YouTubers Tokyo BTM Offer Top-Notch Tips for Visiting Japan

by Lawrence Ferber

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday April 24, 2021
Originally published on April 9, 2021

While delightful, quirky, and culturally rich, Tokyo can prove a confounding destination for even repeat visitors thanks to its rigid customs and rules and dichotomy of conservative conformity with outrageousness. Ditto goes for Tokyo's queer community and its dense LGBTQ nightlife district, Shinjuku Ni-chome, and its range of bars, some of which are inhospitable to foreigners.

Fortunately, visitors and would-be residents now have the snappy English-language LGBTQ YouTube series, Tokyo BTM to help avoid getting lost in translation and dive beneath the surface.

The series takes a tourist-friendly, cheeky, and honest approach—with punchy sound effects, visuals, and editing inspired by Japan's famously zany variety shows—as the duo shares intel on must-see queer locales and slang terms; saunas, "love hotels," (their most popular episode to date, with almost 350k views), and bars; media representation; the most popular gay hookup apps (and types to avoid on them!); and perhaps most obvious given the vlog's name, the seemingly skewed statistics regarding gay mens' sexual compatibility.

"Let us know where [the tops] are hiding," begs co-host Andrew Pugsley, a Canadian ex-pat who works as a media project manager and first moved to Tokyo in 2012, "and maybe we can do a video where we ambush them. It's interesting because we hear tops are more in the western part of Japan, the countryside."

Pugsley launched the series last summer with best friend Meng, a Chinese ex-pat who works in finance (and refrains from sharing his last name due to an alarming countrywide stalking trend). Unlike other YouTube series about Japanese LGBTQ life, such as Achio and the campy and flamboyant (referred to as onē in Japanese) 2nd Street, Pugsley and Meng approach their videos from a foreigner's perspective.

"We're part of the local community, but having said that, our experiences as foreigners will be different from local Japanese," Pugsley explains.

Meng adds that "Andrew and I have very different experiences as well, because I'm a Chinese person, and can 'pass' in the society [as Japanese], but Andrew is obviously white. So we share the Japanese reactions to us, which are different as well."

To wit: Caucasians are often referred to as gaijin, which translates to "outsider," whereas the more desirable, broader term gaikokujin implies "foreigner."

"They call Koreans Korean, Black people are Black, but white people are gaijin," Meng adds. "Personally, I don't think the word is negative because we joke we're gay-jin."

Although packed with hundreds of gay bars, Shinjuku Ni-chome can be unwelcoming to gaijin and gaikokujin, especially if not fluent in Japanese. Many of these bars are the size of a living room (owners, referred to as the "master" or mama-san, are often present), and being turned away with a smiling yet firm "friends only" is commonplace for gaijin. Pugsley and Meng have addressed this attitude in episodes about racism in Japan, queer couples moving in together and dating. Both admit to frequently getting blocked on gay apps like Japan's popular 9Monsters simply due to their non-Japanese backgrounds.

"Japanese are very exclusive," Meng says. "I can pass as Japanese in pictures and profiles, and I'll say I'm Chinese, and they block me. Probably not only because I'm Chinese, but they just don't want anything non-Japanese. Maybe it's their communication ability? I wish sometimes they could be more welcoming to other cultures."

Still, Pugsley and Meng have been welcomed inside a surprisingly diverse selection of Ni-chome spaces so far, offering rarely seen interiors and owners of "snack bars," an intimate Japanese FTM bar, one run by a fellow YouTuber, one for Chinese queers and a drag cabaret.

The secret behind the pair's access is a mix of extreme respect, caution and wielding their Japanese fluency.

"If they say 'friends only,' we say 'we're your friend,'" Pugsley explains. "That can sometimes get through. And I chat with people and explain what we're doing in advance, and some bars we know the people, and that helps." The duo hopes for a higher subscriber base and recognition to approach the most popular, gaijin-friendly venues.

Winter's COVID spike saw another blow dealt to Ni-chome's already struggling bars and businesses and signaled a Tokyo BTM break from the district. Yet, Pugsley and Meng had plenty of topics to tackle, including favorite Japanese products and popular TV "Boys Love" gay romances.

Lately, one issue on LGBTQ minds is the energized push for Japanese LGBTQ equality laws and same-sex marriage. On March 17, the Hokkaido prefecture's Sapporo District Court ruled that Japan's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, while a handful of other prefectures have similar cases in the works.

"It's quite the buzz at the moment here among gay Japanese YouTubers and activists," Pugsley says. "It's a positive sign that people's way of thinking is changing. But we need more rulings in other prefectures, and then something would actually have to happen on a national level. We're still years off."

Asked whether Tokyo BTM will potentially continue for years, the pair admits they have a "massive" wish list of episodes already in mind, including circuit and pool parties ("We're party gays," Meng notes), a "Boys Love" themed cafe, and some potentially controversial possibilities, such as Tokyo's cruising spots, though they're concerned about maintaining the safety of the locals.

Some have questioned the pair's critical take on aspects of LGBTQ life in Japan, but they're adamant that the cultural exploration is out of adoration and not meant to diminish their experiences overseas.

"We love Japan," Meng enthuses. "We don't hate Japan. Sometimes people say, 'you're hating on Japan!' but we love this country so much we want to highlight our love for it."

What's on the top of their Tokyo wish list? Fans will have to tune into the next episode of Tokyo BTM to find out.

Lawrence Ferber's travel and arts journalism has appeared in Passport Magazine, National Geographic Traveler, New York Post, and other publications. Based in NYC, he is also co-writer of the 2010 gay romcom BearCity and authored its 2013 novelization.