This is an overview LGBTQ post for travellers and people living in Tokyo from abroad. Admittedly, most of the information is for gay and lesbian Tokyo (i.e. Shinjuku’s night life), but I’ve included gender-related information that I’m aware of for trans and non-binary friends.
- How LGBTQ-friendly is Tokyo?
- What’s the community and scene like?
- Tokyo’s LGBTQ community groups
- Are there LGBTQ events to attend in Tokyo?
- Shinjuku’s gay and lesbian bars
- What’s it like living here?
- What’s some good Japanese LGBTQ content to check out?
1. How LGBTQ-friendly is Tokyo?
The answer is, it depends. Packed into everyone who identifies as LGBTQ+ is a host of other factors that can affect reception, such as your perceived ethnicity, language ability, perceived gender, and social circles, to name a few factors. LGBTQ-friendliness can be separated into at least three categories: locals, foreigners who live in Japan, and foreign travellers. Even for foreigners, the experience of Tokyo based on Japanese language ability can vary widely. For this post, most of the information is geared towards travellers, but is true for foreigners living in Japan as well.
To cover the most basic consideration, there’s virtually no public discrimination against same-sex couples or gender ambiguity. In general, public violence is not commonplace nor condoned. From visible foreign travellers to locals alike, one is likely not going to be called slurs or in danger of getting assaulted. This is partially due to lack of awareness (people don’t realise you’re gay or lesbian), partially to Tokyo’s range of subcultures (i.e. you may just register as someone with eccentric fashion), partially that visible foreigners have a gaijin pass, meaning they’re given exceptions.
PDA has a different standard for women and men. No-one would bat a lash at women holding hands, since it’s commonplace from grade school right into adulthood. Men, unfortunately, don’t have the same luxury.
For travellers, one other logistical consideration may be booking hotels or filling in anything where you have a spouse or travelling with family. If you’re travelling as a couple, I personally don’t see any issue with just filling out the usual booking forms for a shared room. Generally, hospitality in Japan dictates that the front desk would give everyone a proper, professional greeting. Officially, Japan recognizes the marriage certificates of any issuing country.
For trans and non-binary people, the washrooms are usually the biggest concern. In Tokyo, accessible toilets, or “Toilets-for-everyone” are everywhere, from train stations to department stores. They are a great option. Otherwise, go to the washroom of the gender you identify as. I’m often mistaken for a boy, and the most I’ll get is a gentle comment about how the men’s room is the other way. For onsen, the easiest solution is to have your own private room onsen (which can be pricey). Since everyone must go in nude, it will be expected that you physically match the stereotypes of cis-male and cis-female bodies.
Are there exceptions to what I’ve described? Definitely. For example, I haven’t discussed bullying in schools, how discrimination manifests in ways other than violence, late-nighty rowdiness, or yakuza fights.
2. What’s the community and scene like?
My information is mostly second-hand, as I didn’t get into the community while I lived there. Queer friends made up a significant part of my social circle, but many I had met outside Japan or through local friend introductions.
Shinjuku Nichome is Tokyo’s equivalent to New York’s Greenwhich Village, San Fran’s Castro, London’s Soho, Toronto’s Church St, etc. In short, it is where the queer community is visible and active, but mostly in the way of bars, clubs, and sex clubs. Tokyo’s unique spin is that this massive collection of social spaces is squeezed into a few small blocks, in even tinier venues. Nichome is of the same stock as Shinjuku’s nearby tourist attractions: Golden Gai and Omoideyokocho (Yakitori Alley). Nichome is the place you go to from 8pm through until 8am the next day, hopping from bar to bar, and eventually returning to your favourites.
The local and foreign communities don’t mix too much because language remains a huge barrier, but check out my section below on Tokyo’s LGBTQ community groups. For gay men, there are Japanese men who only “specialise” in dating foreign men — and from what I’ve been told, fetishes are pretty common.
Many people, especially locals, are not entirely out. To them, going to Tokyo Rainbow Pride once a year or hanging out in Shinjuku may be their main community event. Or, they may have a private LINE group with a group of friends that they hang out with. This socialising tends to be organic and introduction-based rather than advertising a community group online. If you befriend a local, please be mindful of their situation and check in to see how out they are to their various social circles.
