Behind the Scene:

Stories with the Master and Miseko of a Korean Gay Bar in Japan

Albert Graves, Graduate School of Global Studies, Doshisha University [About | Email]

Volume 22, Issue 1 (Discussion Paper 2 in 2022). First published in ejcjs on 17 April 2022.


Decades of research have been conducted on the gaybourhoods of Japan, yet none of it has recognised the presence of the Korean gay bars there since the early 2000s. This discussion paper presents a series of personal conversations with, and observations of interactions that involved, the owner (“master”) and staff (miseko) at Seoul Soul in Tokyo, where the author worked from 2006 to 2007. Sections cover a range of issues: changing faces and Koreanness with the South Korean master, cultural dissonance and sexual racism with the zainichi North Korean miseko, and racial representation and workplace romance with the Japanese miseko. Each story is explored in the broader context of Korean gay space and place in Japan, seeking to clarify who the master and miseko are; how they mediate their lives inside and outside the bar; how they represent the bar and how it in turn shapes their self-representations; and, who others are to them and what prejudices they hold. The experience and resulting identity of masters and miseko are revealed to be multifaceted yet distinctly shaped by their positionality at the intersections of race and sexuality in the bar. This study sheds light on a chronically overshadowed community, focusing its narrative on the people who sustain the scene from behind.

Keywords: Queer Japan, zainichi Koreans, gay bars, bartenders, miseko, Ni-Chōme.


The year was 2006 and I was 21. After a bit of aimless wandering, a red and yellow panel that read “SEOUL★SOUL” above its transliteration in Korean and Japanese caught my attention, aroused my curiosity, and beckoned me to its entrance on the basement floor. Cautiously, I cracked open the door to take a peek inside. A man in his 20s seated with several others around a table looked over and asked a question that went over my head. I replied that I was only passing by to see what the place was, and he revealed to me that it was a bar. After he explained the system, I decided to enter as a customer. As time went by, a man who turned out to be the “master” came in, took a shine to me, and it was on that evening that I became a miseko—a member of staff, and a face of the bar.

Opened in April 2002 on the main street of Tokyo’s gaybourhood in Shinjuku Ni-Chōme (commonly shortened to “Ni-Chōme”), Seoul Soul (Seoul Soul | Souru Souru) is one of Japan’s oldest Korean gay bars and was the gateway for my own induction into the world of Ni-Chōme. In Japan, the master (masutā) is a man who owns and manages a drinking establishment, whereas a woman would be known as the mama or, politely, mama-san.[1] This is also the case for gay bars; and, in their play with gender flexibility, customers will often address a master interchangeably between masutā and mama. Korean gay bars in Japan are no exception, with masters also referred to respectfully as “manager” or “boss” (sajang-nim). Formal or informal, these titles are reflective of the reverence accorded to the owner as the authoritative figure and frontal face of the bar. The master curates the bar’s personality according to his desired representation, and wields the strongest influence in regulating interactions with and among customers.

On nights when the master is absent, regulars are less inclined to come into the bar or stay for an extended time unless there happens to be a bartender whose company they enjoy or, ideally, to whom they are attracted. The term for these staff in the gay world is miseko, which, in comparison to masutā, carries a connotation of subservience and inexperience as the bar’s (mise) and its owner’s “kids” (ko). They are as such often selected for their youth and looks—or, if wanting in that regard, their ability in other ways as a trusted proxy of the master to bring customers in and keep them there, normally through humor and wit. Miseko who cannot by themselves deliver on one of these expectations risk imparting to customers a sense of alienation from the bar in the master’s absence. They are thus to each their own separate facets of the bar’s identity, ingrained in its image and invested in its success.

Since the early 2000s, Korean gay bars such as Seoul Soul have steadily come onto the scene in the gaybourhoods of Tokyo and, recently, Osaka. Yet, few people outside their clientele are aware of their existence, and this regrettably includes often siloed scholars of the Korean and gay communities in Japan. In this discussion paper, I will present a series of personal conversations with, and observations of interactions that involved, the owner and staff at Seoul Soul during the time I worked there as a miseko from 2006 to 2007. In moving behind the Korean gay bar scene in Tokyo, I seek answers to an overarching set of questions: Who are the master and miseko of the Korean gay bar in Japan? How do they mediate their lives inside and outside the bar? In what ways do they represent the bar, and how does the bar in turn shape their representations of themselves? Who are others to them and what prejudices do they hold? The experience and resulting identity of masters and miseko of the Korean gay bars in Japan are revealed to be multifaceted yet distinctly shaped by their positionality at the intersections of race and sexuality in the bar.

