of anywhere in Japan, the city of Tokyo stands securely established as the country’s cultural, economic, and urban centre; a standing which extends into the Japanese queer community. It is well known and often lamented that Tokyo, especially Shinjuku Ni-chōme, is home to the majority of Japan’s queer1 activist groups, NGOs, bars, and clubs (Suganuma 2011). Consequently, the advice most often given to queer subjects living in rural Japan—specifically, in this case, those in the Kyushu region—is ‘get thee to a big city;’ a common trope in American queer narratives as well. The role of urbanisation in giving birth to a queer subculture has been well established by scholars such as John D’Emilio (1993) and Kath Weston (1995), who argue that the urban-rural binary plays an important role in constituting gay identity. Although both D’Emilio and Weston are speaking explicitly in regards to North America, aspects of their logic can be readily observed in the Japanese context. The association between urbanity and queer-sexualities is powerful, long standing, and constitutive of certain hierarchies of worthiness within the Japanese gay community. Rather than accepting this pairing, as well as consequent narratives of struggle and migration, at face value, we must question how both urbanity and the urban-rural dichotomy, which is both real and imagined, defines queer subjects in Japan. The aim of this article is neither to emphasise nor downplay the potential difficulties faced by queer subjects living in rural areas, but rather to demonstrate that in the contact zones of queer cyber-space the terms of the urban-rural binary are actively redefined and that, although they complicate notions of hierarchy, such acts of redefinition are bounded within the binary that they modify, thus highlighting the utility of dualism in constructing communal and erotic identity.

The Kyushu region is constituted of eight prefectures—seven on Kyushu Island, the southernmost of the main Japanese archipelago, and Okinawa. Despite the comparably small number and density of bars, clubs, and community centres, the region is by no means barren in terms of queer culture. By all accounts, the Internet factors heavily into rural queer encounters. According to representatives of MSM (men who have sex with men) community centres in the Kyushu region (personal communication 17 April 2012), the Internet plays a crucial role in rural queer encounters and communication. This is especially true for younger people who are limited by the age restrictions at bars and hattenba, or ‘cruise spots.’ Furthermore, it was insisted that Internet forums and mobile-deai within the MSM community are extremely active. Deai is a Japanese word that literally means ‘encounter’ but which has now come to refer to interest-based Internet forums and message boards. For this reason I have decided to include K-toom, a website designed for gay men in Kyushu, as a primary source. The site offers a number of services aimed at men living on the island of Kyushu including a directory of bars and hattenba, bulletin boards for personal ads, a space to share personal stories, and several discussion forums. Compared to other websites devoted to gay men in Kyushu, such as M-Get You, or the abundance of similar sites at the national level, such as G-Click,, and particular areas of Ni-channeru, K-toom is one of the few with a consultation forum—a very active one at that. As of late-2013, new contributions were being added at a steady rate of two to three per day and, depending on the thread itself, responses could come as rapidly as five in one hour, each from an individual user. Furthermore, the site’s user-base is not entirely limited to men in Kyushu. On several occasions men from other areas looking to engage with the Kyushu community utilised the forum. Despite the recent boom in use of date-finding smartphone applications such as Jack’d and Grindr, I have decided not to include them here because their main function is connecting users who are in immediate spatial proximity to each other, with a strict emphasis on intra-local and inter-personal communication. While I certainly do not mean to ignore the influence such applications have had on gay encounters within rural and metropolitan settings respectively, for the purposes of this article I have decided to focus on a website which facilitates contact between the two environments because it is in these moments of explicit inter-regional contact that the discursive potential of such digital spaces is realised.

Extant scholarship on queer Japan has by and large had a myopic focus on Tokyo queer culture, often accepting it as representative of the whole. Despite being home to the most gay bars and LGBTQ action groups in Japan, Tokyo is by no means the only host of such activities. Especially since 2000, pride events, film festivals, and community centres have been springing up all over the country. In addition to the Tokyo Pride Parade, which itself has a checkered past including schisms and cancellations, the cities of Osaka and Sapporo have also held marches, not to mention the film festivals that take place in Osaka, Nagoya, and even Aomori. One of the few systematic, top-down actions has come from the Japanese Ministry of Health itself, which, starting with Tokyo’s akta Community Centre in 2003, initiated the formation of a nationwide network of community spaces dedicated to providing safe space and education about HIV/AIDS to sexual minorities, primarily the MSM community. As of 2013, six centres exist under this program, akta in Tokyo, dista in Osaka, rise in Nagoya, HACO in Fukuoka, nankr in Okinawa, and ZEL in Sendai. HACO and nankr, whose representatives are mentioned in this article a number of times, opened in 2007 and 2009, respectively. Although neither city has hosted a pride parade, Okinawa held its first major pride event, Pink Dot OK, in July 2013. I mention these groups and actions in order to illustrate the variety of queer communities outside of Tokyo; however, I do not intend to engage in a line-by-line comparison of urban and rural queer cultures. Instead, I wish to complicate their diametrical relationship by examining its origins, oppositional character, and persistence within the gay imaginary.


