How Tokyo's LGBTQ District is Fighting for Survival Amid COVID-19

by Kevin Schattenkirk

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday December 12, 2020

How Tokyo's LGBTQ District is Fighting for Survival Amid COVID-19
  (Source:Getty Images)

Tokyo's Shinjuku Ni-chome gay district has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic but has been fighting to stay afloat, according to a recent feature by Reuters.

Ni-chome is believed to be one of the most densely packed gay-oriented areas, reportedly with over 400 bars occupying several blocks. In many cases, these are small venues with a few tables, often staffed only by their owners.

The district's history is centered on community, priding itself as a safe place for LGBTQ people, whether out and open or closeted. For many, the district was — and remains — a haven for closeted gay men, some of whom still marry women to pass. In some instances, even if many perceive the culture around LGBTQ rights is changing, employees and business owners remain closeted — such as Yuta, a bar owner who isn't out to his family.

Kye Koh of RainbowEvents said, "you feel safe there, and there's almost always somebody you know. Plus, it's where we LGBT make the rules; straights who come here have to obey."

With Japan's state of emergency in April, like many other thriving gay neighborhoods internationally, Ni-chome, as Reuters describes, "became a ghost town." Business owners petitioned the government for assistance, held online events such as dance parties, sold T-shirts, and more. In one instance, Toshitsune Tamashiro, owner of "Base," a small bar with ten seats, sold some of his "reserve" bottles for needed income. Realtor Takamitsu Futamura was responsible for negotiating rent cuts for over 200 properties, saving some — though not all — venues from shuttering permanently.

Business owners in Ni-chome have banded together, which could bode well for the community — especially as recent COVID-19 cases in Japan hit a record high of 2,812 on Wednesday, surpassing the previous high of 2,684 at the end of November. As Futamura said, "When the owners had to shut down business, they got together and talked about how to make Ni-chome better. So I think there have been pluses: the growth of a sense of unity. The sense that we'll all get through this together."

Kevin Schattenkirk is an ethnomusicologist and pop music aficionado.