As a select compilation of stories with standalone characters and scenarios, this discussion paper is limited in the theoretical conclusions—and, admittedly, scholarly contribution—it can make on any one subject area. Its intention nonetheless as a preliminary analysis is to expose—and, as possible, touch on—the breadth of research questions that surround this overlooked and overdue topic. While the topic is perhaps one better interrogated around foundational ideologies of being, I avoid making sweeping assertions about identity so as not to paint masters, miseko, or the scene in which they work in any one shade. Instead, I take the liberty to make a panoramic assessment of random contacts with my coworkers which stood out to me in the interplay of their racial and sexual awareness—that is, their expressions of identity as shaped by their roles in a racialised, sexualised space.

My reflections serve as a base for scholarship in the interdisciplinary exploration of cross-cultural and queer studies. On one hand, it sets out to advance research on the marginalised Korean community in Japan from the angle of a subgroup with its own sexually delineated community in Ni-Chōme, along with the Japanese who share in its construction and representation. On the other hand, it identifies key questions about how place or sense of belonging in racially delineated spaces influences the lives of gay men, taking one step further by focusing on the cocreators rather than consumers of these spaces. The discourse not only sheds light on a chronically overshadowed community, but, by examining the people who sustain the scene from behind, also serves as a reminder that in the study of any stage there is always a curtain to be pulled back.


The stories I will present were taken from my fieldnotes of participant observation and interviews from inside and outside the bar and its business hours. They are organised into separate sections for each of my coworkers: South Korean master Gilsu (Kirusu), Japan-born “resident” (zainichi) North Korean miseko Park, and Japanese miseko Shin.[2] With each story I will include a selective analysis interlaced with questions for further study. These accounts are not chronologically ordered or thematically connected but span a range of issues—from changing faces and Koreanness with the master, to cultural dissonance and sexual racism with Park, to racial representation and love life with Shin. “Race” as socially constructed, assigned, and associated, is a persistent thread in the self-other groupings at the bar—for the master and miseko as much as for customers—and, as such, recurs in my reflections. On one layer there are interracially the Koreans and Japanese, and on another an intraracial distinction by Koreans between South and North. My examination of the bar experience from the perspective of the master, Park, and Shin—not merely as owner and staff but as racial subjects and sexual objects—reveals the intersections of race and sexuality that materialise in Korean gay bars as “imagined communities” in Japan.[3] In this process, I additionally recognise my own subjectivity as a Korean-American miseko, and do not shy away from recounting my positionality at these intersections.

At the time of fieldwork, Seoul Soul was one of only three Korean gay bars in Japan, all located in Ni-Chōme. Spatial and temporal constraints in this study prevent more comprehensive commentary on the scene as a whole in the 2000s, and could be partly remedied with revisits to Seoul Soul along with comparative interviews with the masters and miseko of Stairways of Heaven (Cheongugui Gyedan | Tengoku no Kaidan) and Anyoung (Annyeong | Annyon). Still, the topics I will examine concern social realities not confined to the bar or its early years but which are prevalent throughout society to this day, with overlapping implications for Koreans and gay men across Japan. With proper theoretical debate, they could easily branch into separate articles of their own. However, I choose to hone my reflections in on each story as it relates to my research questions on the people behind the Korean gay bar scene in Tokyo. While in the end this produces more questions than answers, it illustrates a fuller landscape of the intimate and undisclosed lives of masters and miseko, both inside and outside the spaces they construct. As my analyses repeatedly return to questions about racial and sexual identity and the sense of belonging in overlaying communities demarcated by race and sexuality, I start with a condensed overview of the origins of gay identity, community, and its study in Japan.

Identity and Community in Ni-Chōme

The earliest bars and coffee shops for men to meet other men surfaced in Tokyo immediately at the end of World War II as soon as 1946, simultaneously with the introduction of the term “gay” (gei) by US servicemen who patronised these establishments (McLelland 2006, 7). Mark McLelland’s (2006, 6) archival work on publications by sexologists such as Kazuhiko Kabiya discovered that the loanword had in fact entered the Japanese lexicon decades before many Americans would even hear about it in the 1970s. The “gay bars” (geibā), as they soon started to be referred to interchangeably with other terms—along with the “gay boys” (geibōi) who worked there—were studied by sexologist Tenrei Ota (1957, 306), who found as many as 21 establishments in seven districts across Tokyo. This discovery does not, however, imply the early existence of a thriving gay scene in the way that it has since materialised in areas such as Ni-Chōme. McLelland (2006, 13) makes an important distinction that, for Japanese, gei and the industry that surrounded it at the time was synonymous with artistic forms of transgendered expression in a commercial context. The concepts of gay identity and community as they are now known would not be fully explored until Japan’s “gay boom” of the 1990s.

