A recent quote retweet I made is picking up an abnormal amount of traction. I followed it up by saying, “there comes a point in embracing a foreign culture where you need to reckon with the darkness as much as enjoy the fun, happy aspects.” Thus, I present a back story which reaffirmed the more critical lens I needed to view Japan as I left, as well as a ramble on what that story (and tweet) means to me.
A fun story from my last couple weeks studying abroad in Tokyo (August 2013):
Earlier in the summer, a friend (40s) who works at a radio station was able to get me up to 4 Disneyland passes with food vouchers. She asked how many I wanted, and I told her 2 (I started to see someone). When I met her and her husband at the entrance to get the tickets, she was a bit surprised I brought along a guy. Nonetheless, we walked in together then went our separate ways. (Later on, she mentions they went home after a couple hours. We ended up staying until the park closed.)
I meet the couple again for a bowling tournament hosted by a sushi restaurant (that’s a story in itself), and she just got a haircut. We (myself included) called it the “Seiko-chan” (after Matsuda Seiko). Surprised (again!), she asked if I actually knew who they were talking about, to which I named a few songs (Akai sweet pea and Anata ni aitakute; yes, I distinctly remember).
On the ride back, the roundabout way she wanted to confirm I was into guys: “what kind of music do you like?”
I didn’t fully realize it at the time, but she must have put the pieces together when I said I used to listen to Hamasaki Ayumi and Morning Musume: probably the gayest duo of musical acts you could say as a 21-year-old guy. 😂
August comes, and I’m about to go home.
The sushi restaurant hosted a mini “tournament” with some of their closer members (all of whom I got on with), and invited me to their restaurant for an omakase as a parting dinner. During the dinner, the Seiko-chan-haircut friend mentioned Disneyland, and that I went with a guy. Some of them taken aback, one middle-aged lady who worked at a post office (50s) and was particularly interested in learning about me/Hawaii asked if I was gay. I responded affirmatively. She and her husband were surprised because “[I] wasn’t particularly effeminate nor into dressing like a girl.” (The word she used was okamappoi, which is a pretty loaded word in itself.) Another lady (40s) said “that’s such a waste” (mottainai na~) half-drunkenly. Post office lady asked, “so you have no interest in dressing like a woman?” I responded negatively. Most of the conversation after that revolved around my identity and how I live my life, all of which was new to this older group of people. None of the relationships changed (both the sushi shop owner and his wife teared up when I left, which almost made me cry there), and I left feeling like I helped widen their worldview.
This begs the question: why do I feel like this was a negative (“darkness”) experience?
It revealed to me first-hand how “in the dark” a lot of Japan actually is about social issues. While my dorm and classmates understood the concept of LGBT+ as varied people and personalities, there were (are?) other generations who may not understand that because of the lack of representation on TV/film. Onee/okama “characters” are all what people saw until just recently when Kinou nani tabeta?, Ossan’s Love, and Yuri on ICE showed facets of what non-effeminate gay men are like. OshiBudo shows hints of lesbian relationships focused on the emotional aspect (versus the physicality of love). But considering the latter two are anime, the audience won’t be the 40+ age range I mentioned in my story.
Recent developments in the BLM movement in Japan and general reactions, as well as the reactions to sexual harassment and adultery stories in the entertainment industry, have reaffirmed a surprising(?) ignorance in society outside of the “normal”: Nihonjin v. Zainichi, haafu, and gai(koku)jin; LGBT+ “in real life;” feminism/equality for women (and the preferential treatment towards men); etc. Japan is still 121st in the gender equality ranking, and it still shows in the media as well as the workplace.
As the conversation continues, while “minorities” can point to resources for others to learn about us, as many say: it’s not our job to educate. While our presence could be educational, our role shouldn’t be solely educational. If our role isn’t “solely educational,” then why does it feel like that for a large majority of us?
Because a majority of the time, we need to work (more than) twice as hard to get just as far. We either need to accommodate or present ourselves as “exceptional” just to be perceived as “normal” by general society. Black people need to straighten their hair (or cut it in extreme circumstances) and “speak white” because Black English sounds “uneducated;” LGBT+ need to act in a way that affirms “normal” gender roles; women in general need to watch their every move to not be labelled by men as “difficult” (in a multitude of ways). A large number of people need to be better than or “normal” when compared to what’s perceived as the “majority”: white (wo)men.
This results in our needing to excel just to be noticed, and in multiple ways: the way we dress, speak, hold ourselves, etc., which ends up translating into educational/vocational excellence. We inadvertently become experts in subjects, from the relatively trivial (specific pop culture knowledge is usually highly-valued currency) to the relatively significant (art/humanities like history, social sciences, and language, as well the physical sciences/mathematics, and vocational skills which combine both such as auto mechanics, aestheticians, and professional sport). Minorities end up excelling because they need to “prove their worth” or “cover up/make up” via our achievements, which also results in us becoming the “educators” in our groups.
However, this “need” isn’t reflected in the entire population (obviously), and creates new avenues for discrimination or disdain even amongst minorities ourselves; the gay community is just one example of how in-group discrimination and disdain shows itself. It further complicates our identities and the way we interact with each other: even in jest, phrases like “we don’t claim so-and-so as one of us” becomes a hurdle “so-and-so” may feel the need to overcome to become accepted by the community to which they actually had a sense of belonging. Said hurdle may extend the height of the obstacle too high, which could result in self-sabotaging behaviors, resulting in further self-image harm. If I can’t educate or live up to what I’m “supposed to be,” then what use is it to try?
While we in America are starting to reckon with that notion as it applies to the population in general (and “minorities” in particular), this is seemingly something which yet eludes Japan. To flip the question for the “majority”: what use is it for me to understand them if they don’t educate me or live up to what “they’re supposed to be?”
Just because you’re not like the others doesn’t mean you don’t have worth in our communities. In fact, your individuality is what makes our community unique, and gives you more impact than the so-called “ideal” ones. Don’t compare your excellence to others’ excellence.
Comparison (both myself to others and others to the population I know) and hiding behind my achievements are things that have taken me years to outgrow, and it’s still something I’m working on. I sometimes still struggle in finding true value in myself, even though I can find it in others (and even then, I struggle in making sure I’m sincere about it because a tiny voice in my mind still says I’m not being truthful when I speak about others). I struggle with being well-spoken about other subjects, but not about myself: the story above was a quite a struggle that was helped along with a couple beers that night. It’s never too late to grow (and outgrow), and it’s never too late to say, “no, educate yourself” or “look at this, and tell me what you observe.”
But at least I know for sure…
… just because I personally don’t want to dress as a woman in public, it doesn’t make me any less gay.
Disclaimer: by no means am I an expert. This is a personal observation, but I feel like this is applicable to a lot of us out there. I also wrote this in one go, which is why this might seem like a maze of a post.
I also ended up leaving out one of my important points: media literacy and representation is a very important topic which needs to be covered in compulsory school, not just in higher education. Nothing was wrong with my Japanese friends: they just were ignorant to what is “actually out there” because what they saw in the media was a single facet of our community. A large majority of LGBT+ media is still physically/sexually charged, which also eliminates all our other facets and focuses on just the (possibly most crudest) one. As much crap as we give Ellen, we also need to credit her for putting her career on the line in the ’90s to give the LGBT the chance at representation in mainstream media (‘The Puppy Episode’ came out in 1997, prior to Will & Grace‘s debut in 1998). These shows alone have put American media decades ahead of what Japan is finally getting.
Maybe we can revisit this post in 20 years to see what’s changed (and what hasn’t). But for now, critical lenses for Japan and America (still).