Queer Life in Cool Places: Kevyn's Semester at Sea
by Kevyn Jacobs
Editor's Note: Kevyn spent Fall 1997 visiting twelve countries as a participant in the Semester at Sea (SAS) program. The group of 600 students left aboard the S.S. Universe Explorer from Vancouver, Canada, on 14 September 1997, and circled the globe. As part of his on-board studies, Kevyn prepared a comparitive report on gay subcultures. This is the first in a three-part series of his journey. Click here read Kevyn's entire report.
There are no legal sanctions against homosexuals in Japan. The age of consent for homosexual contact between males is 13, and no sodomy laws or "crimes against nature" laws exist (Gmünder 600).
Tokyo has a thriving gay subculture, and is the center of gay life in Japan, with well over 700 gay bars--the largest number of any city on the planet. Most Japanese gay bars are smaller than western gay bars, intimate little owner-operated places that serve as neighborhood hangouts, in contrast to the big discos that are well-known in the west. It was in one such place that I met Junzo, an 40- year-old unemployed man from Hirosaki, a town in northern Hokkaido, who had moved to Tokyo 20 years before in order to be able to "live a gay life." In my interviews, I found that many Japanese gay men move to Tokyo for that reason, a pattern echoed in gay urban centers around the world.
Junzo stressed that he was actually unusual for a Japanese gay man, in that he was not married to a woman. In Japan's highly structured, duty-based culture, many gay men, if not most, have taken wives because they are expected to. This practice is not unheard of in the rest of the world, but what makes Japan so unusual in this is that often the wives know even before marriage that their husband is gay. But as long as the man is a dutiful husband, a good provider, and a good father to the children, he is free to have discreet homosexual liaisons on the side. Japanese wives apparently do not see this practice as a threat to monogamy, and are content to look the other way, as long as the man's duties as a husband are fulfilled.
This sentiment was also expressed by Akira and Toshi, two Tokyo white-collar workers who I arranged a meeting with over the Internet. Both are 35 and unmarried, but again they stressed that this was not necessarily common among gay men in Japan. Akira was born and raised in Tokyo, but like Junzo, Toshi had come to Tokyo for the purpose of living "the gay life," as well as for job opportunities.
All three are out to their families, in one degree or another, and this, too, is common in Japan. Again, as long as family obligations are fulfilled, much is tolerated. None, however, were out at work, which was not so much because of fear or losing jobs, so much as that Japanese culture does not encourage bringing one's private life into the workplace. "Straights wouldn't talk about their families in the workplace, either," Akira told me. None felt they would be at risk of losing their jobs if their employers inadvertently found out about their sexual orientations.
Homosexual couples do exist in Japan, and there are cases where these couples cohabitate. But the frequency of these partnerships is not as common as they seem to be in the rest of the world, probably because of the expectation of marriage described above. Japan does not have domestic partnership laws, nor is same-sex marriage allowed.
Despite the fact that the gay subculture of Tokyo is a thriving one, there is no western-style gay political movement. A gay pride parade was attempted in Tokyo several years back, but it was not well-attended due to lack of interest. None have been held since. In Japan, where there are no anti-gay laws or anti-gay societal norms to rally against, and where individual liberty is not culturally valued, there is little need or desire to form an organized movement. The only organizations that do exist are the several AIDS education groups in Japan, and a few gay newspapers.
Historically, Japan has a gay subculture that goes back at least 400 years, especially around the Buddhist temples. This pre-dates most gay subcultures on the planet. It is most likely that this long-existent subculture and the relative stability of Japanese culture, along with the tolerated role as husbands that Japanese gays have in their culture, have led to the unique situation of Japanese gays.
CHINA & HONG KONG
Almost all of the data I was able to collect on Chinese gay life necessarily came from Hong Kong, where there is an established western-style gay subculture, thanks to the longstanding British influence. There are no gay bars, gay establishments or gay political organizations in the whole of the People's Republic of China (Gmünder 159), and consequently, I was not able to locate any gay interview subjects there. Numerous gay establishments exist in Hong Kong (Gmünder 519).
