Living in Japan: A nonbinary American’s experience

Outside of Tokyo, there's Kyoto (pictured), which has nearly 2,000 temples and shrines and shopping district Kamakura.
  • Living and traveling Japan has been a journey of self-realization and an exercise in creating my own community.
  • There is a level of acceptance when it comes to self-expression. Expectations in fashion, specifically, have become quite malleable in Japan.
  • You also may experience “foreigner privilege.” As long as you’re respectful, most people won’t bat an eye at any self-expression.

I struggled for a long time to find my place. As a mixed BIPOC, nonbinary, lesbian woman growing up in Arizona, it was exhausting trying to navigate my intersectionality.

Even the smallest things – like getting a haircut, picking which section of stores to shop in, or needing to use a restroom in a public place – were drenched in unnecessary politics.

The invalidation had me desperately longing for acceptance. It was hard being an outsider in the place you’re supposed to call home.

So I decided that if I was going to keep feeling like an outsider, I would at least do it in a place where it made sense.

I did a few teaching interviews, got my papers in order, packed all I could into two suitcases, and booked my flight to Osaka, Japan.

FEELING SEEN, UNDERSTOOD IN GHANA:‘African Americans are not as far removed from the continent’

I WENT TO UZBEKISTAN AND COULD PASS FOR A LOCAL:Here’s why (sometimes) it’s better to stand out as a tourist

Street scene in the Dotombori district of Osaka, Japan.

Japan is a place with many faces. In the three and a half years I’ve lived here, I have been lucky enough to find myself in both worlds. The cities, with their fast-paced days and boisterous nights. The countryside, with slow, picturesque magic.

That doesn’t mean I suddenly found my place here. Living and traveling Japan has been a journey of self-realization and an exercise in creating my own community.

Lex Byrd

Japan tends to have relatively conservative political leanings, especially among older generations, and does still have a long way to go with accepting and giving political rights to members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Japan’s national government does not recognize same-sex unions, and has no laws giving protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Some places, like Tokyo, have made recent efforts to provide orientation and identity-based protections in local law, and over 100 Japanese municipalities have begun offering “proof of partnership” certificates to same-sex couples, though these carry no weight on a federal level.

But there is a level of acceptance when it comes to self-expression. Expectations in fashion, specifically, have become malleable in the country. Allowing yourself to experiment with how you present yourself is easy in large cities like Osaka and Tokyo, and nobody will openly question your choices.

Twins, who go by Kunika and Kuniho, 17, record a greeting for their social media followers in the Harajuku district of Tokyo, June 2, 2019. Harajuku is one of the most popular shopping neighborhoods in Japan. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Language nuance can be ‘incredibly validating’

An additional issue is that the Japanese language itself doesn’t really have terminology that could equate to gender nonconforming pronouns. People who use they/them or other genderqueer pronouns may have a hard time with this. However, in Japanese conversation, emphasis is put less on “she,” “he,” or “they,” and more on “I.” 

There are a staggering number of first-person pronouns, and each has its own feel. Some are more professional, some very casual, some exceptionally masculine or feminine, and some are kind of a catch-all.

Exploring this form of self-expression can be incredibly validating. There is something wonderful about both the simple self-recognition and making yourself known to others without having to explain it any further.

Japanese people wearing traditional clothes walk in the street after attending a kimono fashion show in Oita, Japan, Oct. 18, 2019.

And, in most cases, you truly don’t need to explain it. The overall mindset in Japan is largely, “live and let live.” Most adults will take what you say and go with it. If there are any questions, they generally come from a place of genuine curiosity, since nonbinary identity and gender nonconformity aren’t commonly spoken about in Japan.

If you teach young kids, do prepare to get questions from them. They have no filter and endless curiosity. (Some things are universal.)

Visitors at the Kiyomizu temple, a UNESCO World Heritage wooden structure set in the hills around Kyoto, on May 22, 2020.

You also may experience “foreigner privilege.” Japanese culture tends to be far harder on native Japanese people than on foreigners.

As long as you’re respectful, most people won’t bat an eye at any self-expression – visual or verbal – that might be deemed unusual for somebody born and raised in Japan. While it certainly isn’t fair and deserves reflection and analysis of its own, this is a cultural phenomenon that affords a nonbinary traveler a level of acceptance they may not find elsewhere.

All of these things make it a lot easier to feel comfortable and create your own community here.

Acceptance is easy to find, people are friendly, and, even as an outsider, it’s hard to feel alone. In my case, I’ve made my place here among other foreign teachers and expats, people within the LGBTQ+, Japanese co-workers and friends, and even some of my students and their families. I have my community. And for that and all it taught me along the way, I will always be thankful to Japan.

Lex Byrd is a queer writer of color currently based in Kyoto, Japan, and frequently travels the country.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Next post Fake travel finds a foothold in Japan and South Korea