It was then that public and academic discourse on sexual identity and coming out in Japan mounted in mass media and with the release of a series of personal narratives, the earliest of which can be found in Noriaki Fushimi’s book Private Gay Life (Puraibēto Gei Raifu) in 1991. While the semantics of “gay” (now, no longer gei as a third gender) and “coming out” had been imported from the West, Fushimi and other Japanese gay men disclosed a body of consciousness around their sexuality that could not be reduced as Western. Suganuma Katsuhiko (2007, 498) further observed how Fushimi, with his research into social and activist groups and literary texts that predated the introduction of queer theory from the West, sketched out an autonomous picture of gay culture in postwar Japan. In the accounts that came out into the 2000s, there is nonetheless a pervasive sentiment of ambivalence toward gay identity and community. In their book Coming Out in Japan, originally in Japanese and translated into English, Ito Satoru and Yanase Ryuta (2001, 86) described their initial aversion toward the bars of Ni-Chōme, whose closed doors represented to them a physical and psychological barrier beyond which one ceases to be “normal.” They outlined the disdain they had for a superficial scene limited to chitchat, alcohol, karaoke, and sex, and exposed internalised phobias in the insinuation that those who do not subscribe to the flamboyant style of speech rampant in the bars do not belong (Ito and Yanase 2001, 87-88).

The attention to Ni-Chōme has been duly shared by the few social scientists who have made it their fieldsite for ethnographic research. Sunagawa Hideki (2003, 218) took a deeper dive into the conversations that take place in the bars, and concluded that beneath all of the sexual talk is in actuality a desire to establish bonds of intimacy. In this sense, the bar becomes less of a business and more of an institution—a claim that Ishida Hitoshi (2006), however, refuted on the basis of his own fieldwork. McLelland and other Western researchers such as Wim Lunsing [4] also made considerable advancements from an outsider perspective and globalised scholarship in the area by making it accessible in English. In more recent years, contemporary researchers such as Moriyama Noritaka and Thomas Baudinette have explored new angles of gay space in Japan, including the exclusionary practices of bars by “type.” [5] Gclick, an online directory of bars and other establishments in Japanese, features a filter with 16 types of customer bases ranging from students (gakusei) to businessmen (sararīman) to older men (nenpai), twinks (janīzu-kei) to jocks (taīkukai-kei) to heavy men (futome-kei). “Foreigners” (gaikokujin) are in a category of their own, with the presumption that one can be or not be attracted to all or any of “them.” This is indicative of the xenophilias and xenophobias inveterate in Japanese society which are laid bare in the racially subjective, sexually objectifying spaces of Ni-Chōme.

Baudinette (2016) has confronted the overdue issue of gay racism in his interviews with members of racialised groups such as Koreans and Chinese. While his sample was rather limited in size and demographics and included no representation by zainichi Koreans, [6] he did manage to excavate disparities between how Japanese as the majority and other East Asians as a minority see a racially inclusive or exclusive community in Ni-Chōme. However, his conclusions monochromatically depict Korean and other East Asian gay men as absent of space and place in Japan, [7] despite that for decades now Ni-Chōme has had gay bars run by and for Koreans and Chinese. While this discussion paper does not present the origins or scale of these bars, its stories from Seoul Soul will capture the portraits of at least a few of the people who construct such spaces for their own and others’ place in Japan.

The Master

A South Korean man aged 36 who immigrated as an adult from Seoul. Self-described as “direct” (socchoku na) and “hot-tempered” (okorippoi). A typical example of gaten-kei, or blue-collar type, characterised by a touch of machismo that is rough around the edgesone of the commonly found and idealised types among gay men in Japan. Can communicate in Korean and Japanese.

Changing Faces

October 21, 2006

When we close the bar one morning, the master asks if I intend to have breakfast and proposes we go together. I agree, and he takes me to a Korean restaurant close by where we had been before. We see several of our customers there—a South Korean man, two Japanese men, and a Japanese woman—and decide to sit with them. They talk with one another in Japanese and one of the Japanese men tries to communicate with the waitress in Korean, coaxing her for more side dishes (banchan) and declaring with pride that he is gay. They turn their attention to me and ask why I am so thin, and the woman insists I have more of the banchan. The flamboyant man compliments me as an entertainer and for my kindness. When I reply that I enjoy his company, too, as there is never a dull moment with him, the group laughs and the man seems flattered. The other Japanese man describes me as cute and angelic and does not believe me when I say that I am not that innocent. He smiles and bows often during the conversation, and I point this out to him. He explains that he wants to always be polite to others.

When the meal is done, we stand up and everyone reaches for their wallets. I am not sure if the master intends to pay for me since he invited me, but I take out my wallet, anyway. I hand the waitress a banknote and ask her for change. When the others have paid, there is no change; it seems that the total received from the group is exact. The woman who sat with us asks the master about my change, but he reassures her that everything is fine. I am a bit surprised but act oblivious, and we exit the restaurant. The master heads home in one direction, the flamboyant man and the woman share a taxi, and I walk to the station with the other two men. On the way, the polite man now describes me as sexy. Prying into his intentions, I ask him if that means he wants to have sex with me, and he quickly denies it saying that would be strange. We arrive at the station, I bid the men farewell, and they say they will see me next week at the bar.

