Monday, February 21, 2011

Lesbian Existence in Japan: It's Not Accepted or Supported as much as Gay and Trans Existence is (which isn't much)

photograph of Kanako Otsuji is from here
Homosexuality in Japan, from Wikipedia, *here*.
Despite the recent trends that suggest a new level of tolerance, as well as open scenes in more cosmopolitan cities (such as Tokyo and Osaka), Japanese gay men and lesbian women often conceal their sexuality; with many even marrying persons of the opposite sex to avoid discrimination.

Politics and law

Japan has no laws against homosexual activity, and has some legal protections for gay individuals. In addition, there are some legal protections for transgender individuals.
Consensual sex between adults of the same sex is legal, but some prefectures set the age of consent for same-sex sexual activity higher than for opposite-sex sexual activity.
While civil rights laws do not extend to protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation, some governments have enacted such laws. The government of Tokyo has passed laws that ban discrimination in employment based on sexual identity.
The major political parties express little public support for gay rights issues. Despite recommendations from the Council for Human Rights Promotion, the Diet has yet to take action on including sexual orientation in the country's civil rights code.
Some political figures, however, are beginning to speak publicly about their own homosexuality. Kanako Otsuji, an assemblywoman from Osaka, came out as a lesbian in 2005. Two years earlier, in 2003, Aya Kamikawa became the first openly transgender elected official in Tokyo, Japan.

Popular culture

A number of personalities who appear on television in Japan daily are gay or transgender, or cultivate such an image as part of their public persona.
In recent years, a small number of artists, nearly all male, have begun to speak publicly about their homosexuality. They often appear on various talk shows and other programmes. Dancer and tarento Kabachan, tarento Gakuseifuku Sakamoto, comedian Ken Maeda, and twin pop-culture critics Piko and Osugi are among these.
Akihiro Miwa, a drag queen and former lover of author Yukio Mishima, is the television advertisement spokesperson for many Japanese companies ranging from beauty to financial products and TEPCO. Kenichi Mikawa, a former pop idol singer who now blurs the line between male and female costuming and make-up, can also regularly be seen on various programs, as can crossdressing entertainer Peter. Singer-songwriter and actress Ataru Nakamura was one of the first transgendered personalities to become highly popular in Japan; in fact, sales of her music rose after she discussed her MTF gender reassignment surgery on the variety show Boku no Ongaku in 2006.
However, some non-gay entertainers have used stereotypical references to homosexuality to increase their profile. Razor Ramon Hard Gay (HG), a comedian, shot to fame after he began to appear in public wearing a leather harness, hot pants and cap. His outfit, name, and trademark pelvis thrusting and squeals earned him the adoration of fans and the scorn of many in the Japanese gay community.
Recently, Ai Haruna and Ayana Tsubaki, two high profile transsexual celebrities, have gained popularity and have been making the rounds on some very popular Japanese variety shows.
Famous LGBT bloggers have began to gain more traction with the Japanese public, even often attracting fans and readers from outside Japan: prime examples being "Agoe" (アゴ江), "Utaguwa" (うたぐわ), and "Gomabukko" (ゴマブッ子).
A greater amount of gay and transgender characters have also begun appearing (with positive portrayals) on Japanese television, such as the highly successful Hanazakari no Kimitachi e and Last Friends television series.

Japanese culture has always been a part of my life. Part of my family is Japanese, and I maintain connection with those family members. They are not part of my white family-of-origin, most of whom I have little to no contact with. I grew up with a general regard and respect for Japan and Japanese people, which was unusual for whites of my generation in the U.S, who used to routinely make fun of Japanese people as "tourists with cameras" and other silly stereotypes. (Do U.S. whites really not go around country-hopping with cameras in hand?) '80s hits in the UK and the US, like "Turning Japanese" by the Vapors were deeply offensive to me and I hated hearing it or having to deal with white people thinking it was thematically funny or a good song. It's fucking racist as hell.

As a white Jew, I had to contend with the term "JAP" being used both derogatorily against people from Japan, not uncommonly uttered by white WWII vets stationed in East Asia, and as a term for "Jewish American Princess", which is anti-Semitic, sexist, and classist.

There remain many stereotypes of Japanese people in the U.S, and U.S. whites remain largely ignorant about East Asians, often confusing people of one nationality with another, with little concern or care. I hear whites say "Chinese" when they mean "Japanese" and vice versa, and there is little to no protest about such anti-East Asian racism here. The U.S., in other words, remains a very anti-Japanese society, in my view.

