Japan is a very group-oriented society, and most Japanese do not like people to be too different. Not in small ways, of course. It’s fine if you practice hula dancing, study Greek, or listen to opera. Even if you are an otaku — roughly the equivalent of a geek — people might look at you a bit askance, but it’s not a big problem.
The differences that are a problem are those that cause people to be unsure how to relate to you. Being foreign isn’t a huge problem because you’re not really part of the group. Some Japanese, however, go abroad for a couple of years and come back to Japan with a personality changed somewhat by the experience, and they have social problems when they deal with other Japanese again. They speak too bluntly, they give unsolicited opinions, and they don’t defer to others in the right ways. They can lose friendships and cause acquaintances to back away. Japanese are not sure how to relate to the person anymore.
As a country, Japan isn’t sure how to relate to gay people, so their solution is to not do so. Social conformity is paramount in Japan, and social conformity requires gay people to stay in the closet. Part of the reason for this is a great deal of ignorance of what being gay is all about. Most Japanese think all homosexuals have opposite-sex gender identification – all gay men are queens and all lesbians are butch.
When I explain to students (I’m a straight American English teacher in Japan) that this isn’t true and that only a minority are queens or butch, students are very surprised. They are surprised because this isn’t what they see on TV. The only gay men they see on TV are queens. They never see men who look and act normal in every respect except that they’re attracted to men. So if you ask them how they’d feel if it turned out that their brother or friend was gay, in their mind, they’re imagining their brother or friend as a flaming queen.
On the other hand, Japanese society and Japanese individuals aren’t actively hostile to gays. Even in the relatively tolerant Western countries, there is always a certain percentage of people who think being gay is simply wrong due to conservative moral ideas, religious training, and the notion that gay sex is icky. (I personally think the first two are convenient excuses for those whose biggest problem is the third.)
While Japanese may feel the third, the first two don’t tend to be an issue. Some of the students I’ve talked to are gay-friendly. The majority think it’s strange but don’t have a fundamental problem with it. Granted, my students aren’t truly representative of Japanese society because they chose to take English lessons and talk to foreigners, so they would be more open-minded. Some have the familiar ‘what if he comes on to me, or checks me out in the locker room’ prejudice, which probably only disappears with education and experience. The strongest negative attitudes I’ve encountered were from students age 60 and over, so it may be that it will be different in a generation or two.
It’s difficult to imagine the situation changing too much, though, if only because it’s hard to know how it would start. For things to change, people need to start coming out, and in Japan that’s very difficult. Not that it hasn’t been difficult for people in Western countries, of course, but the social dynamic is different in Japan. One can be out to friends, in some cases, but my students agree that if a man’s company found out he was gay, while he probably wouldn’t be fired, he would definitely never be promoted and his co-workers would socially ostracize him.
This is a very frightening thought for Japanese, for whom social inclusion is extremely important. Bullying is considered a big problem in Japanese schools, and the most common form of ‘bullying’ is one in which most or all of a class ostracizes one child. In America this wouldn’t really be considered ‘bullying,’ but in Japan, students have committed suicide because of it. It’s a very big deal. Gay Japanese know that the more out they get, the closer they get to that.
This is unfortunate because most Westerners know we learn to be most accepting of gays when a close friend or relative comes out. We put the effort into understanding what we otherwise wouldn’t. More coming out increases understanding and acceptance until a critical mass is reached and gays finally achieve something like society-wide equality. We’re not quite there in America yet, but are getting close. In Japan, the process has barely begun.