How friendly Japan really is to gay travelers as the LGBTQ community celebrates change

Waso Kajiura celebrates gender fluidity and Japanese heritage in Nagoya.Photo / Japan Tourism Awards

Japan has opened up its borders, but the conservative country has some culture shock for LGBTQI+ travelers.

This month, Tokyo celebrated a groundbreaking moment for the LGBTQQI+ community as the city finally recognizes same-sex partnerships.

Japan’s tourism agency JNTO saw the announcement as a “wind of positive change”, but critics and human rights groups said locals and tourists were still a long way off from enjoying the same rights as those in other countries.

With Japan only recently reopening to international tourists, it’s a joyous time for tourists who are finally granted visa-free access with few Covid-free travel restrictions. However, the experience can come with some culture shock, especially for same-sex couples.


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Travelers might be surprised that it’s the only G7 country without marriage equality.

Attitudes toward LGBTQI+ travelers vary across regions. Laws and rights also extend to same-sex partnerships.

Shibuya has become the first district to make changes following a seven-year struggle in Tokyo to recognize “same-sex” partnerships.

As of November 1, 10 of Japan’s 43 prefectures now recognize LGBTQI+ couples. This represents approximately 40% of the population as most urban areas change.


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Following the news, JNTO issued advice for gay travelers looking to travel to Japan. There is a sense that it may not be perfect, but it is progress.

“Any kind of public display of affection is usually frowned upon in Japan, but as long as you pay attention to Japanese culture, LGBTQI+ tourists have nothing to worry about,” the travel agency said.

“As anywhere, there are inevitably differences in familiarity between modern cities and more traditional rural areas, but this by no means means that LGBTQI+ tourists should avoid the less traveled road.”

As a generally tolerant culture that respects privacy, this is usually not a problem.

However, this region-by-region approach has led to problems. Lodging in some more conservative counties does not allow same-sex couples to share rooms. In the worse case, travelers in same-sex couples will not be considered close relatives and will not be allowed to visit their hospitalized partner.

In 2020, a couple successfully sued two hotels in the western city of Amagasaki for being turned away because of their sexual orientation.

Since 2018, the local health ministry has banned hotels from refusing guests because of their gender identity, The Japan Times reported. However, there are still some areas that are less open to LGBTQI+ tourists.

The country scored -2 ​​on the 2021 Spartacus Gay Tourism Index, ranking it 60th out of 200 countries. 46 places below New Zealand.

200,000 people marched for marriage equality in the 2019 Tokyo Rainbow Pride Parade.Photo/Alessandro Di Ciommo via Getty Images
200,000 people marched for marriage equality in the 2019 Tokyo Rainbow Pride Parade.Photo/Alessandro Di Ciommo via Getty Images

The UK Foreign Office went on to say that while homosexuality is not illegal, “there is nothing in Japanese legislation that guarantees freedom from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.”

In some parts of the country, this can affect couples’ civil rights, such as a partner’s right to hospital visitation or accommodation.


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Such attitudes are a delicate nuance when it comes to operating LGBTQI+-friendly businesses in Japan, travel companies say.

“Tourists are unlikely to experience any overt hostility or discrimination,” said Tim Williamson, account director for Responsible Travel, a travel company that offers package tours to gay tourists.

“That said, while progress is being made — great to hear from Tokyo this month — barriers to true LGBTQI+ equality in Japan remain, and legal protections against discrimination are limited and varied.”

Regardless of the couple’s sexual orientation, public displays of affection are often frowned upon, he said.

The feeling is that the country is opening up, and attitudes have changed a lot since 2008, when the UN raised concerns about the lack of protections for the LGBTQI+ community outside of Tokyo. Change is happening, state by state. Although just this year, an Osaka court rejected an appeal for universal recognition of marriage equality – a case that Amnesty International said “highlights the prejudices LGBTQI people face in Japan”.

Japanese Gay Travel Experience

The traveler’s life experience is a kind of respect. It’s not always easy to make friends with the locals though.


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Speaking with Spartacus gay travel guide, Josko, a Kyoto-based academic, said that even in the conservative cultural capital, there are plenty of welcoming spaces. While Kyoto itself doesn’t have an LGBTQI+ scene, the German traveler recommended certain bars, such as Offsait Studio, where the owner runs an unofficial gay city guide and “provides them with recommendations for particularly cozy places in Kyoto” .

The Japan Travel Awards have started a category to recognize the best LGBTQI+ passionate travel experiences.

The one that attracted the most attention this year was Wasou Kajiura, who runs a kimono experience in Nagoya. Their exploration of gender fluidity and Japanese tradition and history has been described as “genius”.

There is a sense that attitudes towards homosexuality in Japan are changing rapidly. Even since the pandemic, the number of local municipalities recognizing same-sex partnerships has tripled. Tokyo, which made the unanimous change on November 1, was the latest and most populous.

The JNTO said this reflected broader trends in the country.

“Polls show great approval for the change, which is a good thing for both LGBTQI+ people in Japan and tourists from abroad.”


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