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Waso Kajiura celebrates gender fluidity and Japanese tradition in Nagoya. Photo / Japan Travel Awards
Japan has opened its borders but the conservative country holds some culture shocks for LGBTQI+ travellers.
This month Tokyo celebrated a groundbreaking moment for the LGBTQQI+ community, as the city finally recognised same-sex partnerships.
The Japanese Tourism Authority JNTO greeted the announcement as the “winds of positive change” but critics and human rights organisations have said there is still a long way before locals and visitors enjoy the same rights as in other countries.
With Japan having only recently reopened to international travellers, it has been a joyous time for visitors finally allowed into the country visa-free and with few Covid travel restrictions. However, the experience can be a bit of a culture shock, particularly for same-sex couples.
Travellers may be surprised that it is the only G7 country without marriage equality.
Attitudes towards LGBTQI+ travellers vary from district to district. As do the laws and rights extended to those in same-sex partnerships.
Tokyo’s recognition of ‘same sex’ partnerships has been a seven year battle, after the Shibuya district became the first to make the change.
As of November 1, 10 of the 43 Japanese prefectures now recognise LGBTQI+ couples. With the change having been made in mostly urban areas, this represents around 40 per cent of the population.
Following the news, JNTO issued advice to gay travellers looking forward to a trip to Japan. There is a feeling that it may not be perfect but it is progress.
“In Japan, public displays of affection of any kind are generally frowned upon but as long as you’re mindful of Japanese culture, LGBTQI+ visitors have little to worry about,” said the tourism body.
“Just as with anywhere, there are inevitable differences in levels of familiarity between the modern cities and the more traditional countryside areas but that’s in no way to say that LGBTQI+ visitors should avoid going off-the-beaten-path.”
As a generally tolerant culture that respects privacy, it is normally a non issue.
However this district by district approach has led to problems. Accommodation in some more conservative prefectures will not allow same sex couples to rent rooms together. In more dire circumstances, travellers in same-sex couples will not be considered next of kin or be allowed to visit partners in hospital.
In 2020 a couple were able to successfully sue two hotels in the western city of Amagasaki for turning them away on the basis of their sexual orientation.
According to Japan Times the local health ministry has banned inns from refusing guests due to their gender identity since 2018. However there are still areas which aren’t quite as open to LGBTQI+ visitors.
The country has scored -2 in the Spartacus Gay Travel Index 2021, joint 60 out of 200 countries. 46 places below New Zealand.
The UK foreign office continues to advise that, although homosexuality is not illegal, “there are no provisions in Japanese legislation guaranteeing freedom from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.”
In some parts of the country this can affect a couple’s civil rights such as hospital visitation of a partner or accommodation.
Travel companies say the attitudes are subtle nuances to running LGBTQI+ friendly businesses in Japan.
“It’s unlikely visitors would experience any open hostility or discrimination,” says Tim Williamson, customer director of Responsible Travel, a tour company which offers travel packages for gay travellers.
“That said, while progress is being made – and it’s great to hear the news from Tokyo this month – barriers to true LGBTQI+ equality do remain in Japan, and legal protections against discrimination are limited and varied.”
He says that public displays of affection are generally frowned upon regardless of the couple’s sexual orientation.
The feeling is that the country is opening up and attitudes have changed a lot since 2008 when the UN expressed concerns at the lack of protection for LGBTQI+ community outside of Tokyo. Change is happening, prefecture by prefecture. Although just this year an Osaka court blocked an appeal for marriage equality to be recognised universally – a case that Amnesty international said “highlights the prejudice faced by LGBTQI people in Japan.”
The lived experience of travellers is one of respect. Although it is not always easy to make friends with locals.
Talking to Spartacus Gay Travel guide, Kyoto-based academic Josko says even in the conservative cultural capital there are plenty of welcoming spaces. Although there is not an LGBTQI+ scene per se in Kyoto, the German traveller recommends certain bars such as the Offsait Studio, where the owners run an unofficial gay guide to the city and “give tips for places in Kyoto where they feel particularly comfortable.”
The Japan Travel Awards have started to run a category for best LGBTQI+ welcoming travel experiences.
Top mentions this year were Wasou Kajiura which runs kimono experiences in Nagoya. Their exploration of gender fluidity and Japanese tradition and history was described as “just genius”.
There is a feeling that attitudes towards homosexuality are fast changing in Japan. Even since the pandemic the number of local municipalities recognising same-sex partnerships have tripled. Tokyo, which made the unanimous change on November 1, is the latest and most populous.
JNTO says that it reflects a wider trend in the country.
“Opinion surveys have shown a great deal of approval for this change on the ground, which is great for LGBTQI+ people both in Japan and visitors coming from abroad.”

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