LGBTQ rights and events are growing in number. In the past few years, Tokyo’s Rainbow Pride has picked up steam(since Rainbow Tokyo and Tokyo Pride finally joined forces) and attracts a fun crowd in the parade through Shibuya to Yoyogi Park. Try to meet people there!
LGBTQ things pop up in random places, such as otaku-related areas. On the plus side, Japanese culture has anachronisms that seem liberal elsewhere. This eclectic mix can all fall under “weird” Japan to the outside world and that means that you might find vintage pornography magazines in second-hand bookshops or cosplayers in the high-end Ginza shops. Be on the lookout for LGBTQ related things, such as yaoi in the anime mecha of Nakano Broadway.
3. Tokyo’s LGBTQ Community Groups
Up until a few years ago, Tokyo’s gay and lesbian community posted events on Mixi, sort of Japan’s version of MySpace. Unfortunately, that seems to have collapsed with the rise of mobile, and there isn’t a consolidated place to get information. For those who know a bit of Japanese, Twitter is a good source of information, as Japanese are heavy users.
Apart from knowing a few queer friends in Tokyo, I typically met people through Meetup.com going for movies, coffees, and book clubs. I also just tagged along with friends to meet their friends, especially around dates like Tokyo Rainbow Pride (late April to May).
Gay and Lesbian Meetup groups:
- Tokyo LGBTQIAP+ and Supporters – pretty active group
- Tokyo LGBT Community Cafe
- Tokyo Gay Book Group
- Tokyo Gay Professionals
- Go Meet Japan (Yaoi interest)
For women, there is a local Japanese group called Kakurez (隠れズ) that supports lesbians who are mostly not out.
Are there LGBTQ to attend in Tokyo?
In addition to the clubs and Meetup.com events, there are some annual events to check out.
- Tokyo Rainbow Reel and Tokyo’s Gay and Lesbian Film Festival
- Twitter’s LGBT Events
- Tokyo Rainbow Pride (Late April – Early May) — with several events and a parade that goes from Shibuya to Yoyogi Park, with performances
- Shinjuku Nichome’s Matsuri (August) — like most summer festivals, it feels like a neighbourhood party, but with drag queens, performances, and lots of street food
- Gender Free Party happens a few times a year (tip from a trans friend who lived there)
Shinjuku’s gay and lesbian bars
Most of the night life is in Shinjuku Nichome for both men and women. The area is affectionately called Nichome and I would recommend walking over from the Tokyo Metro Shinjuku Sanchome Station because the station is a more manageable size.
Bar Culture & how to meet people
- Totally okay to go on your own.
- It’s a custom to treat a bartender. You say ippai douzo (一杯どうぞ) and let the bartender choose their own drink.
- The bartenders help introduce you to a place. By treating the bartender, they will help initiate conversations to include you. Of course, look for the more chatty ones.
- Barhopping is common practice. It is called hashigo. Bartenders will usually say itterashai when you go, and welcome you back with okaeri when you return later.
- If you like a place, consider having a “bottle keep”. You buy a full bottle and you can likely paint or label the bottle as you like. That will be your bottle every time you come in, which is a great way to get into the community.
Shinjuku bars for gay men
For the guys, there is stuff going on. Places are small, but also numerous. Places gay men can be categorized from bars, clubs, massage parlours, and sex clubs.
Please double check that the places are still open, as they may either have moved or closed. Shinjuku’s rents are quite high and there are some yakuza associations, so bar owners are often under high pressure.
Some of the popular ones I’ve heard of are:
24 Kaikan Hotel and Sauna Shinjuku 7-story sauna with communal and private rooms, baths, steam rooms, glory-hole room, cafe. ¥2,600 for 13 hours. Open 24 hours, 365 days. Foreigner friendly, but limited English. This article explains navigating 24 Kaikan.
AiiRO Cafe is a hole in the wall with an English-speaking proprietor.