There are several existing theories that inform this study’s approach, the most fundamental of which is the notion of ‘communities of imagination’ as put forth by Benedict Anderson (1991, p.6): a community that is founded upon a shared interest or goal and which, by nature of being diasporic, relies on members’ mental image of their affinity to replace the community building of regular, face-to-face interaction. The idea of a queer community is not necessarily founded on spatial proximity or daily interaction—it is a given that no one person will meet, interact with, or even be aware of all other queer subjects—but rather on the notion that others with the same or similar erotic desires do exist and that this commonality is unifying. Perhaps because diaspora is fundamental to the definition of communities of imagination, conceptualising the spatial location of ‘like-others’ becomes a priority; affiliates must exist somewhere, after all. Within the gay imaginary, ‘like others’ are presumed to migrate from rural areas to congregate in the city, a presumption which Weston discovered in the process of recording migration narratives within San Francisco’s queer community. She further argues that this is indicative of the fact that “urban-rural contrasts have structured the very subjectivity that allows people to think of themselves or others as gay” (1995, p.252). In other words, metropolitan settings enable the formation of a queer community in opposition torural environments that are imagined as isolated and unlivable due to family interference and community surveillance. This is an idea that immediately creates necessities for gay identity—beyond an erotic desire—that define urbanity as the only possible environment for it to exist. By focusing on the tendency to locate like others in urban areas, Weston intimates the existence of a metropolitan homonormative in which, following the definition put forth by Lisa Duggan (2003), hierarchies of attractiveness, sophistication, and authenticity are created.

In regards to homonormativity and communities of imagination, D’Emilio’s theory on the relationship between gay identity and the rise of capitalism is doubly significant. It does, however, require contextualisation within the Japanese evolution of homosexuality as an idea to be made applicable. D’Emilio argues that escape from family surveillance and dependence—as brought about by industrialisation—was the pre-requisite for gay identity to exist. Furukawa Makoto (1994) too contends that despite Japanese conceptualisations of homosexuality originating in nanshoku, the practice of institutionalised pederasty amongst samurai and Buddhist monks, by the 1920s homosexuality had been sufficiently pathologised, resulting in an understanding of homosexuality as an identity as well as an implication of the family in monitoring sexual desire. While the histories outlined by D’Emilio and Furukawa are markedly different, they both stress the contemporary relationship between family surveillance and gay identity. These arguments not only elucidate the foundation of the urban–over–rural hierarchy within the gay imaginary, but also challenge the notion of gayness as a pre-social condition by calling attention to the artifice, or rather the moment of synthesis, of the identity itself. If we assume D’Emilio to be correct in his assertion that the association between urbanity and sexual license is, at its foundation, a means of articulating separation from family surveillance and dependence, then we can begin to explore alternative arenas of privacy, those which explicitly exist beyond the city, as enabling queer identities.

For communities of imagination, many new arenas of privacy exist in the supportive media for communication and distribution of community standards. Anderson (1991) credits the advent of mass print-media with first enabling the construction of imagined communities by acting as a vehicle for common discourse, a position shared by Weston in regards to the gay imaginary. However, according to Gottlieb and McLelland (2003), between March 2000 and April 2002 the number of wireless Internet users in Japan jumped from 9.35 million to almost 70 million. This boom in Internet use had a halting effect on smaller subculture magazine and newsletter production, which was an expensive and time consuming endeavour. Instead, as Caspary and Manzemreiter (2003) observed, many subculture-oriented zines went digital in order to reduce costs and increase exposure. According to representatives of HACO and nankr, Internet forums have largely replaced the older print forms of communication for the gay community, a fact that supports Arjun Appadurai’s assertion (1996 cited by Gottlieb and McLelland 2003) that the Internet, as a digital mediascape, has allowed for the construction of a previously unimaginable number and variety of communities of imagination. Whereas print media is a largely unidirectional vehicle for the dissemination of a common discourse, digital mediascapes inherently conflate producer and consumer, enabling multidirectional contact across local, national, and international boundaries and thus occasionally acting as ‘contact zones,’ as defined by Mary Louis Pratt (1991), where separate cultures, in this case the sub-cultures of metropolitan and rural gay, interact. More than simply allowing access to a common discourse, Internet forums often become discursive spaces in which the previously mentioned hierarchies of attractiveness, worthiness, and authenticity are not only constructed and enforced, but also resisted.

