Japan Is Working Hard to Attract Gay Travelers
Japan has everything you would expect of a tourist destination. Everything, it seems, except the tourists.
To some people, of course, this might add to the allure. A destination unsullied by foreigners clutching selfie sticks sounds rather appealing. But Japan’s relatively sluggish performance in winning visitors from overseas is now an issue of prime ministerial concern. Things are improving. Japan looks likely to have attracted close to 20m visitors in 2015 — a big leap from the 13.5m it secured in 2014, a figure which placed it seventh in Asia behind China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, Macau and South Korea. China attracted more than 55m visitors in the same year. 2015 is obviously significantly better than the year before but even 20m feels like a low bar for such an important nation.
To many, Japan may seem like one big sophisticated high-tech metropolis of the future when images of flashy Tokyo fly across your screens. But its LGBT rights movement remains a work in progress.
After a few years away from the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), Japan will be attending the organization’s annual meeting this year in Los Angeles and looking into attracting more LGBT tourists. Yuki Tanaka, the executive director of the Japan National Tourism Organization, said that the initiative is still in its fledgling stages, but it’s making progress. “Tokyo and Kyoto are the most popular,” she said, “people like the modern design of Japan, the high-end hotels, and the nightlife.”
Similar to the United States, it’s the major cities — such as Tokyo and Kyoto — where LGBT rights are making their first advances. In Japan, couples renting houses or apartments need some sort of authorization, and a marriage certificate is usually used. But since gay couples can’t get married in Japan, it was difficult for them to rent property when the owner could deny them.
Now, in the Shibuya district of Tokyo, gay couples can be granted similar authorization, and other districts and cities are thinking about following suit. Some temples in Kyoto have also started to recognize gay weddings. Though it can’t be recognized as an official marriage by the government, the temples host the ceremonies for the couples.
More than half of visitors to Japan come from Taiwan, South Korea and China. Europeans account for fewer than 10 per cent of visits. Japan boasts a fascinating culture, spectacular scenery, beaches and mountains. It is safe, modern and — my children assure me, although they have not been there themselves — cool. A nation that prides itself on the quality of its hospitality is somehow failing to pull Asia-bound tourists.
The boys of Shinjuku
Roughly half a century since it emerged as a refuge for homosexuals in what was formerly a red-light district, the block is in decline. The local commercial organisation that promotes Ni-chome estimates that the number of gay bars in the area has fallen by at least a third in the past decade. The once exclusively male gay clientèle is filled out at the weekends with the straight, the female and the simply curious. “Are gays vanishing from Shinjuku Ni-chome!?,” wondered one of the country’s most popular magazines recently.”This used to be a place for communicating with and discreetly meeting like-minded people,” explains the organisation’s head Mitsuo Fukushima. “Now there are many other ways of communicating.”
Last year, artist Susumu Ryu tried to document the decline in a 276-page manga comic with the clumsy English title, “Vanishing Shinjuku Ni-chome – who severed the jugular of a flower garden of heretical culture?” Ryu blames gentrification associated with the opening of a new subway line, which has pushed up local property prices and made many of the tiny bars here unviable; and the rise of the internet, which has given men with secret lives a way to navigate the world. Instead of cruising bars for strangers, they can now hook up online and arrange to meet in a love hotel or apartment. He cites the 2004 closure of the famous gay magazine Barazoku after 33 years as a key moment. “That was a symbolic event when the internet overtook gay culture here.” Recession hasn’t helped: many of the bars demand a cover charge of up to 1,000 yen.
Few seem worried or even aware that Ni-chome may be dying. But among many proprietors, the talk is of little else. Some speculate that Tokyo’s famously right-wing governor Shintaro Ishihara, irritated by the area’s reputation for sexual freedom and occasional debauchery, may have a hand in its decline, but there is no proof of that. “He doesn’t have to crush Ni-chome,” says Wagner. “It’s imploding.”