Aisotope Lounge is a two-level gay bar and club with quite a packed party schedule.
Arty Farty has enough space for a dance floor, and unlimited drinks with the cover during happy hour.
DNA is a good place for a chat and open daily.
Dragon Men is a streetside bar (in contrast to some of the upstairs spaces) and is one of the more spacious options. Daily happy hour is from 6pm-9pm.
Fuji has kareoke and is for more mature foreign guys and Japanese guys into them.
Kinsmen is a well-established place with friendly bar staff and no cover charge.
Leo Lounge, where I’ve heard the staff are friendly.
Tac’s Knot is a small space that also features gay artists’ work as it’s run by a local artist.
All of these places are within the same 200-metre radius. Note that many are not on the first floor, so double check the address when you click on the link to the Google map location. You can check the Japan Visitor list complete with a sectional map. There’s also a Japanese “boy’s map” for Japan: Otoko-machi Map (男街マップ).
Apparently, the Shinbashi area is also another location that attracts 30+ office crowds. It’s also more local, so go with someone who speaks Japanese. Town House Tokyo and Bravo! are two places that are more foreigner-friendly. This is more an office area, so check the opening hours — some places are closed on Sundays.
Tokyo lesbian bars
Adezakura (艶櫻) Is a recommendation from a friend who says it’s popular amongst locals and foreigners.
Agit アジト A lesbian-owned bar with kareoke. Has a cover charge.
Bar Goldfinger is probably Shinjuku’s most famous lesbian bar.
Hug Closed (according to Google). Kins Womyn Closed.
Diamondholic – A local friend says the staff try to connect people and get everyone chatting to each other. My friend has had introductions to English-speaking people.
Dorobune – Teppanyaki restaurant and lesbian bar-in-one
FIVE is a local friend’s recommendation. She says it’s popular among foreigners too.
絆 Kizuna is for an older crowd and has kareoke
Motel #203 (?) Not sure. I think it might have been folded into Goldfinger now, as the website is down and I can’t search information even in Japanese.
Peach (1F Shinjuku 2-15-8, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo) — Might be closed. Open Tues – Sat 11pm-7am. Peach mark in a brick building beside ‘Hug’.
Tamago is a women-only bar. A friend told me was mainly FTM and that they can rip off customers (¥2000 cover and ¥1000 drinks).
Chestnut and Squirrel in Shibuya is closed.
What’s it like living here?
I’ve realised this deserves another post, so I’ll leave this as a placeholder. I put some general comments on how LGBTQ-friendly is Tokyo and what the community is like in the above sections.
Just two contacts in case you are new to Tokyo:
Tokyo English Life Line 03 5774 0992 (9am-4pm, 7pm-11pm)
HIV & Human Rights Info for English speakers 03 5259 0256 (Saturdays only, noon-3pm)
What’s some good Japanese LGBTQ content to check out?
This list is no particular order!
- Gay Map (Japanese) – Directory of gay groups, events, spaces based on prefecture
- Genxy – A Japanese mostly gay male web magazine
- Taku & Rei’s Room -blog between an American and Japanese couple based in Fukuoka)
- Out in Japan (Photo & Video Series)
- Letitbee Life (Japanese Media) A relatively recent, but seems pretty successful, campaign to raise awareness on gay and lesbian issues
- Rebit (Japanese Site)
- 2CHOPO (Japanese Event & Media Site)Utopia Japan – Has useful information about the gay and lesbian scenes in Japan, especially for night life.
- Gay Japan News – A Japanese gay and lesbian news site, with an English section.
- Tokyowrestling – A Japanese-English bilingual site with lesbian and queer culture from a Japanese perspective.
- Huffington Post JP (Japanese) – Mostly translations of LGBTQ news globally
- Nijiro Diversity – Company that advocates for diversity in the workplace
- Being Black & Gay in Tokyo (2016)
- Another Gay Man in Tokyo (2015)
- Being gay in Japan (2013)
Have any tips to share with the community? Please leave a comment and I’ll credit you in my edits!
If you liked this post, check out my guide to LGBTQ Hong Kong.