Pratt insists that the interactions that take place in ‘contact zones’ occur between two parties with seemingly unequal power dynamics, but that over the course of their communication there occurs a “modification, refinement, and rearticulation of the initial imperatives” (Suganuma 2012, p. 9). This discourse of ‘contact’ has been previously applied to Orientalist East/West binaries in general and specifically to notions of gay liberation as they relate to the Japan-America relationship (McLelland 2005). Katsuhiko Suganuma, in his recent work Contact Moments (2012), suggests that websites such as Gay Japan News which place Japanese queer communities in a global context inherently place Japanese queer communities in opposition to an ideal West. Suganuma argues, however, that rather than strictly perpetuating orientalist binaries of an advanced West and an under-developed Japan, this comparison enables self-assessment and reflection upon those very boundaries and distinctions. This argument can just as easily be made in regards to the urban-rural opposition within Japan’s queer community. In the same way that coming out and gay-rights movements are presumed to be the markers of a fully realised and authentic gay community, access to gay bars, cruise spots, and anonymity, the traditional offerings of major cities, are imagined as necessities for a satisfying gay life in Japan. Both explicit and implicit encounters with metropolitan homonormativity witnessed on K-toom reveal that the urban-rural binary is utilised by both parties, which complicates the notion of an urban hegemony. In the following sections, such encounters, as well as their discursive underpinnings, will be examined in order to elucidate the ways in which the urban-rural binary is employed to define queer subjects in Japan.

Rural Versus Metropolitan

Before tackling the issue of metropolitan homonormativity, it is important first to examine the foundation of the urban-rural binary itself and specifically how it applies to Japan’s Kyushu region. Historically, the region has been geographically separated from the country’s various capital cities—Nara, Osaka, Tokyo, etc—on the main island of Honshu. During the Meiji Period, with Tokyo in the throws of a rapid modernisation, continuation of any feudal customs was considered backwards and unrefined, and the Kyushu region was notorious for its apparent resistance to modernise. Furukawa (1994) points to anecdotal accounts, mostly from Tokyo-based authors, of men from the Satsuma region of Kagoshima openly practicing nanshoku—distinct from homosexual intercourse—well into the 1930s. Contemporary terms such as Kyushu-danji—literally ‘Kyushu man,’ referring to an especially masculine and old-fashioned man—stand as evidence of this attitude. Though the relationship between Kyushu and feudalism has long since dissolved, the region’s characterisation as rural has not. Anecdotal accounts (personal communication 17 April 2012) reveal that the local dialects of Kyushu are considered inaka-kusai; redneck, country-bumpkin, or hick.Considering the demography or social organisation of most cities in the region reveals that it is not especially provincial or agrarian in any strict sense. According to the Japanese Ministry of Statistics’ 2010 census, the largest city on the island of Kyushu, Fukuoka, has nearly 1.5 million residents and a population density greater than that of Kyoto. If the reasons for the area’s ongoing characterisation as rural are not strictly tied to population or social organisation,then perhaps the answers lie in the functionality of binaries in constructing group identity and facilitating erotic encounters. For example, compared to the more agrarian parts of Kyushu, which certainly do exist, Fukuoka is ‘the big city,’ a space where one can find new and previously inaccessible experiences. Such is the theme of one autobiographical tale posted on K-toom by a user named Kōtarō (2011), ‘The Fireworks that Summer,’ (Ano natsu no hanabi).

Inaka no kōkōsei nante, tokai no kōkōsei ni kurabetara hontō ni junjō de nani mo shiranainda nā to ore wa aratamete bikkuri shita.
Saga no inaka kara deta koto no nai kono shōnentachi wa mune wo odoraseteita
isa hakata he to shuppatsu

As rural high-school students we were truly naïve; Compared to kids from the big cities, we really didn’t know a thing, so I was surprised over and over again… The three of us boys, who had never left the countryside of Saga, had been excited about this trip… We were now departing for Hakata (Fukuoka)

Kōtarō’s enthusiasm for travel to the big city stems from his being raised in and largely isolated to “the countryside of Saga,” but in comparison to whom is he “truly naïve”? From the context of his story it is likely that he is referring to residents of Fukuoka. However, since he uses the term tokai, a general word for urban area or city, one could argue that his self-proclaimed naïveté exists in comparison to the general idea of urbane youth, and that for Kōtarō the most accessible simulacrum of the urban ideal is Fukuoka. During my interview with Makizono, the PR representative of HACO, tokai was not amongst the words used to describe Fukuoka (personal communication, 17 April 2012). To the contrary, Makizono characterised the area as inaka, rural, and chihō, local or provincial, an apparently popular assessment amongst gay residents in the area. This discrepancy between Kōtarō’s and Makizono’s perception of the relative urban or rural character of Fukuoka is indicative of the urban-rural contrast’s flexibility and, consequently, its artifice. From here, we are able to challenge the products of this artifice, specifically, the metropolitan homonormative and the hierarchies of worthiness embedded therein.

Within the forums of K-toom there is no shortage of posts that explicitly engage with the idea of a metropolitan gay-ideal. There even exist a few instances of contact between self-proclaimed ‘city-gays’ and the regular, rural user-base. The following excerpt from a discussion entitled “Regarding People in Kyushu,” (Kyushu no hito wa) is just such an example. This short exchange between two users, Masa (2011) and Masoko (2011a) is loaded with meaningful presumptions about images and identities associated with rural and city living, particularly the consolidation of queer subjectivities to Tokyo. While their discussion is couched in a rhetoric of worthiness, it is nonetheless in keeping with the definition of a “contact moment.” Of especial interest in the following exchange is the constant reification of the urban-rural binary despite the reinterpreting of its significance.