As I was no stranger to these customers, it seemed out of character for them to direct so much attention toward me. Perhaps I had made a better impression of myself with them earlier that night. Or, maybe their behaviour was influenced by the change of space and what I witnessed were their “outside” rather than “inside” faces in relation to the bar. As far as my own face, I was as a miseko still consciously performing for those around me whom I continued to see as the master and our customers. The master, too, did not seem to deviate from his energetic and engaged persona at the bar, in contrast to his subdued and relaxed demeanor on outings alone with me. These comparisons relate to face, which is intrinsic to Japan’s high-context communication style and can be put on to mask distinctions of how one truly feels versus what they show to others—that is, respectively, honne and tatemae. [8] Distinguishing faces in my interactions is not so much to determine the authenticity of behaviour as it is to understand how relationships develop in, and are sustained outside, the bar, and how the bar as a space influences these processes. The question of boundaries in those relationships is also relevant and displayed in the polite man’s possible desire for sex but hesitance to act on it. Roles factor into these boundaries, be it staff-customer or, as in my dilemma with the bill, master-miseko. That I was younger, a subordinate, and invited are all reasons to expect—even if not always in Japan, certainly from a person born and raised in Korea—that the master would pay for my share, much less not dismiss that I was shortchanged. Out of this incident then arises the question of the flexibility of roles, the extent to which they can change, and the spatial and temporal circumstances by which they tend to do so. Other questions include the influence of the master’s role on customers’ behaviour toward miseko, and the cases in which representations of “race” may be altered outside the bar.


November 10, 2006

I am at a restaurant with the master again, this time accompanied by a Japanese-American former miseko of Seoul Soul. At the end of our breakfast, I rush to pay the bill for the group. The master chases me to the register and insists on paying, but I refuse to let him. When we return to the table, the master says he appreciates the gesture but that I should not do it again as it is his responsibility to pay for his staff (in ironic contrast to my involuntary overpayment days earlier). In concurrence, the Japanese-American lectures me that this is the Korean custom. I reply that my act of consideration, too, forms part of that intricate fabric of customs. He argues that it is not and that I do not understand Korean culture.

I was raised by a Korean mother, lived in overseas Korean communities, and studied abroad in Korea. Yet, to the Japanese-American—who, coincidentally, had no such experience—none of these were qualifications to know what was truly Korean. His dismissiveness of the legitimacy of my diasporic identity to self-represent as a Korean in my associations with Koreanness is comparable to the perceived inauthenticity of zainichi Koreans as Koreans or Japanese, disempowered by what Iwabuchi (2000, 63) explains as a divided self stuck in “in-betweenness.” In relation to the master, there were not only diasporic but also equally legitimate, intergenerational divergences in how he and I interpreted Koreanness. In this case, the interpretations of one cause dispute for the authenticity of the other as a Korean. Yet, just as one who identifies as gay cannot become any less gay by “acting” straight, Koreans across a spectrum of birthplaces, citizenships, and ages act in ways which by default should all be determinative of Koreanness—no matter how seemingly anomalous or contradictory their values, attitudes, and behaviours—in its myriad of representations.

Inside the bar, too, exists a microcosm with its own customs and culture reinvented through racial and sexual intersections. In a sense, the bar becomes a space which produces a separate diaspora, one which is simultaneously Korean, gay, and in Japan. There, “Korean” is not only a racial subject but also a sexual object, and the master along with his miseko are presumed to embody that—if not racially, then sexually. That the Japanese-American did not “look” or “act” Korean (concepts that will resurface in the stories with Shin) means that he could not have performed this duty, thereby displacing him in his role at the bar and revealing a possible clue as to why he was no longer a miseko. His claim to authority on the subject of Koreanness despite this and absence of any connection outside the bar to Korea or Koreans raises questions about foreign ownership and the appropriative limits of Koreanness. In the end, questions that could be pursued in the context of the bar include the limits of one’s ability to dictate what does or does not constitute Koreanness, cases in which a Korean may not be in control of determining his own Koreanness, and the authenticity of a Koreanness adapted by those who might be considered as outsiders by Koreans. Related areas for further research could include overlaps and divergences of the iterations of Koreanness expressed by Korean diasporas in Japan and the US, along with the tensions that might arise at the bar as a result of interdiasporic or intergenerational disagreements on customs and culture.


A third-generation zainichi North Korean man in his mid-30s, described by the master as “feminine” (josei rashī) and “passionate” (jōnetsuteki). Can communicate only in Japanese.

