Sexual minorities in Japan
This article focuses on Japanese definitions of gender and sexuality, Japanese reactions to queer life, the clash between traditional and contemporary ideas, and the cultural restraints of being queer in Japan. The Western term “queer,” an umbrella term for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender represents a change in thought pertaining to gender and sexuality in contemporary Japan.
Japanese definitions of gender and sexuality
In Japan, gender and sexuality are not conceptualized through a binary frame within the context of individualism (homo- heterosexual, man-woman) but rather through a spectrum wherein the various social roles of the “all encompassing” group are emphasized. Under this construction, expressions of gender and sexuality are varied, as is evidenced by Japan’s gender-bending communities.
Transgenderism in Japan began during the Edo period. Women actors were banned from kabuki theatre performances and, in turn, effeminate male performers took on the roles of women. Such actors maintained their dress both inside and outside of the theater. It was widely believed, at the time, that only men could really know what beauty in a woman looked like. Moreover, if a man acted like a woman, dressed like a woman and took on the social roles of a woman, he was simply socialized as one. The latter is a result of how Japan conceptualized gender and sexuality in terms of adopted social roles. As Japan becomes more westernized there is growing concern for the treatment of the sexual and gender minorities.
With the introduction of Buddhism, one of the earliest forms of non-heterosexuality documented in Japan is found in young male homosexual practices during the Heian period (745 to 1185). Buddhism came to Japan from China by way of Korea during the Kofun period (300 to 710). Because Buddhist monks lived on steep mountains isolated within their own societies, they developed their own sexual customs. Young boys (age 11 to age 17) called “Tigo” served the monks sexually because female relationships were strictly forbidden.
In modern Japan, it is not uncommon to hear Western terms such as gay and lesbian, or “gei” and “rezbian.” Such terms differ significantly from terms used in the past and thus show a westernizing trend. Before western contact, Japan did not have a system of identification in which one’s identity was determined by one’s biological sexual preference. In fact, “the tripartite taxonomy of sexual types that has resulted from the social construction [homo-, bi-, heterosexuality-], held no currency in Japan.” However, this does not indicate that sexual behaviors between individuals of the same sex were not practiced. In fact, such behavior was so common in Japan that documentation of same sex relationships dates back over a thousand years.
During the Edo period, for instance, male-female sexual relations were important to secure offspring and social status; however, male-male sexual relations, particularly amongst the Samurai, were viewed as an intricate part of male socialization. The term “wakashudo” or “shudo,” literally translated as “the way of the young men,” observes an earlier form of homosexuality that focused on the sexual relationship between a Samurai and his pupil. Such relationships established an unquestionable acceptance of same-sex practices and were not restricted to men.
Women also engaged in bisexual practices although these practices are not as well documented as those of men. During the 16th century, medieval women gained new-found security as wives within virilocal systems, in contrast to the insecurity of Heian-period wives in uxorilocal and wifevisiting arrangements where women were easily abandoned by their spouses. This change was significant because it allowed women to establish more prominent positions within the household through which they were able to exert more influence. In turn, this allowed a kind of sexual liberation for many women.
Modern Japanese reaction to queer life
Dating back to the Edo Period (1603-1857), various literary and artistic depictions of sexual acts between men and young boys exist. Homosexuality in the western sense began during the Meiji period (1858-1912) and later in the Taishō period (1912-1925). In the Meiji period, same-sex practices were considered personal preferences. However, documentation and case studies only go back to the 1900s, leaving little room for analysts to distinguish homosexuality as an ‘obscene sexuality.’
There are various opinions on how far the society has come in dealing with queer people in Japan. McLelland’s article, "The Social Situation Facing Gays in Japan" presents a well rounded discussion on how the society reacts to queer people. It discusses the social structure of Japanese society and how well it accommodates the sexual minority. For instance, the sexual minority has now become a very important part of the Human Rights policies constructed by the “Tokyo City Human Rights Policy Directive Manual released in 2000”. Gay people were originally dropped during the first draft of the policy, but after facing pressure from the public, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and queer activist groups, the council eventually pledged to safeguard the human rights of gay people.
Furthermore, awareness and education amongst Japanese people, specifically pertaining to queer issues has improved and information is now readily available. In the past, society often ignored queer lifestyles, thus interpreting their sexual and gender expressions as a disease. Now, with the influx of queer magazines, research, interviews, case studies, auto-biographies, journals and activism, more people have a relatively accepting and respectful attitude towards queers, their life-styles and choices. The availability of literature, information and formal representation of queer voices has helped many young Japanese to identify themselves with sexual minority groups. More importantly, awareness has opened a mode of communication between mainstream Japanese society and Queer people in Japan.
It would be incorrect to say that Japanese queer people do not face difficulties and that they only enjoy a life of comfort without any societal prejudice or discrimination. For instance, many men in contemporary Japanese society express their sexual attraction for other men; however they do so with a low self-esteem and a lack of self-confidence. The extensive information on queer life-styles has helped to change this and now gays are more comfortable with their sexual orientation.