Masa —11/6/9(Thur) 0:50 –
Kyushu no hito tte sugoku kawattemasu yo ne? Ossan toka debu toka futotteru hito ga moteru shi
Tokyo dewa kangaerarenai. Yopparatta

People in Kyushu are really unusual, no?
Old men, chubby guys, and fatties are sexy here?
I could never imagine this in Tokyo.
I’m drunk.

Masoko —11/6/9(Thur) 1:26 –
Anata hontō ni Tokyo no gei?
Shinbashi Asakusa Shinjuku Ueno…Tokyo wo wakettenai [sic] hito mitai dawa
Motenai no wa anata no shishitsu deatte, chiikisei towa chigau wayo

To Masa,
Are you really a Tokyo-gay?
Shinbashi, Asakusa, Shinjuku, Ueno… because you seem like a person who really doesn’t know Tokyo at all.
But where you come from doesn’t matter,
You’ve just got a bad personality.

Firstly, Masa implies that because he is a self-proclaimed Tokyo-ite, he is an authority on what is and is not attractive. He presumes that ‘metropolitan-gay’ is the standard against which ‘rural-gay’ is compared. As expected, this is an unpopular position on K-toom. Masoko initially responds with doubts as to Masa’s authenticity as a Tokyo-ite, which, by implying that a true ‘Tokyo-gay’ would posses some level of sophistication and would thus perhaps be an authority of attractiveness, supports the urban-over-rural hierarchy. In the final two lines of his post, however, Masoko adopts a different stance on the issue when he attacks Masa’s attractiveness on the grounds of simply having a bad personality, and denying the significance of spatial location as a determinant. Masoko (2011b) continues his assault in one final post by explicitly inverting the urban-rural hierarchy, albeit maintaining the terms of the binary itself.

Masoko —11/6/10(Fri) 9:17
Tōrisugari to iunano topinushi
Anata sugoi wa
Korezo [daitokai ni sunderu] dake de yūetsukan wo kanjiteshimau hito no asamashisa manten ne.
Demo,..aori wa inakakusai none anata.
Yōji sumasetara totto su ni okaeri

To the interloper who started this thread:
you’re awful.
Just because you live in a big city you have a superiority complex about it.
You are perfectly wretched.
You’re the real hick.
When you finish playing city-boy, crawl on back to the hole you came from.

Masoko outright denies that sophistication comes with city-living, but does so by reiterating the unsophisticated image of rural subjects. He even goes so far as to accuse this self-proclaimed Tokyo-ite of behaving more like a country bumpkin (inaka-kusai) than anyone who may, geographically speaking, be more worthy of the title. In so doing, it is possible that Masoko is suggesting that it takes true sophistication to appreciate Kyushu men, further challenging urban hegemony. Within this same discussion thread, there were other instances in which the imagined role of ‘Tokyo-gays’ as the vanguard of attractiveness was reified, albeit in a way that problematises any straightforward understanding of an urban-over-rural relationship.

At one point in the discussion, another user with the descriptive screen name“Chubby, middle-aged guy”(Debu no ossan) enters in to the conversation. He starts by defending the attractiveness of men in Kyushu on no other grounds than they just are. Four hours later, the same user adds that during his visits to Tokyo he was “very popular” (mote mote) (2011). If his username is any indication of his actual body-type, then it follows that his intention in making this statement is to disprove Masa’s claim that older and chubby men would never be popular in Tokyo. However, the unintended consequence of “Chubby, middle-aged guy’s” comment is that he further legitimises Tokyo-gayness as the standard by which the worthiness of all other gay subjects is determined. The fact that the desirability of Kyushu men is judged in comparison to—or in the context of—Tokyo gay culture reveals the dominant position of metropolitan modes of queer being. However, perhaps as a result of the lingering image of the rural Kyushu man and imo-boys, the standing and sexual desirability of Kyushu men in Tokyo is anecdotally reported to be rather high. Again, the PR representative of Fukuoka’s HACO (personal communication, 17 April 2012) centre recounted tales of being treated as somewhat of an exotic commodity in Tokyo, especially when speaking in his local, which is to say Hakata, dialect. The claims made by Chubby, middle-aged guy and Makizono raise doubts as to the simplicity of the urban-rural power dynamic by bringing to light scenarios in which adopting the subordinate position in the hierarchy may be beneficial. In Private Gay Life (1991), Fushimi Noriaki contends that all erotic desire relies on constructed binary ‘images’ of male and female. While he does argue the necessity to de-essentialise these ‘images’ and thus upset the current hegemony, he also admits that such a binary mechanism may be fundamental to human desire, which is reflected in the above exchange. In embracing the status of exotic, rural-other, Kyushu men are more sought after within the context of Tokyo gay culture. The power of Tokyo gay men to judge the desirability of men in Kyushu exists only so far as it is deemed useful and allowed by rural subjects. Masoko rejects this power completely while users like Chubby, middle-aged guy allow it for the benefits it offers them. In both cases, the agency of rural queer subjects is exerted—via a digital contact zone—in such a way as to dis-form any simple notion of an urban-over-rural hierarchy.