Cultural Dissonance

October 6, 2006

It is a rainy day. While the bar is still empty, Park decides to sing Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” He says that older songs by artists such as Frank Sinatra and Billy Joel remind him of his childhood and make him feel at peace. He thinks the music nowadays is strange, scary, and has no “heart to heart.” Korean music is also of no interest to him.

October 13, 2006

Park seems to have become smitten with my renditions of the strange, scary, and heartless from earlier in the evening, as he is now practicing the lyrics and coming up with choreographies for Britney Spears’s “Toxic” and Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack,” recently released in 2003 and 2006. 

October 20, 2006

Returning to our earlier discussion, I ask Park why it is that artists from before his generation remind him of his childhood and how he relates to their music. He explains how “My Way” was produced during the last years of the artist’s life—1969, to be exact—and was the theme song for a movie starring Dustin Hoffman released during his generation around 1979. I have no idea what he is referencing, but it does not matter. When I ask him why he was so infatuated with “Toxic” and “SexyBack,” he replies—clearly with a bit of amnesia—that they are only so-so.

In his expressed distaste for newer music, Park was surely generalising considering his initial fascination with what were in that moment a couple of the hottest tracks in the US. He would have had limited exposure to current hits from abroad, considering their lower target age group and the dominant domestic music market in Japan. Park’s childhood interest in US artists who were not popular among his generation at the time, in any case, hints at an escapist desire for another time and place, as a culturally dissonant Korean in Japan in the ’70s and ’80s. There are reasons why Park as a zainichi North Korean gay man may have become disenchanted with his own tribes from his youth. First, as a zainichi—exacerbated by the label of “North”—he was discriminated against by the Japanese and their racially exclusive gay community in Ni-Chōme. This is a problem that would have only deepened in his adulthood. In 2002, North Korea officially admitted to the abduction of 13 Japanese citizens between 1977 to 1983. It was an event that led to intensified stigmatisation of zainichi North Koreans and was a catalyst for many in the community’s loss of faith in, and disavowal of, the “homeland,” as evidenced in the exodus of students from North Korean schools in Japan to Japanese and even South Korean schools in Japan (Ha 2017, 194). Second, as a Korean who could not speak Korean and had no pride for his racial (much less his ethnopolitical) association—he was shunned by other Koreans. He was a Korean without Koreanness, which, for zainichi Koreans, Masaki Matsunaga (2007, 234) argues is marked not by race but by these symbolic fragments such as language and culture.

In his own detachment from the North but also disinterest in the South, coupled with discordance with (if not resentment toward) Japan, it seems only instinctive that Park would seek solace in a counterculture such as the US. On the surface, it is a trivial matter of musical taste; but beneath that could be a longing for a distant place in a bygone era, in search of anything that resonates to compensate for racial and ethnopolitical identities that never have. Repeat interviews with Park could seek to identify other ways in which he actively or passively replaces Korean and Japanese presences in his life, to determine whether these transposed things share a common thread. Other questions for consideration include how a miseko’s cultural dissonance could help or hurt him—and his contribution toward representation—at a racialised gay bar in Japan, and the possibility that a miseko could be an outsider in his own bar—or, reversed, how the bar might accommodate or even cultivate his outsideness.

Sexual Racism

October 20, 2006

Park says that he is taking English lessons at the private academy Nova, and his instructor is a man from Germany. When I ask what he thinks about the instructor, he answers that he is probably gay because he has pierced ears. Later on, he says he wants to travel to Italy and that he thinks Italian men are attractive for their black hair (which he seemingly assumes is the case for all Italians). I remind him of a comment he once made in distaste of Western men; but he insists on their difference saying that black hair looks Asian, then making a further exception for Siberians as they also look Asian (obviously, believing them to be European).

A visitor from South Korea enters the bar, and he and Park do their best to communicate in broken Japanese and Korean. The customer confesses his attraction to Park, which clearly charms him. Park flashes his designer silk scarf and humbly bemoans the expense of his ensemble. As he prances in his haute couture, the customer smiles and watches adoringly. On a notepad, Park writes his name, phone number, email address, and home address for the customer. As we sit across from him, Park turns to me and fawns aloud over the customer’s tall stature, big eyes, and glasses which complement his face shape. “He’s a nice guy, isn’t he?” he asks. I smile and nod my head, as a miseko can only do even when he secretly disagrees.

Park’s preconception that Western men with earrings must be gay mirrors an impression of the gay foreigner as he is imagined in Japan. While Japanese gay men are not immune to sexual stereotypes within their own society, [9] that does not preclude them from sexually stereotyping other gay men outside what is excused as a racially based sexual preference. [10] This sexual racism, to term it bluntly, was exhibited by customers in their descriptions of white and black men, which reflected an overall sense of fear, caution, and even revulsion (Fieldnotes, October 7 & December 15, 2006). [11] What these portrayals have in common is the other extreme at the reverse end of the hypersexualisation and fetishisation that occurs between Koreans and Japanese, and that is their sexual distancing from the Westerner. [12] While Korean and Japanese men—straight and gay—are accustomed to the emasculated, asexual associations often ascribed to them in the West, [13] many themselves conversely associate Western men with danger and promiscuity.[14] As for Park, his assumption reduces the instructor as a foreign man who flaunts his sexuality in what must be a foreignly gay way. It is a departure from the standard by which Korean and Japanese men with pierced ears—now pervasive among assumedly straight celebrities—are no longer looked at with suspicion in Korea and Japan.

