LGBTQ+ Japan vacation advice

Historically, Japan’s theatre, artwork and literature have acknowledged and celebrated LGBTQ+ people.
In Japan, the acceptance of LGBTQ+ people is a largely informal affair. Personal relationships are considered just that – and privacy is respected.

Same-sex relationships have always been legal in Japan (aside from a brief period in the 1880s, largely due to Western influence), however couples are not afforded equal rights. Furthermore, living openly as a same-sex couple is a tricky business, thanks to a conservative society and ruling party – and the laws that go hand in hand with those.

Around 100 city districts and prefectures offer symbolic ‘partnership certificates’, but outside those same-sex partnerships are not legally recognised. This can cause huge problems for couples wishing to rent homes together (marriage certificates are often used as authorisation), as well as for anyone trying to visit a partner in hospital where evidence of the relationship may be required.

In 2009, local authorities were permitted to issue the relevant certification to citizens who wished to have a same-sex marriage ceremony abroad. But, over 10 years later, marriage equality has yet to materialise in Japan, with one couple planning to get married in 26 regions around the world in protest.
Transgender rights have also seen little progress in Japan. Citizens were granted the right to change their legal gender in 2009 – but only for people who have had gender affirmation surgery, are unmarried and have no children under 20. For gender to be changed on official documents, sterilisation is also required – a stand that Human Rights Watch calls a breach of Japan’s human rights obligations.

Encouragingly, the Japanese public are often more open-minded than their country’s laws. Granting equal marriage rights is supported by over 70 percent of voters (up from 41 percent in 2015). In Kyoto, some temples host same-sex weddings. While these are still not legally accepted by the government, it has a symbolic importance and creates a wider general acceptance of such ceremonies.

Each year, the LGBTQ+ rights movement gains momentum, aided by this increasingly positive public opinion, tireless activists, pop culture and openly LGBTQ+ politicians holding office (if not by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who is insistent that the country’s ban on same-sex marriage isn’t discriminatory). LGBTQ+ people might not have much visibility in day-to-day life, but they are speaking out on TV, podcasts, stage and screen. National celebrities with huge followings are allies, including Ayumi Hamasaki – “the Empress of J-pop”.

In 2023, the Japan legislature passed a “LGBTQ+ Equality Act” that was hard-fought for by activists. It’s a step forward but has been criticised as being watered down, failing to build in full anti-discrimination protections. Some cities and wards such as Tokyo have moved in a more promising direction, pushing forward with regional laws prohibiting sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination.

We remain hopeful that things will continue to progress – if not as rapidly as we would like.

Attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community

In general, Japanese society is tolerant towards the LGBTQ+ community, and tourists should not encounter harassment or discrimination.
It’s worth bearing in mind that Japan remains a very conservative society, and public displays of affection are not in-keeping with Japanese culture. Couples of any sexual orientation should avoid kissing and putting their arms around each other in public; even holding hands is uncommon outside the most liberal urban districts. Added to this is the deeply embedded culture of politeness and respect; even if you are behaving in a way which makes someone feel uncomfortable, they are unlikely to call you out on it.

We would ask all travelers to be conscious of this, to observe the behaviour of those around you, and do your best to treat your hosts with the same amount of respect as they afford you – whether this means not kissing in public or not pointing cameras in people’s faces.
Finally, as is the case in most countries, there are substantial differences between attitudes towards LGBTQ+ rights in rural areas vs. large cities, and by older people and younger generations – the latter in each case being far more open-minded.

Also worth bearing in mind is the Japanese insistence on tradition; an opposition to same-sex marriage, for instance, may well have more to do with it not being believed to be ‘traditionally’ Japanese, rather than being against the concept itself. Incidentally, Japan’s main religions – Shinto and Buddhism – are uncritical of the LGBTQ+ community.

LGBTQ+ travel in Japan

Requesting a double room should not be an issue in hotels and most ryokan inns. But for same-sex couples staying in rural areas and villages, do check with your vacation company about local attitudes, and if they have spoken to the accommodation about same-sex couples sharing rooms. This is especially important if staying in a minshuku – small, family-owned budget accommodation similar to a B&B or farmstay. These are typically found in rural areas and villages which are too small to have hotels.

Japan’s cities – particularly Tokyo and Osaka – have thriving gay scenes. Tokyo alone has over 300 gay bars, with Shinjuku ni-chome famed as the hub of LGBTQ+ culture. Trickier than being gay here, though, is being a tourist, with many bars and clubs difficult to find for those not in the know.

This is where traveling with a knowledgeable tour operator will come in particularly handy for anyone hoping to seek out anything other than the most famous clubs, and good guides will know which are most open to tourists. Meanwhile, the general atmosphere of respect as well discretion exercised by couples of all sexual orientations means that visiting any bar will not be an issue for LGBTQ+ couples.
One possibly unexpected advantage of traveling to Japan as a same-sex couple is that you will be able to enjoy onsen hot spring baths with your partner. Onsen are generally not mixed sex. It’s worth noting that the majority of onsen do not admit bathers with tattoos, apparently to prevent gang culture – although small tattoos may be permitted, particularly for international visitors (or can be covered up with discrete patches). And, of course, the same rules on PDAs apply. There are plenty of etiquette issues and rules surrounding onsen – again, your tour leader or vacation company will be able to advise.
While all the tour operators we work with describe themselves as LGBTQ+-friendly, it is worth asking questions to learn more about how this is put into practice in their Japan vacations. It is easy to operate an LGBTQ+-friendly tour in liberal Tokyo; however, it is less straightforward to incorporate village tours and family-owned accommodation into the itinerary. Good tour operators should be able to share information about customs and beliefs – not just for Japan as a whole, but for individual regions, religious sites and places of special interest across the country.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Japan or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

LGBTQ+ festivals & events

Tokyo Rainbow Pride – April. This weekend festival includes a huge Pride parade on Saturday, in Shibuya district, centerd on Yoyogi Park. Thousands of participants in fancy dress now celebrate this event, which was only launched in 2012. It is becoming increasingly more mainstream and now attracts big-name sponsors.

Kansai Rainbow Festa – October. Osaka is Japan’s second city when it comes to LGBTQ+ venues and events. The Kansai Rainbow Festa is held here each year in Ogimachi Park. Speak to a specialist tour operator if you are interested in participating, as – even though it attracts 10,000 people – there is little information available for English-speaking travelers.

Rainbow Reel Tokyo – two weeks in July. Formerly the Tokyo International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, this event has been running for over 30 years in the city.

This guide is updated regularly but do check local news sources and Human Rights Watch for up-to-date information.
This guide is updated regularly but do check news sources such as Mamba Online and Human Rights Watch for more up-to-date information.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: H.L.I.T.] [Topbox: sookie] [Attitudes: iMorpheus] [Bars: Antonio Rubio]