Family, Surveillance, & Anonymity

D’Emilio’s proposition that the long-standing association between urbanity and sexual license has roots in issues of surveillance and anonymity is a durable basis for the complication of the urban-over-rural hierarchy. Within the gay imaginary, the spatiality of the city-country division is often employed as a means of articulating the move away from isolation and surveillance towards like-others and anonymity. As D’Emilio posits (1993, p. 470), the effects of capitalism on the family unit subsequently lead to the possibility of a homosexual identity, or rather the possibility of structuring an identity around one’s erotic desires.

Only when individuals began to make their living through wage labor, instead of as parts of an interdependent family unit, was it possible for homosexual desire to coalesce into a personal identity—an identity based on the ability to remain outside the heterosexual family. (emphasis in original)

Even as capitalism and wage labor birthed urban centres that enabled a homosexual community of imagination/interest, there occurred a simultaneous elevation of the family unit from source of livelihood to foundation of emotional security and healthy human relationship which placed new constraints upon queer subjectivities, especially in regards to marriage.

Although the material necessity for marriage has largely been removed—procreation, family-industry, and so on—the reproductive force of the nuclear family has been heightened in a phenomenological sense. As the assumed foundation of social order, the nuclear family imposes a “straightening effect” on queer bodies in the sense that they are not allowed to extend into the social space of heterosexual couples (Ahmed 2006). Marriage, understood as the act of reproducing a family, is a compulsory inheritance in that it is the only way to repay the debt of one’s being birthed and raised in an environment that provides the foundation of human relationship—or such is the implication. The phenomenological affects of family and marriage as straightening spaces—environments that do not allow the existence or extension of queer subjects—often play out in very explicit nagging or pressure from family members. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that, in Japan, it is common for children to live with their parents well into their twenties or thirties in both urban and rural areas. However, as will be shown in the following posts, discourses of family surveillance are more prominently associated with rural queer life, resulting in the notion that living with one’s parents is more common in rural areas. Whether or not this idea is grounded in empirical truth, it appears as a frequent topic of discussion throughout the forums of K-toom. There are entire threads devoted to the difficulties of turning down marriage proposals and the various deflections men employ so as not to reveal why. One such post entitled ‘Concerning Marriage’ (kekkon ni tsuite), in which an unnamed user (2010) explains how he ended his engagement and the subsequent fall-out from breaking it off without revealing his primary reason for doing so.

Ore mo kotowarenai to omotta endan ga arimashita. Kekkon dekinai saidai no riyū wa jibun ga gei da kara desu ga, ryōshin no funaka, yome shūto mondai, zenbu minagara sodatta kara, kekkon ni yumei mo kibō mo mottenai nomo jujitsu. Jibun ga gei de aru koto igai no jijitsu wo, zenbu aite ni hanashimashita. Soshite josei no hō kara kotowatte morau yō ni tanomimashita. [anna yatsu wa saitei da!] to, shōkai shite kureta hito ni, hidoi kotoba de hinanshinagara kotowaru yō ni tanomimashita.

I was also in an arrangement that I didn’t think I could get out of. The main reason I didn’t pursue, however, was that I’m gay, but since I grew up seeing fights between my parents, discord with the in-laws, and everything like that, I never had any wish to get married anyway. Other than the fact that I’m gay, I told the whole truth to the woman and asked to cut things off. I asked her to tell the person who introduced us that she wanted to end the engagement and to add a few nasty remarks like, “He is an awful person!”

Again, despite often being imagined as a primarily rural predicament, countless stories have been published in which gay and lesbian city-dwellers recount similar tales of struggle with family surveillance and pressure (Summerhawk et al. 1998). Perhaps most notable amongst these is lifetime resident of Tokyo and LGBT activist Ito Satoru, who devotes a significant portion of his autobiography, Coming Out in Japan (1995), to the problems he faced while living at home.

Under these circumstances there is a necessity for anonymous spaces in which to gather and meet, spaces that are outside of family surveillance. Playing off of the spatial implications of the terms ‘straight’ and ‘queer,’ Sara Ahmed writes that to be queer “requires a reorientation of one’s body such that other objects, those that are not reachable on the vertical and horizontal lines of straight culture, can be reached” (2006, p. 100). The process of this reorientation often leads people to seek out spaces that are beyond family surveillance and, as a result, presumably more queer than the ones they usually inhabit; spaces that are “a part of and empowering a local (and not so local) queer community, but still hidden from and extant within a heterocentric world” (Fraser 2010, p. 30). These counter-public—as opposed to mainstream-public—spaces are important because they allow for an amount of experimentation with various queer performances. However, because they also act as entranceways to the gay imaginary there is a potential to constrain queer subjectivities. In other words, it is an attempt spatially to locate like-others and, as described by Weston (1995), the rural-urban divide is the vehicle through which this reorientation is often imagined to take place.