There is also the question of what is and is not believed to be Asian. The boundaries are demonstrably blurred for Park. Italians with black hair and Siberians are exempted from their actual or perceived Westernness, making them as desirable as Asians. In contrast, the South Korean customer, with his tall height and round eyes—traits traditionally seen as Western—became exceptionally desirable compared to the average Asian. These contradictions show how attractiveness, as experienced rather than imagined, is—for Park as with other Koreans and Japanese at Seoul Soul (Fieldnotes, October 7, 13, 14, 21, and 28, 2006)—determined not by race but by physical features which are relatable and complementary to one’s own race as it is imagined.[15] A comparative analysis of racial stereotypes and their origins in Korea and Japan could lend deeper insight into these discriminations at the Korean gay bars of Japan. With this further inquiry, it should also be asked which racially othered groups within Japan’s gay community have yet to establish space and place, what the barriers have been, and to what extent this deficiency is a consequence of exclusion from sexual objectivity or merely absence of racial representation.


A Japanese man in his mid-20s, described by the master—who was also his boyfriend—as “hot-tempered” (okorippoi) and by customers as “looking” Korean. Can communicate only in Japanese.

Racial Representation

October 14, 2006

Today was scheduled to be the day I try opening the bar alone, but here with me out of the blue is another relatively new miseko Shin, whom I know of but have not yet met. As I clean and organise, he sits and works on tasks from his day job. After a while he exits the bar, and I take it he was sent by the master to check on me. When he returns I ask him if he wants a piece of chocolate, which he silently declines. He makes an audible sigh as he resumes his paperwork, as if to let me know how stressful his work is, that he did not mean to ignore me, and that I am preparing everything fine on my own. I take this as an indication that the ice has started to crack and that he is slowly warming up to me.

The story is mundane, but the characters and scenario are not. Here is an awkward exchange between recently hired miseko who do not seem to share much in common with each other nor even the bar. As a Japanese and a Korean-[German-Scots-Irish-]American, we are to disparate degrees socially, culturally, and linguistically distanced—and, racially, it is questionable how much we can truly claim ownership of the space we are charged to represent. Besides his connection to the master who happens to be Korean, Shin, as I would later find out, had not had much exposure to, or any special interest in, Korea or Koreans. There was thus hardly anything which connected him to the bar as a miseko. Being Japanese in Japan, communication was not a problem for him with the majority of customers; but his belonging in the space as a miseko would be tested in his ability to meet the expectations of customers seeking to consume the Korean experience—that is, Koreanness. What becomes paramount in that instance is this racial representation along with all of its associations, real or imagined.

Nights at the bar over the months to come replayed a consistent description of the Korean man as the yang to the Japanese man’s yin. The bar functioned as a space of expectancy for the submissive, passive, shy, and indirect Japanese bottom to come in search of his dominant, active, assertive, and direct Korean top (Fieldnotes, October 7, 13, 14, 21, and 28, 2006). It was as though these characterisations were deliberate sexual personifications of the proverbial couple’s postwar nations, with the militarised (though, not necessarily divided) Korea in a romantic alliance with pacifist Japan. As stereotypical as this typecasting may come across, it is not totally baseless. One cross-cultural study of student samples in Seoul and Tokyo by Gudykunst, Yang, and Nishida (1987, 7-34) found Koreans to be more extrospective, or public, than the introspective, or private, Japanese in their outward or inward direction of attention, referred to as self-consciousness.[16]

While this accepted dichotomy may partly be the result of misinterpretations of one group based on the cultural reference point of another, the question for the present study reverts to the role of the Japanese miseko in Korean space and the degree to which he can adequately represent it from the perspective of its customers. For Koreans, Shin may be a tolerated if not welcome presence; but, as Japanese men are no novelty in Japan, he would hardly be seen as a necessity or asset to the bar. For Japanese, he is if anything a distraction—an extra who sits at the rear of the stage, in the shadows cast by the stars of the show—as reminded every time a customer would ask the master why he ever hired him (Fieldnotes, November 6, 2006). This brings into further question the ways in which racially othered miseko could be empowered to become the face of a racialised bar (besides looking or acting the part) despite—or, even, owing to—their race. Considering the prejudices against Koreans outside the bar in Japan, other research could explore which Korean representations might be considered less desirable to exhibit inside the bar, and the consequences they could have for the image of the bar as Korean.

