One of my close friends is a lesbian.
A few years ago, I never would have thought I would write that sentence. I have been following Jesus for most of my adult life, serving him in Japan as a tentmaking missionary for almost as long. I have been to seminary, led several people to Christ, and served in various leadership capacities in the church. I thought I knew God’s heart. I thought I knew how to love like Jesus. But looking back, I see that in many ways I was just like the Pharisee who so infamously stated in Luke’s gospel, “God, I praise you that I am not like this sinner” (Luke 18:11 my paraphrase).
There are many LGBT people in Japan
Last year, God gave me a heart for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual) community. It had to have been God, because I had never had a close gay or lesbian friend, and I didn’t know anyone in Japan who did. Although one survey found that 7.6 percent of the Japanese population identifies as LGBT,1 very few Japanese will tell you that they have a gay or lesbian friend or family member.2 I started to wonder where all the LGBT people were, and why no one, neither in my church family nor among my unchurched friends, had any contact with them.
Not long after this, I met my friend Megumi. Like many Japanese, Megumi knew absolutely nothing about Christianity. The only thing she knew was that Christians do not like gay people.
Think about that for a minute.
She had never heard the gospel, never heard of the great love of Jesus, but she had heard that Christians reject the LGBT community. Because she knew that I am Christian, she was uncertain whether or not to tell me that she is lesbian, but I assured her that her sexuality was not a barrier to our friendship. And why should it be? Jesus hung out with all kinds of people that would be looked down on in today’s society. And he loved them.
Contrary to how it might appear, we are surrounded by people who identify as LGBT in Japan. Although most people in Japan assume there are few gays in their communities, my friend Megumi assures me that this is most definitely not the case. I live in the middle of nowhere in rural Fukuoka Prefecture, and she informed me there are hundreds in the LGBT community here. If that is the case, imagine how many are living in metropolitan areas like Tokyo and Osaka.
We are surrounded by people hiding in the shadows, and while many in the LGBT community these days are being emboldened by small movements that are beginning to recognize their lifestyle, many more are still in the closet. Why, when most Japanese people have no problem accepting homosexuality, are so many LGBT people still uncomfortable coming out to their families and friends? I asked this and many other questions of my friend Megumi, and I learned so much from her.
Japan is a shame culture. Simply put, Japanese people care way more what others think of them than those in the West do. What is right and what is wrong is not determined by a god, but by the opinions of others. And while many like my friend Megumi are not ashamed of their homosexual identity, they are unwilling to risk bringing shame on their families by coming out. Megumi told me, “I am comfortable with my identity as a lesbian and I am not ashamed of who I am. However, my mom is not as comfortable with who I am, and my coming out would bring trouble (meiwaku) on her.” She also told me that her mother is the only family member she’s told about her sexuality, and that her mom cried all night after she told her, blaming herself that her daughter turned out this way.
Another reason is status. Megumi told me that there are 10 times more gays than lesbians in Japan, and many have high status jobs such as doctors, businessmen, and lawyers. They are unwilling to risk their careers by coming out, for while there is no moral opposition to homosexuality like you might find in Christian and Muslim countries, Japan is influenced by Confucianism, which values traditional families and having children. Of course, those following the LGBT lifestyle are both untraditional and unable to naturally produce children, so there are major cultural barriers to the full acceptance of the LGBT community in this traditional Asian country.
Interestingly though, until the Meiji era, homosexual behavior was not only accepted but even encouraged, and Koichi of tofugu.com, claims that many samurai and upper class men engaged in homosexual behavior.3 Homosexuality only began to be looked down upon as Japan engaged with Western countries and sought acceptance by them.
Life is difficult
Megumi told me that she wishes she could be straight because her life would be much easier. And while she personally doesn’t want to get married, she thinks it would be a good thing for Japan to legalize same sex marriage. She doesn’t hold a grudge against Japan for making it so hard for LGBT to come out of the closet, nor is she angry at people who disagree with her lifestyle. She told me that people are free to believe what they want, and that she respects that.
But when people publicly or privately disparage the LGBT community, it is hurtful. When her friends in high school talked about lesbians being gross, or when a customer talked about how weird they are, that hurt her. When she said this, the Spirit convicted me. How many times in the past had I told my friends, my family, or my husband that gays were gross or disgusting or weird? I am pretty sure that not once did Jesus ever tell anyone that he was grossed out by them.
Regardless of our views on homosexuality, the LGBT community is all around us, and Jesus loves them. Jesus was, and is, a friend of sinners. It is not our job or responsibility as Christians to change people who are outside the body of believers. Our calling is to love others, to share truth with them, and pray that they will encounter Jesus. For when someone encounters Jesus, they cannot help but change.
So, when I pray for my LGBT friends, I pray simply that they will encounter Jesus, and that his love will transform their hearts just as it transformed mine more than 20 years ago. I was not any better or worse than they are. I was thirsty for grace, and they are too. I challenge you to pray the same prayer for everyone you meet—that they will encounter Jesus and be transformed by his grace. For in the end, that is what we all need—every day.
1. 「日本に同性愛者は951万人？！ LGBTの割合は日本人口の7.6%にも達しています!」 Updated Feb. 19, 2017. http://lgbt.jpn.com/zinkou
2. Kyodo staff report, “Survey finds 90% of Japanese parents would be accepting if their kids came out as LGBT” Japan Times, August 23, 2016. Accessed Feb 10, 2017. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/08/23/national/social-issues/japan-survey-finds-90-parents-accepting-kids-came-lgbt/#.WH49CfArLIU
3. Koichi, “The Gay of the Samurai,” September 38, 2015. https://www.tofugu.com/japan/gay-samurai/
Anne Crescini is a writer, blogger, and educator from the US based in Munakata, Fukuoka-ken. She has lived in Japan for 16 years. For more info on her blogs and books about Japan, visit her website at www.annecrescini.com