The most well known of the physical queer counter-publics is no doubt Ni-chōme, a neighbourhood in Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward renowned for housing hundreds of bars and clubs aimed at those with non-normative gender and sexual practices. As Suganuma writes in regards to Ni-chōme, “these establishments in urban space have, in fact, been an important site for the development of queer cultures and intimacies” because they are counter-publics, “alternative space, which allows for discussion and debate which are not easily carried out in the mainstream public sphere” (2011, p. 347). While Suganuma’s definition of the nature and function of queer counter-publics is solid, his exclusive focus on “establishments in urban spaces,” particularly Ni-chōme, ignores the variety of queer subjectivities that exist beyond metropolitan space, evidence of the above-mentioned tendency within Japanese queer scholarship to take spaces such as Ni-chōme—spaces which, despite captivating the popular imagination, are rare and largely absent from the daily lives of many queer subjects—as representative of the entirety of queer culture in Japan. Subsequently, this enforces the primacy of metropolitan modes of queer being; access to gay neighbourhoods, community centres, and separation from family interference all become more easily achieved in the vastness of the big city. Within the gay imaginary, rural spaces are defined by the very absence of those establishments that fill the streets of Ni-chōme, which in turn classifies them as oppressive, unwelcoming, and stifling. ‘Country Living’ (inaka-gurashi) is one of the many discussion threads in which K-toom users remark upon this absence and, in cases such as the user quoted below, Nori (2012), their adjustment to it.

Jibun mo inakagurashi shitemasu yo, mō jūgonen kurai ni narimasu. Jikka ja iroiro mendō da kara chikaku ni apāto kariteimasu, tōji wa jika gurashi datta kedo, yoasobi toka ōkunatte, takushī mo sukoshi temae de oritari, narubeku kinjo no hitotachi ni wa awanai yō ni shiteimashita ga, syosen hito wa hitori ja ikite ikemasen, shizen to otagai aisatsu suru yō ni natte, ima de wa futsū no otsukiaishitemasu.

I also live in the countryside, it’s been almost 15 years now.
There were many difficulties at my parents’ home, so now I live in a nearby apartment. At the time that I was living at home, it was not easy to go out and enjoy the nightlife.
Most of the time, when I came back home from a night out I would get out of the taxi a few blocks from my house so that the neighbours wouldn’t see me,
but, after all, people cannot live alone.
Now it’s become natural for us in the neighbourhood to greet each other, and we interact normally.

Though he does not say so explicitly, we can reasonably assume that the correlation between Nori’s adjustment to rural life and his use of the Internet as a counter-public space is significant. While he has found some space for self-expression and, potentially, community involvement online, Nori’s utilisation of K-toom and his adjustment to rural life are not, necessarily, casually linked. However, the fact that he is able to comment freely upon the lack of physical queer spaces in his locale is evidence that he inhabits a digital one—by definition, such conversations can only take place in counter-public space. Previous studies of Internet and cellphone deai services have indicated as much in finding that the popularity of such social networks is primarily a result of the virtual isolation from existing social circles in which they allow users to operate (Joseph et al. 2003). Later on in his post, Nori does mention travel as a cure to the rural-blues, but he does not specify where, simply using the Japanese term tōde, meaning ‘go far away.’ For Nori, being able to ‘interact normally’ with his neighbours did not require a migration to urban freedom.

Others users find it more difficult to adjust. Take for example Shin, a ‘late bloomer’ who appears to be devastated by the recent discovery of his homosexual desire. In his post, heartbreakingly entitled ‘I Want To End It!’ (Owari ni shitai!) Shin (2010) explains that he is considering suicide as a means of escape if he cannot find somewhere else to live, somewhere else to find hope. His primary concern is living in a small town where maintaining secrecy regarding his sexual orientation would presumably be impossible. Of course, the K-toom community was very supportive of Shin, reassuring him that things do get better and offering all manner of advice on how to discreetly pursue his newfound desire. Unsurprisingly, the Internet and travel factor heavily into nearly all of the advice given. Below are two such posts by users named Kōji (2010) and A (2010), respectively.

Ore mo kuso inaka zumai ya kedo, toshinbu ni detekureba nanmo ki ni naranyo.

I also live in a shitty small town, but when I go to the big cities I don’t have a care in the world.

Chihō toshi nodo inaka ni sundemasu ga, futsū ni ikitemasu. Igai to sōiu hito ga ooi mitai desu…
Fudan wa ima madedōri ni seikatsushite,
Yasumi no hi toka ni achirakochira dekaketemitewa ikaga deshō ka? Keitai ya netto ga areba, iroiro jyōhō mo atsumeraremasu kara.

Living in some small town or the countryside is just normal living.
It seems like surprising people are everywhere…
Just continue living the way you have until now, and then go out /on trips/ exploring on your free days.

If you’ve got a cell phone and the Internet, you’ll be able to meet people and find information.

