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“The gays will not go away”

On a Sunday afternoon in Tokyo, nothing beats a little subcultural voyeurism. In Yoyogi Park, Japanese rockabillies jive sombrely while a sugar-dusted scurry of Harajuku girls patter on to Takeshita Street. But in a country where dressing up is something of a national pastime, some costumes still unsettle: gay Pokémon outfits, for example, worn by some of the revellers at the Rainbow Pride Parade on 29 April where 2,500 participants marched through the Shibuya District before partying in Yoyogi Park to celebrate and raise awareness of the LGBT community.

Bar a period in the 19th century, when missionaries briefly became more influential, the Japanese have had no problem with gay sex, unburdened as they are by the Judaeo-Christian shadow of sodomitic “sin”. But to celebrate sexuality publicly, irrespective of orientation, is simply not the national way. A Japanese aphorism, loosely translated as “the nail that sticks out will be hammered flat”, encapsulates the overriding preference for harmony or homogeny, depending on your perspective.

This year’s first ever Tokyo Rainbow Pride, with its mission to celebrate “diversity and individuality”, was a bold move. Despite the capital’s cosmopolitan credentials and flamboyant gay party scene, Tokyo has hosted only small-scale LGBT celebrations in the past two decades.

Rainbow Pride, however, takes inspiration from a very western model of LGBT activism, in which the right to difference rules. As the radio presenter and blogger Chiki Ogiue told me, “Things that stand out will invite conflict. But if we aren’t seen, it is as if we don’t exist.”

Attending the parade with his husband, the US consul general of Osaka, Patrick Linehan, quoted Hillary Clinton’s recent “human rights are gay rights, gay rights are human rights” proclamation in his post-parade speech. But how the Japanese LGBT community goes about asking for those rights in a society with little anti-sexual discrimination protection and no civil partnership must now be worked out.

Campaigners need legislative champions. The presence of Mizuho Fukushima, leader of the Social Democratic Party, and Japan’s two openly gay MPs at the march suggests that LGBT rights are finally on the political agenda. A government committee currently tackling Japan’s suicide rate (estimated at roughly 30,000 deaths a year) will be forced to confront the disproportionate number of LGBT individuals who constitute that figure.

As one reveller put it, “The gays will not go away.”

Group hug

Despite Tokyo Rainbow Pride’s call to individualism, what resonated above all else was the sense of the collective. Typically cited social divisions – queer v straight, older v younger, Japanese v non-Japanese-speaking – were, for at least one day, absent at a party that could have been taking place in San Francisco or Sydney, gay Pokémon outfits aside.

Perhaps Japan’s “nails” no longer need hammering quite so flat for harmony to prevail.

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Halal: Britain’s most feared food