Workplace Romance

November 10, 2006

At the start of the month, the master had asked Shin not to work on weekends, explaining to him that customers had complained about his presence (which Shin interpreted as a result of his being Japanese). Today, however, he discloses to me that the real reason was that he does not want to work with him as it has affected their relationship as boyfriends. While he enjoys being with him in private, the bar as a workplace is another story. Shin does not comprehend the dynamics of work at the bar, he says. In his interactions with customers the master often charms them and says that he is single, to the silent dismay of Shin. Shin does not catch on that the master is merely acting as part of his job, he says, which correspondingly renders him incapable of performing his own job as a miseko.

It was always clear to staff that the romantic relationship between the master and Shin was to be kept a secret from customers. This secrecy was for no other purpose than to avoid disturbing the inherently rousing air of the bar which secures its business. Young, handsome, and ostensibly available staff are imperative for any gay bar from the standpoint of its customers, many of whom come not only to socialise over drinks and karaoke but also in hopes of a romantic or sexual encounter. With the master and miseko at their beck and call, customers who take a fancy to any member of staff rarely feel inhibited from flirting with him.[17] For the master—the frontal face of the bar—to push away a customer’s advance by saying he is taken (by one of his miseko, no less) would be akin to presenting a menu to a diner with the house special crossed out. One could wait around and see what else comes in; but, with so many restaurants—Korean and otherwise—in walking distance, there is nothing that prevents him from walking out and trying his luck elsewhere.

The question, then, is how owners and staff can pursue and sustain a love life despite their sexual exploitation by and at the bar.[18] Doubly marginalised by society for their sexuality and in the gay community on account of their race, Korean gay men face more of a struggle to find partners in Japan. The Korean gay bar is quite possibly the only physical space where the reality is the inverse; and, irrespective of business interests, the constant attention from customers is enjoyable for many masters and miseko. However, this positionality is a double-edged sword. A partner may be easier to find, but it will be harder to keep and there will be be limitations to any relationship. Shin as a conventionally handsome Japanese would not have realised his privilege in Ni-Chōme (only his relative disadvantage at Seoul Soul) or, in turn, the adversities faced by the master, which could be a reason why the master chose to stray from the truth in his reasoning to Shin. No research has been conducted on the dating patterns of masters and miseko; but, anecdotally, partners tend to be confined to the nightlife industry, not least due to the work-life schedule. Outside Seoul Soul are other bars that serve as examples where relationships—in many cases, between co-owners—are openly expressed, and could be taken as case studies to examine the alternative ways these businesses manage to survive and thrive.[19] Interviews could clarify ways in which staff couples navigate their love lives in the bar while mitigating and adapting to interconnected conflicts of interest. Analyses could further seek to identify how far these relationships are invested in when on the periphery of personal lives, considering how some in the industry are bound to wives and children at home (as is the case for both the master and Shin).


In relaying my selection of stories with the master and miseko of Seoul Soul, I have attempted to lay bare a few of the facets that color the lives of owners and staff and distinguish them as architects and representatives of Korean gay space and place in Japan. These observations and interactions have led to new questions alongside a clearer picture of who the master and miseko are, the connections between their lives inside and outside the bar, how they show themselves to one another and their customers, prejudices they both endure and harbour, issues they face as racial subjects and sexual objects, and ways in which they consequently racialise and sexualise others. Collectively, these accounts reveal how race and sexuality intersect to form a distinct set of experiences behind the scenes of at least one of the Korean gay bars in Japan.

The stories presented are but a drop in the soju bottle of lived experiences that incarnate the identity of the master and miseko, not to mention of customers who consume the spaces they construct. With all of my scattered analyses comes a stream of topics yet to be explored: What are the representational limitations of South and North Koreans as masters or miseko in relation to Koreanness? How does language control interactions and outcomes at Korean and other bilingual gay bars in Japan? In these racialised spaces, is there a hierarchy of “types” (such as bears [kuma], chubs [debu], and so on) otherwise segregated in the gay community? Do Korean and other racialised gay bars in Osaka exhibit regionalisms that distinguish them from their counterparts in Tokyo? In which circumstances might Korean and other racialised gay space become desegregated in the gaybourhoods of Japan? Which racialisations of gay space have not been or could not be realised in Japan? There are Chinese and Taiwanese gay bars; but what are the prospects for Indian, Nigerian, Brazilian, or Russian ones, each of which would serve a sizeable group of foreign nationals in Japan?