The history of human rights in Japan is quite different than in the U.S. While the white West has invaded and occupied aspects of Japanese life, most especially its economy and through military presence, Japan has kept its own culture distinct from the dominant white U.S. culture. As the dominant U.S. culture is pro-genocide, pro-gynocide, and heavily invested in ecocide as well, this determination to stay distinct is good, I think.

But this doesn't mean that Japan is a model society for girls, women, or lesbians in particular. Girls are exploited and sexualised in ways that are not even done so routinely in the U.S. Men are very entitled in Japan, including the white men who visit and live there, to have visual access to girls and sexual access to women. Marital rape isn't prosecuted. Battery is unchecked. Social services, including welfare for the unemployed, don't exist as they do in the U.S. And they exist inadequately in the U.S., except for the wealthy and for U.S. mega-corporations which, if they should go broke due to miserable managing, will find a government willing to give them billions of dollars in resources to support their survival and re-emergence. The poor have no such "luck". Corporations, it seems, do not need bootstraps with which to pull themselves up. They have bailouts instead.

This post concerns one particular group of oppressed women in Japanese society: lesbians, and the struggle for lesbian existence in Japan. Please click on the title to link back to the source website at Japan Today.
Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2006


Invisible minority

Japan's lesbian community in dual struggle for rights, acceptance

The mysteries surrounding this group have too often become false myths that stereotype the lives of lesbians. Very common is the belief that women become lesbians because of some traumatic experience they've had with a man.
"That's no more valid than asking a straight person if they had a bad experience with someone from the same gender and then become heterosexual," says Kim Oswalt, a Tokyo-based psychotherapist.
"Straight people know they are straight at a young age -- maybe even before having a sexual experience. The same could be said for lesbian and gays -- they may know their orientation at an early age.
"Internalized homophobia is when gays feel like they have to look and act straight to be invisible because there is a culture of repression," says Oswalt. "I have my doubts that the politics of assimilation strengthen the voice of any marginalized group."
On the other hand, even if someone is out of the closet, it's not easy to identify a person's sexual orientation by how they look.
Every Wednesday night, a snug and mellow little Shibuya bar hosts a night called Chestnut and Squirrel, or "kuri to risu" in Japanese. The air is filled with the smell of what organizers call "dyke food," the sounds of ice clinking in so-called "dyke drinks" and the chatter of over a dozen international women.
They may all be there for one common reason, but not one looks much like another.
Within the lesbian "community" are several pocket communities divided by members such as political activists, party girls who are into cruising the bar scene, career women or lesbians with children.
"Sometimes people think that just because two people are lesbians, they're going to get along," says American EV. "But the truth is, I'm not defined by 'being a lesbian.' I'm myself. Being gay is part of who I am, but it's not all of who I am. We all have something in common, but it's just one thing that we have in common. It's not a hobby, like 'I'm gay on Wednesday nights but I scuba dive on Saturdays.' "
Lesbians are all around. They're our nurses, our teachers and our Saturday scuba diving buddies. They're even our friends and our sisters. They just blend in really well, sometimes to the point of invisibility.
"Minority, minority, minority," says Olivia Moss, who wrote her thesis for Cambridge University on Japanese lesbianism in the 1990s.
"For foreign working women in Tokyo, the minority of being foreign, within the minority of being lesbian, within the minority of being a working woman, means that it's no surprise we're 'invisible' on a large scale.

