TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Japan's gay community is set to put on the glitz as the Tokyo Pride parade returns this weekend after a three year absence with the aim of winning acceptance among the country's conservative society.
Drag queen shows, debates and theater plays are being held in the lead-up to the parade which was put on ice due to a lack of staff as many gay Japanese don't dare to come out to their families or workplaces.
For Japanese gays in Tokyo's Shinjuku "2-chome" district where some 250 gay bars operate, the event is an opportunity to get together and celebrate in style, but also to seek understanding from other Japanese for their homosexuality.
"I lead two separate lives -- during the day, I'm a full-time 'salaryman' in a web design company, but at night I come to '2-chome' to work here as a barman," said Yuu, who declined to give his last name.
"At work no one knows about my secret and I have been living this double-life for some seven years now," he said, singing loudly to the latest karaoke hits.
The district is gearing up for Tokyo Pride on Saturday with a number of side events aimed at making Japanese society more understanding toward the country's gay, lesbian and transsexual communities.
Noriaki Fushimi, a gay rights activist, is holding a debate on the future of the gay movement in Japan, while "2-chome" will hold a "Rainbow Festival" on Sunday with food and beer stalls.
Apart from the celebrations, activists and politicians will also be highlighting the reasons for the gathering as many gays and lesbians feel excluded from society.
Traditional family ties still play an important role in Japan and many homosexuals find themselves under pressure to marry to fulfill their parents' expectations.
"I have known full well I'm gay since primary school but I would always bring girlfriends home to appear "normal" in my family's eyes," said Sota Aoki, 24, from Sapporo in northern Japan.
"Now my parents press me to marry and until recently I've been seriously considering that, but I thought I don't want to end up like many of my friends who despite being gay got married and have kids and who now have to lie for the rest of their lives."
While some celebrities can afford to be open about being gay or transsexual, coming out is a big social taboo for most Japanese.
There are also very few openly gay politicians in Japan so little lobbying in the corridors of power over gay rights.
Japanese gays and lesbians have no right to the civil partnerships or marriages offered in some other countries.
"Some people are so desperate to officially form a family, that the older partner adopts the younger one -- that's the only way to gain the right to hospital visits or inheritance," said Aoki from Sapporo.
But Aya Kamikawa, the first ever transgender politician in Japan and a councilor for the biggest ward in Tokyo, stressed that changes can only happen when people become more open about what they want.
"There are about 5,000 people working in the Setagaya ward office and none of them is openly gay," said Kamikawa, who succeeded in lobbying for sex changes to be recognized by the family register system in 2003.
"Some workers come to me secretly to confess their sexual orientation and I always tell them to speak out if they want things to change."
Despite the economic slowdown taking its toll on bars in Shinjuku's "2-chome," the parade has seen a gradual increase in participants and this year over 5,000 are expected to march, dance and take part in side events.
"People come here from all over the country to celebrate in style so I'm taking a day off in the office," smiled Yuu, toasting a glass of sake rice wine. :We will be flooded with the happy crowd."
(Reporting by Antoni Slodkowski, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)