Kōji’s advice, while somewhat supportive of the traditionally imagined urban-over-rural hierarchy, also calls attention to a point briefly mentioned earlier, the commodification-via-homogenisation of metropolitan gay identity on behalf of rural subjects. In other words, Kōji does explicitly state that city environments are more comfortable than his ‘shitty small town’ in that they allow him freedom from worry and perhaps more freedom in general. Presumably this has as much to do with access to queer space such as those provided in Ni-chōme as it does respite from family and neighbourhood surveillance. However, much like Kōtarō, who compares himself to the abstract ideal of ‘city boys,’ or Masoko and Chubby, Middle-aged guy, who tacitly assume that Tokyo-gay equals sophistication, Kōji’s advice works to homogenise and un-complicate metropolitan queer subjectivities. The queer-metropolis becomes a monolithic ideal that is defined by areas such as Ni-chōme and the happenings within, despite the guaranteed existence of people and places within those urban centres that do not adhere to this imagining. In advising Shin to make trips to urban areas, Kōji implies that the city is a playground: a commodity for rural gay men to consume via visitation-not-inhabitance.

The secondary, or rather simultaneous, effect of this monolithic definition of urban is the humanising and normalising of rural. Despite occupying the same gay imaginary, urban and rural queer subjects stand on opposite sides of a dividing line that exists within it, and as such they define themselves in relation to each other. According to Emily Kayzak, “while people integrate complexity to some degree in their narratives about who they are, they do so by denying that same nuance to others who they see as unlike themselves” (2011, p. 563). Examined through this lens, we can begin to see the significance of A’s declaration that living in the country is simply ‘normal living.’ By extension, the queer counter-publics available to rural inhabitants, such as Internet forums and cell-phone deai services, are part of that normal living and, given that this entire conversation takes place online, even facilitate it. Again, the idea of rural-as-normal can only exist in contraposition to urban-as-excess or urban-as-playground. Here we see an inversion of the hierarchy argued by Masa, the dubious ‘Tokyo-gay,’ that Tokyo is liberated and Kyushu unsophisticated. As Kayzak writes,

Characteristics of rural life (as understood by the people living there) produce rather than hinder constructions of gay and lesbian identities. Rather than privilege their rural identity over their gay identity… rural gays and lesbians modify cultural meanings about gay and lesbian identity (2011, p. 565).

This modification works particularly upon notions of what is necessary to ‘be gay.’ Makizono of HACO claimed that it is more common for men to become acquainted on sites such as K-toom and then arrange physical meetings in or near their own localities than to travel to big cities, (personal communication, 17 April 2012) suggesting certain modes of queer-being that are largely, if not entirely, satisfied without metropolitan offerings. Referring back to Suganuma’s work on contact moments (2012), we can see how constantly being placed in comparison to urban queer culture does not simply reify the existing hegemony, but instead complicates notions of dominance and subordination via reinterpretation of “cultural meanings about gay and lesbian identity” (Kayzak 2011, p. 565) The modification of cultural meanings is an expression of agency through self-determination that challenges urban hegemony while simultaneously constraining the discourse within the binary itself, which, in keeping with the arguments presented by Fushimi (1991) and Kayzak (2011), may be necessary for forming communal and erotic bonds.

From a ‘Gay Perspective’

What Kayzak identifies as modification of cultural meanings can be simply described as an individual’s or community’s process of isolating what is important from a ‘gay perspective,’ what is necessary to live gay. Although this operation is rarely performed in explicit terms, I was fortunate enough to find one discussion on K-toom where the regular user-base was called upon to do just that. The following forum discussion is, essentially, a sales pitch toFukuoka, a user named in honour of the fact that his company is relocating him to the city of Fukuoka. Fukuoka puts out a notice to long-time residents asking what neighbourhoods they would recommend ‘from a gay perspective’ (geiteki kanten), which is of course an ideal opportunity for rural-queer subjects to (re)define the relationship between erotic desire and geography. The first dozen responses are filled with information about public transit, shopping and dining centres, noise-level, and the general friendliness of different neighbourhoods around the city. Presumably, these are priority concerns ‘from a gay perspective’ about life in Fukuoka as defined by those who live there. Eventually, another user, Soresā, interjects with a question of clarification as to what Fukuoka means by ‘from a gay perspective,’ assuming that the primary concern from such a perspective is access to gay bars and cruise spots. This assumption, while far from instigating a full on discussion of the issue, does receive a response from Fukuoka (2012) in which he politely corrects Soresāby stating that his primary concern is living in an area with a gym and easy access to public transportation.

Geiteki kanten tte iu koto tte, bā ya hattenba ni chikai ka dō ka? Tte koto da to futsu kangaemasu yo ne.

Since you said ‘from a gay perspective,’ I figured you wanted to know about places near the bars and cruise spots. That’s what you would normally assume, right?


A [sic] jibun no geiteki kanten tte no wa, bā tennba [sic] to iu wake janakute… tatoeba yasui jimu ga chikakau ni aru yō toka, kō nichijoseikatsu ni kansuru yō na imiai dattan desu ga… sumimasen. Umaku ietenai desu ne. (^_^;)

For me, ‘from a gay perspective’ doesn’t mean being concerned about cruise spots… What I meant to imply is that I am concerned about things like ease of everyday living, and whether or not there is a cheap gym located nearby. Sorry, I guess I can’t explain it very well.

