A DJ and a patron backstage during the 25th anniversary celebration of the popular Tokyo lesbian bar Gold Finger (all photos by Michel Delsol, courtesy The New Press)

There’s a famous saying in Japan that translates, in English, to, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” It refers to the country’s longstanding culture of conformity that has bred a certain social conservatism; for its LGBTQ community, that stigma of being different has made coming out exceedingly challenging.

Yet, as a new photobook exemplifies, Japan’s queer community has been strengthening its presence in recent decades, with many individuals increasingly taking on roles as LGBTQ activists or carving out safe spaces from HIV/AIDS awareness centers to cabaret bars. In Edges of the Rainbow, published by The New Press, we receive intimate portraits of this community that center and celebrate those typically seen as on the fringes of Japanese society. The book focuses on the everyday lives of about a dozen individuals and couples, with over 150, snapshot-like photographs by Michel Delsol accompanied by short interviews by journalist Haruku Shinozaki that amplify each story.

Cover of ‘Edges of the Rainbow’ by Michel Delsol and Haruku Shinozaki

These profiles take us on a vivid tour across Japan, organized by city — Tokyo, Niigata, Osaka, and Kyoto — to meet a diverse group of activists, community figures, and celebrities. Among those we’re introduced to are Chiga, who opened Gold Finger, one of the first lesbian bars in Tokyo; publisher Tatsuki Kanda, who is intersex and now identifies as male; and Yoshiki, a gay Episcopalian priest who serves the LGBTQ community in the Shinjuku Ni-chōme district — home to the world’s largest concentration of gay bars.

Delsol’s images are mostly shot in a fly-on-the-wall style that capture his subjects in relaxed settings, although a few comprise more formal portraits. Far from romanticizing this community, his photographs simply offer insight into the lives of LGBTQ individuals, allowing them to present their stories on their own terms to an international audience. (Edges of the Rainbow is part of a publication series on LGBTQ groups around the world, supported by Arcus Foundation.)

Some are major personalities, like the pop idol and trans woman Ai Haruna or the band Apotheke, which uses its music to promote LGBTQ rights; others are significant to their local communities, such as organizers at the HIV/AIDS awareness center akta or activist couple Fuyumi and Makoto Yamamoto, who are developing new gestures in Japanese Sign Language for words such as “gender fluid.” As cultural historian Mark McLelland describes in an introduction, Japan isn’t suddenly awakening to this community; Delsol and Shinozaki’s work pays tribute to those who have helped shape and strengthen it.

Pop idol and trans-rights activist Ai Haruna surrounded by fans in Harajuku

“Contrary to misleading articles in the English-language press, awareness of LGBTQ people is not a new phenomenon in Japan,” McLelland writes. “Japan’s first ‘gay boom’ (gei bumu) took place in the mid-1950s as a new style of homosexual identity, the ‘gay boy’ (gei boi) and meeting place, the ‘gay bar’ (gei ba) burst onto the scene after the end of the American occupation in 1952.” A second boom, he goes on to explain, occurred in the 1990s, ushering in new, collective pushes that resulted in annual pride parades, increased education on HIV/AIDS, and significant changes to discriminatory policies — including the legalization of sex-reassignment surgery.

What Edges of the Rainbow doesn’t delve into are these political shifts and the laws that still challenge LGBTQ rights (same-sex marriage is still illegal). Delsol and Shinozaki instead allow the images and interviews to speak for themselves, providing little additional context of their own. Distanced from policies or pressures, the glimpses of people celebrating birthdays, taking baths, riding the train, or visiting an ancestral shrine simply underscore their subjects’s humanity.

Mandy, owner of a cabaret club in Tokyo, known for its drag shows
Electro band Apotheke addresses LGBTQ culture through its music
Apotheke’s lead singer, Shingo, on the lead float of the Rainbow Parade as it moves through the streets of Osaka
Chiga, owner of the lesbian bar Gold Finger, with two robotic dolls
Civil partners Maika and Natsue on the subway
Civil partners Maika and Natsue at home
The entrance hallway of Akta, a not-for-profit community center dedicated to HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention
Tatsuki and Eishin enjoying a post-dinner bath before going to bed
Partners Fuyumi and Makoto, who are organizers in the deaf LGBTQ community
Keiki, a trans male LGBTQ community activist, by his family cemetery plot
Keiki, a trans male LGBTQ community activist, at a small nightclub in Yokohama
Balloons at Kansai’s Rainbow Parade, which Apotheke helps organize

Edges of the Rainbow is available through The New Press.

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...