Still, many queer people are aware of the negative perception that much of Japanese society has about queer lifestyles. Many queer people do not feel comfortable discussing their problems with their families. University students who openly discuss their problems with fellow students categorize themselves as ‘straight’ to avoid uncomfortable situations when seeking employment. McLelland’s article talks about how gay men in the provincial areas face oppressive and condescending remarks. While awareness amongst Japanese society has helped queer people to express their identities, societal restrictions prevent queer people from living freely and contently in regards to employment and public accommodations. Furthermore, the lack of clinical psychologists versed in understanding queer identities does not help the advancement for social acceptance.
Additional problems arise as awareness spreads. Issues such as old-age, same-sex partnership laws, marriage, adoption and welfare systems are all challenges that sexual-minority groups now face. Such challenges will need to be acknowledged by Japanese leaders before any positive societal changes can successfully occur.
The “western modes of promoting activism and visibility, such as queer organizations, film festivals and parades in Japanese society have been taken by some as evidence of a ‘global queering.’ In the realm of sexuality, globalization results in creative indigenization and cultural admixture more than it does in any unilateral imposition of western sexual identities.” Thus, “Japan is home to an alternative sexual modernity, a modernity produced by hybrid globalizing processes as much as by the continuation of identities, practices and mentalities inherited from the past.”
The clash between traditional and contemporary ideas
The all encompassing term which refers to the non-heterosexual and gender-variant practices and identities that include gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals is kono sekai. The term literally translated in English means “this world,” and is used to refer to the wide variety of gender and sexual subcultures.
Homosexual practice is also found among the Samurai aristocracy in part because of the heavy influence that Buddhism had on their culture specifically during the early stages of the Edo period (1600-1868). Also during this period, “there was no necessary connection made between gender and sexual preference, because men, samurai in particular, were able to engage in both same and opposite sex affairs without being stigmatized.” Because same-sex relationships were governed by a code of ethics, “elite men were able to pursue boys and young men who had not yet undergone their coming-of-age ceremonies, as well as transgender females of all ages from the lower classes who worked as actors and prostitutes.” Although bisexuality in women was practiced, the notion of lesbianism was not documented and there is “no way of cognitively linking both male and female homosexuality.
It was not until the Meiji period (1868-1912) that “Japanese sexuality” was transformed through influence from “the West.” From a male to male perspective, before the Meiji period, the “behaviors between a man and a man dealt with the commitment to spend their lives together, not on their sexual desire.” Current queer expressions were established through postwar sex magazines, coffee shops (danshoku kisssaten), gay bars (gei ba), and various queer organizations.
The current social restraints on personal expression and employment opportunities related to being queer in Japan present a modern challenge. As a represented minority in a country where mainstream conformity is promoted and preferred, queers in Japan are ostracized and stereotyped by society; however they are commonly portrayed by media components. The media presents queers with same-sex desire as people who are transgender or transsexual. However, even these representations are viewed as a performance instead of sexual expression, further illustrating the media’s refusal to admit the existence of a queer minority. Mark McLelland stated that “the homosexual man who is transgender and restricts himself to the entertainment world is tolerated, even appreciated. However, the homosexual man who ‘passes’ and turns up to be your boss, your teacher, your neighbor or even your husband occasions a great deal of anxiety; he is a figure to be feared and or despised.” This way of thought represents the restraints on personal expression by dwelling on queers as a group who cross-dresses. However, as representations of homosexuality are concerned, only those that are noticeable, i.e. those that cross-dress, are wanted while the unnoticeable masses are shunned. These forces press for a common expression of self that likely would not exist if social systems allowed for their personal expression.
The suppressed expression of self is further expounded by the cultural practices revolving around family and marriage. The custom of living at home until marriage presents restrictions of queer life in Japan; the belief that one’s family will shame and disown a child who comes out as queer represses these children into living within a different frame of existence by forcing them to behave in the same manner as a heterosexual child. Along with this suppression, the lack of private space restricts the expression of feelings and self identity during times of growth, which in turn restrains attempts at finding love in the queer community. Along with these family issues the government’s refusal to acknowledge same-sex marriage forces queers into an outcast position by society’s preference for marriage and family to which queers are refused access.
Further national government influence unofficially restricts employment opportunities to those who remain in the closet. “Homosexuality works against the accepted norms of social morality and can be thought of as contributing to the breaking down of the established sexual public order of society. Consequently it should not be sanctioned in modern society.” This example of government preference on education presents one example of employment opportunities lost to queers in Japan. Furthermore, many Japanese organizations are incorrectly informed on queer issues which restrain and influence performance reports and promotional possibilities. These problems place pressure on queers to accept their diminished reputations or leave a company due to unrestrained bigotry from those in the workforce.
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