Until recently, seeing lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender characters in any form of Western media was rare. Even today with rising representation, harmful stereotypes far outweigh well-written characters. This problem is not just a Western problem, however. This problem exists all over the world.
Gay Men in Popular Culture
Japan is no exception. Though being LGBTQ is no longer illegal, marriage is still only allowed between a man and a woman (that is nowhere near the only issue, but that is another argument for another time). Japan’s sometimes-regressive views on homosexuality are reflected in its popular media. One of the most popular types of TV personalities is called the onē. Onē are incredibly feminine and flamboyant gay men (Brasor). Indeed, a trend in Japan (and in other countries) has been to view homosexual men as also being transgender or transsexual. Although there certainly are homosexual men who fit this profile, naturally not every homosexual man is like an onē, and having that be the only representation of homosexual men is limiting and problematic.
Representation in Film
One interesting issue the onē posits is the intersection between gender and sexuality in Japan. This issue is written about quite eloquently in Jonathan Hall’s article “Japan’s Progressive Sex: Male Homosexuality, National Competition, and the Cinema.” In the article, Hall discusses the “gay boom” in 1990s Japanese cinema through the scope of a few films. The film I want to mention here is the film Okoge, which “in keeping with a Japanese trend which relocates the gay male as a safe displacement of female desire, posits the heterosexual female as the audience’s point of identification in a film about the lives of gay Japanese men” (Hall). Here, we can see the intersection of misogyny and homosexuality: apparently when this film was made, women having sexual desire were still considered taboo, so that desire for men is represented with gay men. This way of thinking about homosexuality keeps it linked with the idea that gay people are also transgender (though, as I mentioned, some certainly are).
Representation in Literature
Because I have yet to see the films about which Hall writes, I do not feel completely comfortable analyzing their representation of queer people. However, there is a Japanese text that I have read that I would like to analyze. In the fall of 2014, I read Yoshimoto Banana’s book Kitchen. One thing that struck me when reading was the inclusion of a transgender woman character named Eriko. Not only does this book have a trans woman, but also this trans woman is a very well written, well-rounded character who serves as excellent representation of trans people (even if that was not in Banana’s mind when writing). She is a strong single (now) mother with an adult son. She owns and runs her own business (a gay bar). She is welcoming and kind. She does pass as a cisgender woman (someone assigned female at birth who identifies as woman), and while passing is not a requirement of being trans, it might help reluctant readers view her as more of a legitimate woman, even though she would be without any surgery. Although Eriko is eventually murdered–an unfortunate trope in many forms of media containing LGBTQ characters–her death makes sense in the narrative. I remember being absolutely amazed when reading. It was one of the first times I have ever seen such a positive view of transgender people in any media from any country.
Representation Before Post-Bubble Japan
Like many other cultures, Japan found ways to include queer people in its films since the early days of cinema. However, like many other cultures, that representation was often coded. Queer coding is a way to include queer people in media where only those who get the references to queer culture and signals will recognize the queer characters. One good example of this is the Ozu film Early Summer. This film contains a very short dialogue exchange between a friend of Noriko (the main character) and a man. In this exchange, the friend mentions that Noriko is obsessed with the Hollywood actress Katherine Hepburn. He then asks if Noriko is interested in women. (The word he uses is hentai, which means pervert). To many heterosexual viewers, this scene might be confusing or go on by without a second thought. However, to those who know the legacy of Katherine Hepburn as a queer-icon, this is an obvious code that Noriko might be queer (Kanno). But because the film never outright states either way, it is up to the viewer to decide. This representation is of course poor, but in a time when representation was few and far between, it may have been the only time queer people could see themselves on screen.
And even though media might still be harmful, the country as a whole is getting more accepting. For instance, Kamikawa Aya is the only out transgender woman to hold public office in Japan, and has been voted in for multiple terms. The times, they are changing. It will be amazing to see what the world is like in the near future.
1. How does this representation differ from other cultures?
2. Is this type of representation and attitude linked with a “cool” Japan or a national identity?
Hall, Jonathan. “Japan’s Progressive Sex: Male Homosexuality, National Competition, and the Cinema”
Kanno, Yuko. “Implicational Spectatorship: Hara Setsuko and the Queer Joke”