Add to this the population who are able to be 'out' at work, and the minority chain just goes on and on and the numbers decrease with the chain."
As Japan has yet to pass same-gender rights or antidiscrimination laws, most women don't fully come out, thus feeding the myth that lesbians don't exist in Japan.
"There's a fear among both foreign and Japanese women that it wouldn't just be taboo but there's a risk of losing your job or of alienating yourself from the so-called straight society," says Moss. Though Kanako Otsuji, an Osaka lawmaker, took a step forward by coming out publicly at last August's gay pride parade in Tokyo, Japanese lesbians have long been lacking public role models.
In 1980, well-known pop singer Naomi Sagara saw her career collapse as she was banished by the public after her former partner announced she was a lesbian.
"I didn't come out until I was 32," says Chu, who is lovingly referred to as Momma and has been helping organize "dyke weekends" (thrice a year get-togethers in Saitama) for over 10 years, as well as hosting food and drinks at Chestnut and Squirrel for four years.
"It's all about repression. I only knew about Naomi Sagara. She was lesbian and it was bad news. But then KD Lang was so cool. When I saw her sing at The Grammys, I thought 'I'm lesbian!' It was finally time for me to consider my sexuality. It must be a visible positive image for women to want to come out."
Chu says lesbian activities hit their peak in 1994, coinciding with the American feminist movement, when leaders of groups in Japan all worked together.
She says since then it has calmed down and because groups have different agendas they have gone their own ways.
Recently Japanese lesbians have been going their own way, with an increasing number choosing the Internet, rather than public places, to meet other women.
"The Net is different from meeting in a bar. I want more. People have lives and experiences, not just parties," says Ayano, who has been meeting Internet friends around Chiba for daytime activities like horseback riding and swan watching since September.
For some, following the personals on the Internet has compromised the strength of lesbian communities.
"Women can lead double-lives and that counteracts what the possibilities can be. It's easy to find a relationship on the Net by speed dating, but you end up closeting yourself and it affects the structure of that minority group. So then we don't fight for visibility because we've disappeared," says Moss.
"We need to encourage a community where women can express themselves. I feel like the foreign community has a moral obligation to care, contribute and support.
"It's time to work toward building self-awareness within our own foreign lesbian community -- and find ways of breaking down any barriers between ourselves and other communities."
But because of language barriers, the transitory nature of foreigners and the lack of same-gender spousal visas, there are different agendas for the foreign and Japanese lesbian communities.
Perhaps one of the challenges is how to respect the different agendas while at the same time building a strong political base.
Until a broader spectrum of visibility exists, public blindness remains and stigmas are continually reinforced by images of lesbianism brought to the mainstream.
"There are still many who believe in that there are virtually no lesbians in the real Japanese society," says Maki Kimura, a staff member of the Kansai Queer Film Festival and partner of Otsuji.
"A market where feminine lesbians are objectified and consumed as objects of sexual desire by heterosexual men, say through pornography, has developed.
"There are also a great number of lesbians who marry men due to economic concerns, partly because wage differences are still large between women and men in Japan.
"Even though we describe it as a community, there is not enough sharing of information with each other. Except for personals on the Internet, it's a big problem that there is virtually no media to link Japanese lesbians," says Kimura.
"I want to cut off the vicious cycle of discrimination and prejudice. The more we become visible, the more a systematic change favorable for us will be fostered."
Lesbian links
PA/F (Performance Art/Feminism): Space monthly events in Waseda include performances, fashion shows, speeches by prominent members and contributors to the Japanese lesbian community.
LOUD: Resource center and rights group for lesbian and bisexual women in Tokyo 's Nakano district; weekly events and information service.
The Kansai Queer Film Festival is trying its best to reach all the remote parts of Japan (currently in Aomori Prefecture) and welcomes any support for festival fundraising
Tokyo International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival
Tokyo Lesbian and Gay Parade


Marianne said...

This was a good article! I study Japan, with a feminist slant, so there are some helpful tidbits in here for me. So thank you!

I appreciate the links at the end, especially. There are a lot of active lesbian voices in Japan!
While lesbians in Japan definitely face specific and unique challenges, I think Japan is not more homophobic than the US is (which is to say of course very homophobic). A lot of the time Americans talk about Japan as if it is more socially conservative or sexist than the US is, which can be problematic for a lot of reasons. But this article manages to call out Japanese homophobia without falling into that! Good to see...

Julian Real said...

Thanks for your comment. Let me know by email (it's in the top right area of blog) if there's anything you need me to change about it.

Julian Real said...

@Marianne - I don't believe, to be clear, that Japan is more conservative than the U.S. Views on abortion alone would reveal that the U.S. is profoundly anti-woman in this regard. Japan doesn't have the same hundreds-years history of Puritanism and Christian fundamentalist extremism. Not that whites Christians haven't brought that version of a wretchedly pro-"mission" religion to every other country, including the one under the flag with the sun.

But Japan is differently anti-woman, with regard to abortion, and so many other issues. Including on the matter of lesbianism. You can be out and proud here as a lesbian in some places. Those places are far fewer in Japan, not only because it is a MUCH smaller country.

And I think each country, Japan and the U.S. are doing abysmal things to women and girls. Neither country gets any awards for "most pro-woman country" in my experience. Not even close.

I'm unclear from your comment: how much time have you spent in Japan? You mention studying Japan, but not studying in Japan. And, if you are not Japanese, or are not living in Japan, I defer to k on these matters.

To any white Westerners who want to portray Japan as "too conservative" or as more misogynistic than the U.S., I recommend they speak with girls and women being regularly trafficked in Portland, OR. Or that they speak with battered women anywhere. Or speak with women who live in poverty across this country. Or speak with American Indian women about how the gynocidal genocide is continuing.

I welcome women who are currently living in Japan to speak about conditions of women in Japan today.