Gay dating apps and the production / reinforcement of queer space in Tokyo

A night-time gathering in front of a gay porn store in Ni-chome

I have recently been accepted to present a paper at the upcoming “Digital Intimacies 3.0” symposium which will be held at RMIT University in Melbourne, Nov 13-15. The symposium takes “Connections and Disconnections” as its major theme. In particular, the discussions to be held at the symposium seek to

[go] beyond the logic of connectivity and sharing that dominates much of the research into digital media, Light (2014) has drawn attention to the various ways in which digital media can also operate as sites of disconnection. As digital traces of lives mediated in digital spaces bleed and permeate, echoes of intimacies are regularly resurfaced: untagged photos, archived emails, unfriended people, deleted apps. These traces evidence episodes of disconnection as much as connection.

I will be giving a paper based on my broader ethnographic study of young gay men’s use of media in Tokyo’s “gay town” of Shinjuku Ni-chome. The paper is tentatively titled “Gay dating apps and the production/reinforcement of queer space in Tokyo.

Here is the abstract:

The advent of internet dating and, in particular, location-based dating apps has caused much anxiety among Japanese gay men who fear that these technologies, by facilitating social interaction between gay men, may eventually lead to the erosion of queer spaces. In Tokyo, this fear is compounded by recent calls from conservative politicians wishing to “clean-up” the city by closing down sex entertainment districts such as the gay town of Shinjuku Ni-chōme in preparation for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Despite these anxieties, however, Ni-chōme remains a vital space for gay men to socialise under a limited anonymity.


Reflecting upon ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Ni-chōme between 2013 and 2016, I argue in this presentation that rather than leading to the demise of the district, gay dating apps such as Grindr, Jack’d and 9Monsters have instead reinforced the production of queer space. Drawing upon Soja’s influential theory of the “thirdspace,” I argue that Ni-chōme exists as both a real, physical space and a virtual, imagined space that is accessible via gay dating apps and social media services. Utilising social media allows gay men of all ages to virtually participate in the scene at Ni-chōme, fostering a sense of shared community. Dating apps, through their use of GPS technology, draw individuals to Ni-chōme by virtually mapping gay bodies/presence onto the district. Throughout the presentation, I reflect upon the conference theme of dis/connection to re-evaluate theories of queer space developed in the field of human geography to account for the increasingly mediated ways in which gay men interact with queer space via social media. In so doing, I argue that the “virtual connectivity” afforded by gay dating sites in the Japanese context has reinvigorated Japan’s gay towns and led many younger gay men to actively participate within the Japanese gay sub-culture.

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