by A., Greenheart Travel High School student in Japan
I’m a transgender man, and I lived in Japan for a year studying abroad in high school, and so can you.
I’ve been home for a few months now after a long study abroad in the Kanagawa prefecture of Japan. I have so many wonderful and unique memories from my time there that I don’t think I can ever forget, so when I did my follow up chat with Greenheart Travel and was asked to give my take on the experience I leapt at the chance.
When I was first starting to do research into going to Japan I felt like I was running into the same type of people giving advice. It felt like I saw video after video, and blog after blog of straight, cisgender people wondering “how to get a Japanese boyfriend/girlfriend.”
Much to my surprise, when I arrived in Japan, I met many LGBTA+ identifying exchange students just like me.
I was in a group of anywhere from 30-40 people from 5-6 different countries and so many young LGBTA+ kids! I was shocked and delighted during our orientation and sad to part ways when the time came. So, if you go to Japan thinking you’re alone: Prepare to be pleasantly surprised.
Transgender and questioning people have every right to go to Japan, and just about anywhere they like, but Japan is no more hospitable or welcoming than many countries. Of course, cultures differ depending on the region and I come from the American south, but Japan didn’t seem to care who I was. I think I might have felt this regardless of my gender, but really Japan was a dizzying place.
I only felt comfortable and able to come out to a few people. In Japan I, a transgender boy, was still treated and stereotyped as a girl. I was asked what kind of boys I liked and when I wanted to get married.
My clothes were called “boy style” and the “style” part of the phrase was very much enforced.
It wasn’t as if I saw no other gender nonconforming kids or met no other trans people while I was abroad, just everything felt like a very hush hush secret. Because of my own unique situation I tried to take solace in my anonymity, and the set end date.
I knew that if I was suffering now being “one of the girls,” it would all be over soon in a matter of months, and besides, I was seeing so many cool things.
Actually funny enough I think I indulged in a little retail therapy (a lot of retail therapy) to help soothe me. I got very involved with what I bought and ate, but that could have just been where I was. Being alone with my music and mind helped too.
If I were to give advice to any of the trans kids out there looking to go to Japan or study abroad in general, I’d say: stay true to why you’re there in the first place. Is it to see a new place and learn new things? Do it. You are valid, you are strong, and you are awesome, no matter what anyone says or implies.
Also a lot of people don’t know or understand what you’re going through. Representation in Japan and in their media is so limited when it comes to gender and sexuality. When I was in Japan I felt like everyone was thinking in extremely stuck terms of “male” and “female” rather than “boys” and “girls.” Japan felt very in your face with the sex essentialism.
Would I recommend other transgender or questioning youth to study abroad? Absolutely. However, be prepared to have to explain and be prepared to feel uncomfortable. Social interaction in Japan could be difficult but the cleanliness and the serene landscapes you will be encountering is really soothing and healing.
I feel like Japan, just like any other place, has its pros and cons for trans and questioning folks. You just have to decide which of those things you can handle and which you cannot. There are so many things you will only know through lived experience, and if I serve as any example… I survived Japan.
I was closeted during my program, but if you do plan to be living out or end up coming out, try to have a support system in place. A friend of mine came out in a school with a uniform. He was wearing a uniform he didn’t like, and didn’t feel aligned with how he wanted to present his gender.
Changing this in his everyday life took the support of a particularly open and forward thinking teacher in his school. So.. if you feel like this is a challenge you would face, face it as you should lots of other situations you will encounter while abroad – with a team.
In closing, I want to reaffirm that no matter where you go, you will find people like you or who support you. Love and acceptance can be found in the strangest of places and you can learn a lot about yourself in those very places. I encourage everyone who takes a trip to Japan to search every corner, climb every step, and talk to everyone you can.
Your mindset and your goals will shape and mold your experience more than you will even realize at the time. Stay positive, and have fun. Prepare to be pleasantly surprised.