- Surge of demand to open bars in LGBTQ+ district
- Pandemic may have fed interest in new establishments
- Despite LGBTQ+ gains in Japan, area remains a haven
By Elaine Lies
TOKYO, Dec 8 (Openly) - Melvin Muranaka long wanted to open a bar in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ni-chome LGBTQ+ district, where he first felt free to be himself as a gay man, and with the ebbing of the coronavirus pandemic he thought his chance had come.
"I had a really strong image I was living in hiding, but when I came to Ni-chome the impression was that everyone was drinking and having fun just as they were," said the 29-year-old Muranaka, who is half Filipino.
"It showed that I could really be myself too - which surprised me, and moved me," he told Openly.
But Muranaka's quest to open his own bar in Ni-chome ran into a snag – a surge of interest from people also wanting to open new bars in the area and subsequent shortage of properties, despite the district's ageing buildings and the future threat that some could be torn down.
Ni-chome, made up of some 400 mainly small bars packed into roughly five city blocks, is often cited as the world's densest concentration of gay and lesbian bars.
Weekend nights are especially lively, with people spilling out onto the streets - a safe haven for LGBTQ+ people in a nation where same-sex marriage is not legal and some gay bar managers are not fully out, even to their own families.
In February, a top aide to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said people would flee Japan if same-sex marriage were allowed and he did not want to live next to an LGBTQ+ couple – though his comments sparked outrage and he was sacked.
The situation can be even harder in areas far from Tokyo where conservative social attitudes are more common.
"Ni-chome is special, it's a place where LGBTQ+ people gather together," said real estate agent Takamitsu Futamura, the third generation of his family to work in Ni-chome.
Despite rising land prices, driven in part by the opening of a new subway line, Ni-chome has so far clung to its identity. Government subsidies and low overheads, along with rent discounts from landlords, meant few places failed during the pandemic.
But even Futamura struggles to explain the surge in people wanting to start new businesses in the area, which now has a shortage of available properties.
"Peoples' thinking changed during the pandemic, a lot of them went through hard times, and so they maybe decided it was time to make their dreams of owning a place here come true," he said.
REGULARS HAVE COME FOR DECADES
Often referred to as "boxes", many of Ni-chome's bars have room for only 10 to 20 customers, often regulars who have been coming for decades.
There have long been a number of lesbian bars, but Ni-chome may now be growing less male-dominated and more diverse.
"Women, lesbians and trans people are becoming more visible," said Hideki Sunagawa, a cultural anthropologist who has studied the area.
"It's a place people aspire to and gather in," he said. "Ni-chome remains symbolic throughout Japan."
But the buildings that house many of these bars, often several establishments per floor, are ageing, with issues such as water leaks increasing.
Though current landlords might rebuild with the same tenants, Futamura said that once their children inherit there were no guarantees they would be interested in hosting the same sorts of businesses, raising questions about the area's long-term future.
He pointed to a nearby building going up that is probably going to be a long-stay hotel as an example of how things could change.
Despite the possible clouds on the horizon, in September Futamura had 20 to 30 people waiting for Ni-chome properties to become available. Many had worked in gay bars before and ranged from their 20s to their 50s – with one using retirement money from a previous job.
Though clusters of LGBTQ+ bars are opening elsewhere in Tokyo, most would-be tenants insist on properties officially within Ni-chome. Even crossing a street that forms a boundary to another area is a step too far.
"They can be open about everything. And if you're running a gay bar, there really is only Ni-chome," said Futamura. "Most of the people who came felt if it isn't Ni-chome, it's no good."
Muranaka for years mixed day-jobs with weekend shifts in Ni-chome bars. After putting his dream on hold through the pandemic, he finally decided to open his own place.
A year of frequent visits to Futamura's estate agency finally paid off and after minimal refurbishment, he opened "AXL" in September.
The roughly 20-seat bar slightly off the area's main street centres around an L-shaped counter, like many of Ni-chome's establishments.
There are screens for karaoke and an assortment of board games, but unlike many in Ni-chome, he does not cater to any particular niche, emphasising talk and casual socialising.
"For young people who have never come, Ni-chome can have a bit of a scary image," Muranaka said, noting young customers are a key to the area's future - a cohort bars are courting with special events, such as a recent matchmaking evening.
"They haven't been here, they wonder what it's like. We want to convey an impression that anybody can just casually come and have fun."
(Reporting by Elaine Lies in Tokyo; Editing by Jon Hemming and Lucy Middleton. The Thomson Reuters Foundation is the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit https://www.openlynews.com/)
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