A Guide to Gay Bar Etiquette in Japan
Looking for a more local gay bar experience? Here are some essential tips to keep in mind.
Tokyo’s famous gay district, Shinjuku Ni-Chome, has one of the world’s highest concentrations of LGBT-friendly businesses. For the most part, it’s a place where first-timers can hang out without needing to worry too much about special customs or cultural knowledge.
Ni-Chome is used to tourists but, those who want to sneak into smaller, more local LGBT bars might find some cultural practices surprising. In Japan, manners are everything, so here are some insider tips on what to expect when visiting LGBT bars off the beaten path, and how to get the most out of the experience.
Venturing away from westernized gay bars
Most gay bars in tourist spots like Ni-Chome or Doyamacho in Osaka mimic American-style bars that feature large shot bars, dance music and dark atmospheres where customers of various sexes, genders, sexualities and identities can drink and make merry. You can certainly find these kinds of bars, especially in Tokyo, but the vast majority are similar to what is commonly referred to as a スナックバー (snack bar).
Obviously, the mama in gay snack bars is usually a man, although in true LGBT fashion, some are staffed by drag queens.
Snack bars — or “snacks” for short — are small, intimate bars where bartenders (led by the owner, i.e. the “mama”) chat more intimately with the customers, serving them drinks and, well, snacks. Obviously, the mama in gay snack bars is usually a man, although in true LGBT fashion, some are staffed by drag queens. Gay snacks tend to appear more often in cities outside of Tokyo, due to the more community-driven atmosphere they offer.
Expect some gender exclusivity
The “drawback” of more rural gay bars is they are usually too small for dancing or large gatherings. Moreover, make sure the bar isn’t single-sex (i.e. “men/women only”), because gender-exclusion is not unheard of in East Asian queer bar culture. Trans folk should feel free to go to mixed-gender bars, or bars that cater to their preferred gender, but most trans-specific bars are still located in bigger cities.
It’s possible that more exclusive bars may deny you entry for a variety of reasons, but usually on the basis of sex and gender. Before getting upset, just ask yourself, “Does this bar really have the vibe I’m looking for?” Probably not. Most of the bars recommended in the GaijinPot LGBT section specify if there are any customer restrictions to keep in mind.
Don’t forget to enjoy the conversation
Ok, you’ve found a local gay bar, now what?
Even Japanese folks visiting small gay bars can feel a little shy, so bartenders are trained to help quiet customers feel comfortable. Bartenders often talk, joke, and even sit down and drink with patrons. The owners should be especially social because they are declaring themselves as leaders of the local gay community.
If you’re going alone, skillful bartenders can help you get to know other customers. When going with friends, make sure to include the bartender in your conversation if he isn’t entertaining other customers. Try asking him about the bar, its history, advice on other gay businesses in the area, but avoid prying too much into his personal life unless the conversation heads that way.
Respect everyone’s privacy
If you’re waltzing up to a smaller, more local bar, they may not be used to serving non-Japanese people. If you think about it, these bars are generally lesser-known spaces for queer people to meet each other, and many of the patrons would like to keep their visits private. Many LGBT folk are not “out of the closet” professionally, and a 2013 survey carried out by Ipsos purports that only 51% of Japanese participants were in favor of same-sex marriage, placing them at the bottom of a list of 16 countries. Japanese views on LGBT rights are evolving rapidly, though, according to the survey.
A general rule of thumb is to feel out the atmosphere and go along with what’s happening there. If it’s quiet, keep it low-key. If no one else is taking photos or live-streaming their whole experience on Instagram — probably a good idea to refrain from this, too. Feel free to talk to other bar patrons, but keep in mind that they may not want to reveal too many personal details, especially at first. Keep it cool.
Flex your foreign language muscles
Visiting Japanese spaces is fun, but actually learning Japanese is such a drag… queen. Luckily, there are so many ways to practice and learn Japanese online, like through the GaijinPot Japanese lessons. Once you’ve learned a bit, bars are excellent spaces to practice speaking, so swallow some shochu and sling that Japanese!
Gay bar staff may occasionally be able to speak English or other foreign languages especially in Tokyo but to feel fully immersed in the conversational atmosphere, Japanese skills or an interpreter are suggested.
If you speak Japanese but don’t know what to say, try some of these tips:
- Find a cutie and ask where they’re from, then discuss travel in Japan.
- Ask if they want to sing a karaoke song with you because you’re too shy to sing alone. Bonus points if you can sing a Japanese song, so start practicing! Utada Hikaru’s 2017 hit “Nijikan Dake no Vacance,” is relatively slow and has an implied lesbian subtext– a perfect choice.
- When someone offers a canned compliment like “nihongo ga jozu” (“your Japanese is good”) you can reply with something sassy like “wakatteiru yo” (“I know”) because confidence is sexy.
- Offer your snacks to your neighbor and ask what their favorite food is.
- Say “kanpai” (“cheers”) to everyone at the bar. Throw in an “otsukare sama deshita” (in this case, something equivalent to “we survived the work week”) to seem extra friendly.
A different kind of tipping
Gay bars are expensive – expect to spend more than ¥2,000 per person – and while you don’t have to tip, you are expected to supply the bartender with drinks on your own dime.
…While you don’t have to tip, you are expected to supply the bartender with drinks.
The easiest way to do this is to order “bottle service” and purchase a bottle of liquor for the bartender to pour you mixed drinks with. It’s suggested to invite the bartender to pour himself a drink while making yours. Think of it as a courtesy to your bartender for all the terrible karaoke solos he has to listen to throughout the night. Other bar services, like snacks or the karaoke machine, may also cost additional charges. Be sure to ask.
No matter how many weekends in Ni-Chome you’ve got under your belt, these rules are important to keep in mind before planning adventures to lesser-known LGBT joints. It’s important to be realistic about cost and what kinds of clientele these bars may allow. Venturing outside of tourist-friendly neighborhoods like Ni-Chome or Doyamacho is especially recommended for more experienced expats.
Discover LGBT bars and venues across Japan. Check out our LGBT travel section.
As bars for gay men tend to be more visible in Japan, this article lacks insight into local lesbian or trans bar experiences. If you know of some local lesbian or trans haunts that have their own rules and customs, be sure to let us know via our contact form!