In the People's Republic of China (P.R.A.), there are no laws that explicitly mention homosexuality. However, it is widely considered to disrupt the "Principle of Harmony" (Gmünder 159) and it is with this catchall phrase that Chinese homosexuals have been oppressed. In Hong Kong and the associated territories, the law is based on British law, and as such, homosexual contact between men is legal at age 21 (Gmünder 519). Consequently, there are many gay bars and bathhouses, many of which cater to the large western population of Hong Kong.
At one bathhouse, I met Michael, a 21-year-old Chinese store clerk, who was able to tell me about gay life in Hong Kong, and especially about life for Chinese gays.
Michael emphasized that gay life was indeed very far underground in the P.R.C., but that it did exist. Because it is necessarily so, it is very difficult for outsiders to make contact. I found this to be true in my own discreet inquiries in Shanghai, where I was only able to find out that there did exist there homosexual prostitutes (hustlers), but I felt it imprudent to pursue that avenue of inquiry in a communist country.
Whether in or out of the People's Republic, Chinese people tend to take a dim view of homosexuality. Michael emphasized that most Chinese gays were not even out to their parents, much less to their employers, which in many cases are the same. Chinese families don't want to know, he informed me. As long as he doesn't bring the issue up to his family, they don't care. And, because he is the youngest male in the family, his getting married and having children is not expected of him.
No analogous situation to the Japanese exists in China. When I asked Michael if a Chinese gay man could be married and pursue homosexual liaisons on the side, he flatly told me no. "A Chinese woman would not marry a gay man. If she found out he was gay, she would divorce him."
Chinese gay couples do exist, however, both in the P.R.C. and in Hong Kong. And according to Michael, they do cohabitate, and they are fiercely loyal to one another. But their relationships exist outside the confines of societal protection--no domestic partnership laws or legal marriages exist in either place.
Gay political organizations do not exist in either place. In the P.R.C., this is largely due to the general political oppression of Mainland China. In Hong Kong, the area is just too small, the gay population to sparse, and the issues not important enough to form an active gay movement.
When I asked Michael if gays in Hong Kong worried about the effect the recent handover would have on the lives of gays in the former British territory, he told me no. "Gays are too small of an issue in Hong Kong for the P.R.C. to worry about. As long as we don't make an issue out of it, they are content to let things be." This attitude, I suspect, is much more a reason why no political movement exists in Hong Kong than because of population size.
Although gay subculture has existed in China for at least 2,000 years--there is some explicitly gay poetry that came out of theTung Dynasty, and there is a long history of homosexuality among the members of the imperial court in the Forbidden City--it seems that the people's revolution succeeded in driving whatever gay subculture there was deep underground.
And in Hong Kong, long "inculturated" with British values and laws, gays are playing a wait-and-see game along with the rest of their people. Only time will tell how political events will end up shaping gay life in Hong Kong.
It seems that little or no gay scene or groups exist in Viêt Nam. The Spartacus guide was unable to provide any information on the legal status of homosexuality in this communist country. Only two gay bars were listed, one in Ha Noi, and one in Ho Chi Minh City (Gmünder 1202-1203), and when I attempted to visit the one in Ho Chi Minh City, I discovered that it had gone out of business.
One Semester at Sea participant reported to me that he had been propositioned for sex by a wealthy Vietnamese man (he declined), and another Semester at Sea participant reported that he had actually paid for sex with a hustler in Ho Chi Minh City, but beyond that I was not able to find information on local gays. I was not able to locate an interview subject during my stay there.
Next Issue: India and Egypt!
Gmünder, Bruno Spartacus International Gay Guide (97/98), 26th edition, 1997. Bruno Gmünder Verlag GMBH, Berlin.
Hekma, Gert . At Home in a World of Strangers: Towards a Comparison of Gay Urban Cultures. Research project proposal to the Dutch Foundation for Scholarly Research, 1997, Amsterdam Gay & Lesbian Studies website, http://www.pscw.uva.nl/gl.
Lapierre, Dominique. The City of Joy. 1985, Time Warner Books, New York.