Fukuoka’s concerns have little to do with what many consider the typical difficulties of country living ‘from a gay perspective.’ In other words, isolation from gay counter-publics is not an issue for Fukuoka.Scholarship on Japanese queer counter-publics has historically singled-out Ni-chōme as the “important site for the development of queer cultures and intimacies” (Suganuma 2011, p. 347), but this very same development takes place within the forums of K-toom as well, and in no vague terms. Therefore it can be inferred that such Internet spaces are also arenas for the (re)interpreting of queer cultural symbols.Fukuoka, for example, explicitly identifies one necessity ‘from a gay perspective’ that has heretofore gone unmentioned; a gym. While the politics of the gay body and metrosexuality fall beyond the scope of this article, it is fair to say that this seemingly minor remark invites allusion to these distinct sets of standards and ideals in regards to gay culture.

Within this single thread, there are three competing conceptualisations of gay culture offered in response to Fukuoka’s misleadingly simple question. His apologetic closing, “I guess I can’t explain it very well,” acknowledges the coexistence of many interpretations within the counter-public space that he currently inhabits, and alludes to the interaction of these various imaginations. For the most part, those who responded to Fukuoka’sinitial call for advice stand in solidarity over what is and is not important for normal living in Kyushu from a gay perspective, but Soresā’s interstitial remarks and Fukuoka’sinterest in fitness are reminders of the larger and inherently in-cohesive world of the gay imaginary that sets the stage for K-toom users’ identity performance. Like any contact zone, even implicit juxtaposition to the dominant culture necessitates reflection and reinterpretation and, because Internet forums inherently exist in a national, if not global, arena, the tendency towards contextualising the local on a larger scale is particularly enhanced in such spaces (McLelland 2008).


It is well established that separation from the family unit and surveillance of peers is necessary for the formation of queer identities. In semi-anonymous counter-publics self-determination reigns, access is allowed to previously inaccessible modes of queer being, and the formation of an identity premised on sexual desire becomes a possibility. Perhaps because this separation was a development concurrent with the early stages of industrialisation and urbanisation the association between the two persists. This partnership continues to inform a metropolitan homonormative ideal and, additionally, limits the scope of queer scholarship in Japan. This work shows that alternatives do exist in the shape of digital mediascapes, which have enabled contact that lead to reflection and complication of preexisting hegemonies within the gay imaginary. Specifically, the conversations on these forums reveal that the act of denying complexity and nuance to ‘the other’ is mutually occurring on both sides of the urban-rural divide, evidence of mutual autonomy, adjustment of the assumed power dynamics, and, perhaps most importantly, the necessity of the binary itself in forming communal and erotic bonds.

My intention here is not to down-play the difficulties facing those living in rural areas by painting a picture of idyllic digital counter-publics, but to call attention to the discursive forces that form a metropolitan homonormative ideal and possibly provoke further study of the various and un-observed subcultures that compose Japanese queer culture. Although such invisibility is occasionally a product of design it should not be misinterpreted as non-existence, which can lead to the unfortunate characterisation of Japanese queer culture as monolithic, consisting only of bars and cruise spots in large-cities. Furthermore, because the overwhelming majority of queer establishments are geared towards gay men, lesbian communities are often confined to digital spaces regardless of geographic location. Internet forums expressly aimed at these communities are more often than not exclusive and very well guarded, with moderators and bouncers alike enforcing strict visitor policies. In On Being a ‘Lesbian’ (1992), Kakefuda Hiroko comments on the invisibility of lesbian communities and points to it as a symptom of the patriarchal social norms that deny women sexual subjectivity, thus invalidating lesbian desire. She further insists that the invisibility of lesbian subjectivity persists within the queer community as well, which raises the question as to whether imaginings of urban-versus-rural or centre-versus-periphery are even relevant within lesbian communities the same way they are within gay male communities. Although such a question is beyond the scope of this article, it nonetheless merits further discussion.

In regards to currency, while Internet forums such as K-toom and its peers are still under-researched, given the speed with which social media is evolving, even their examination is, admittedly, behind the curve. The popularity of such forums is quickly declining in favour of mobile social-networking applications such as Grindr and Jack’d, which have spawned an entirely new brand of contact. These new technologies, despite being designed specifically for a gay-male user base, further complicate existing hierarchies of location, perhaps even creating their own homonormative ideals.


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[1] I use the term ‘queer’ as an umbrella term for genders and sexualities that fall outside the scope of heterosexual and heteronormative binaries, as well as those that are not covered by the LGBT rubric. The term is useful for its ambiguity in terms of whom it includes in addition to its specificity in identifying a theoretical and methodological approach that challenges essentialist identity politics.

About the Author

Alex Benkhart received his Bachelors Degree from Hamilton College, following which he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to Japan. He now lives in Oita, Japan where he remains actively involved with queer groups in the Kyushu region.

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