Today, since my fieldwork at Seoul Soul along with Stairways of Heaven and Anyoung, no fewer than 18 Korean gay bars have come and gone across Japan, making their marks on the gaybourhoods of Tokyo’s Ueno and Osaka’s Dōyama and Shinsekai.[20] Those still in existence each have masters and miseko with their own stories to add to the expanding mosaic of Korean gay space and place in Japan, necessitating ongoing fieldwork behind the scenes with owners and staff and in the audience with customers. Other studies in my own pipeline that I anticipate will further contribute to this dormant body of knowledge will look at intraracial representations between South and North Koreans in Japan; interracial representations between mutually seeking Koreans and Japanese; spatial and performative dimensions of Korean gay bars in Japan; transnational influence of Japan’s Korean gay bars on and by gay bars in Korea; and regional interconnectivities among gaybourhoods in Korea and Japan, such as between Busan and Osaka.


1. For more on the motherly contribution of the mama to her customers, see Farrer (2021, 56-58).

2. Out of respect for the anonymity of my miseko informants, “Park” and “Shin” are pseudonyms.

3. The Korean gay bar is one of many “imagined communities” within the imagined community of Ni-Chōme, to take Benedict Anderson’s term in the context of nationalism which was further referenced to describe the urban-rural binary of gay space in Japan, in Benkhart (2014).

4. See, for example, Lunsing (2000).

5. See, for example, Moriyama (2014, 246-253) and Baudinette (2016, 465-485).

6. His 11 Korean and Chinese informants are all relatively short-term visitors (no long-term residents) in their 20s and 30s, as shown in Baudinette (2016, 472).

7. He explicitly claims that there are no bars for Korean or Chinese men or their admirers in Ni-Chōme in Baudinette (2016, 475).

8. For commentary on these concepts from the perspective of Koreans, see Lee, Murphy-Shigematsu, and Befu (2006, 205-206 & 227).

9. These stereotypes markedly contrast with those in the West. Admittedly, during my early days in Tokyo, I wondered whether many of the men I saw in public were gay. With their long hair and thin, arched brows, the ways in which trendy men represented themselves would have been suspiciously queer in the US. Yet, in Ni-Chōme, I was perplexed at all the seemingly straight men with short hair and goatees, which I would soon realise was common among gay men in Japan. Japan’s reality was evidently the inverse of the gay-straight stereotypes that prevail in the West.

10. For an overview of how gay men who identify as Asian and other races discriminate against themselves and one another on the Internet, see Phua and Kaufman (2003, 981-994).

11. Meanwhile, other customers along with the master denied that racism even exists in Japan, pointing out the nation’s foreign aid and turning to whataboutism with the US, where Americans are always in a fuss about race—an indication of the ignorance that racism is measured by the visibility of its discourse (Fieldnotes, December 16, 2006).

12. This is in stark contrast to the narrative of a racialised hierarchy of desire in Asia dominated by white Westerners, which has been perpetuated in studies of predominantly young, cosmopolitan gay men by researchers such as Thomsen (2020) in Korea and Baudinette (2016) in Japan.

13. For more on this, see Han (2008, 829-850).

14. For an earlier history on Westerners as “barbarians” and an existential threat in Korea, see Tikhonov (2012).

15. In this respect, Koreans and Japanese gay men in search of each other are what I term “proximate opposites” in their mutual representations, and I return to this with examples in the section on racial representation with Shin.

16. It should also be mentioned that Americans were found to be more publicly and privately self-conscious than Koreans.

17. This is reinforced by the sexualised space as a gay bar, in which everyone inside is presumed to be gay and thus “legitimate” objects for pursuit, as described by Warren (1998, 184).

18. It should be distinguished that Seoul Soul, as with the other Korean gay bars in Japan, is not a “boys bar” (bōizubā), where customers select the staff they want to sit and drink with and can even rent their time inside or outside the bar. Nonetheless, Seoul Soul functions with its own sense of companionship between staff and customers in its compact, intimate space, contrary to what could be considered the empty, transactional, and expensive boys bar.

19. Anyoung—Tokyo’s third and newest Korean gay bar with no miseko at the time of fieldwork—is one such example with its Korean and [Korean-Russian-]Japanese co-owners Sunny and Asuka.

20. These include Arirang, Beloved, For You, Iriwa, Ko:chu, Korea City, Pusanhan (Busan Port), and Say Yes! in Ni-Chōme; Kankoku Yama-Chan ([South] Korea Yama-Chan), PAGODA Tokyo, POVI, SEOUL, Yumedokoro Honoji, and ZAZA in Ueno; BiBimBar, Hata, and Tenshinranman PAGODA in Dōyama; and, Shinsekai BiBimBar in Shinsekai.


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About the Author

Albert Graves is a PhD student in American Studies at the Graduate School of Global Studies at Doshisha University. He received his LLM in International Justice from the University of London. His current research focuses on diaspora and transnationalism, race and sexuality, and space and place in Korea and Japan. He has worked in the region for over a decade with international organisations, national agencies, training and research institutions, and consulting firms in the areas of smart cities, capacity building, climate finance and development, and intellectual property rights management.

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