IN THE WESTERN IMAGINATION, Japan has often been a place of mystery, a locus of the exotic. Before the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and Japan’s embrace of things Western, Japan had been literally closed to most of the world, so an air of mystery was inevitable. But although travel and technology have long since opened up Japan to the world, there are some aspects of Japanese life that remain enduringly inaccessible to the non-Japanese. You can visit Japan, but you can never fully experience it, except as a visitor. Even if you speak the language, the barriers are manifold, and they go beyond the obvious. This is especially true of gay life in Japan. I learned much of this during a recent trip that included stays in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, and Matsue.
Most queer Americans are used to encountering an established gay nightlife in the world’s larger cities (at least those where political oppression is not a factor), and it’s reasonable to expect Tokyo to fall into this category. After all, it’s a thriving, cosmopolitan metropolis of some 30 million people. But as Donald Richie (perhaps the pre-eminent interpreter of Japan for the West) has pointed out, Tokyo is not a city as much as an organic, dynamic accretion of villages. It has no center, literally or figuratively, and to find one’s way around there is not easy. Although the Shinjuku district is arguably the center of Tokyo’s gay life, it is not so in the sense that Americans are accustomed to.