LGBTQ+ Representation in Japanese Media (Q&A)

An undergraduate student currently undertaking a class assignment asked me these questions and they kindly gave consent to my sharing their questions & my answers on my blog.

1. Representation of the LGBTQIA+ community has been prominent in the media for many years. What are your thoughts on the current representation of queer relationships in the media? Do you think the representation is mainly positive?

In recent years, probably for the past half decade, the mass media portrayals of same-sex relationships between two men have largely been positive, although such relationships primarily function as a bait to garner attention from heterosexual women. Gay male relationships represented in the mass media like TV shows and films mostly fall under either of the following categories: comedy (e.g. overly sexualized), taboo (e.g. eroticized), and pure love (i.e.. under-sexualized). We have yet to see more nuanced, complicated relationships between two men represented by the mass media.

For lesbian women, things are much worse. Lesbian relationships are, when they occasionally make it to the mass-targeted TV shows or movies, most of the time eroticized, and portrayed primarily for heterosexual men to enjoy.

With transgender people, I think the Japanese mass media have been doing quite a good job documenting their lives and difficulties they may face through their documentary and semi-documentary TV programs and movies. On the other hand, though, in talk shows and other kinds of programs, trans women are often either a target of ridicule (i.e. being laughed at) or a clown (i.e. making people laugh). Meanwhile, trans men are almost non-existent in the mass media.

Other identities such as asexual, nonbinary, etc. almost never make it to the mass media (or any kind of media, for that matter). Thanks to famous singer Hikaru Utada who came out as nonbinary about a month ago, some TV programs explained the concept on air to report on their coming out, but that’s just about it as far as I’m aware. Nothing negative has been said about Utada, though.

2. Many countries have begun to become involved in the representation of queer relationships through the BL (Boy Love) industry. Do you believe this brings more of a positive representation to queer relationships?

The genre has evolved so much in the last two decades. When I started consuming BL back in late 1990’s, BL was only starting to gain popularity or even recognition from the public. There was not much critical discourse around BL and, as far as I recall, many BL mangas were just a bunch of sexual imagery. I loved BL novels, though. Now, critical discourses have since shaped the current state of the genre, where discussions are very active on issues like (mis)representation, romanticization, and who get’s to write about whom. I think BL is the most vigorously contested genre among all, perhaps because of misogynous ideas about women writing about men, and now is the forefront of debates over representation. With the development of BL as a literary genre, we now have a huge number of good BL mangas, novels, and animes, and I do think that the more BL the world is exposed to, the better people will understand nuanced complexities of what it means to be in a same-sex male-male relationship.

3. Do you think the BL industry has enabled for consumers to romanticise toxic and abusive queer relationships?

Representation does not happen in a vacuum. I think we, the general public, had different, quite outdated notions of what counts as toxic or abusive relationships, say, 10, 20, 30 years ago. As social awareness grew after the Internet, especially in the past social media era, we have very quickly updated our ideas about power dynamics of relationships. Representation always falls behind but keeps following people’s ideas. And BL, I think, is the most responsive to such social and cultural updates. Heterosexual pornography (including manga, anime, etc.), I think, is the least responsive.

4. Do you think romanticising queer relationships are harmful towards LGBTQIA+ individuals?

LGBTQA+ individuals do romanticize queer relationships, so I guess I have nothing against romanticizing haha. But on a more serious note, I think the word “romanticize” needs to be firmly defined in order for romanticization to be problematized. And while that’s a very important discussion to have, I do think that any of the problems associated with representation such as romanticization, eroticization, under-sexualization, etc. etc. will become completely harmless when we eradicate real-life dangers and life difficulties of queer individuals and their communities, because, then, we can just laugh about misrepresentation and “weird” ways of consumption.

5. In your own opinion, do you think those who romanticise queer relationships are feeding into the harmful representation of the LGBTQIA+ community?

Again, I think it’s important that we define terms like “romanticize” and “harmful.” For example, gay and bisexual men, alongside straight men, lesbian women, etc., grow up in this homophobic society just the same. They grow up internalizing homophobic ideas. And we all know that sometimes, we desire what we ought not to desire, or at least we can say that our desires are constantly informed by society and cultures that surround us. So, for instance, if we someday successfully eradicate homophobia and the taboo associated with it, gay and bisexual men and their desires will never be the same. Some gay and bisexual men, I’d say, might not find gay sex as attractive or sexy as they do today because for them, their desires were the result of romanticization of prohibition. So, singling out BL consumers, for example, to blame for romanticizing male-male relationships and thus creating harms, in my opinion, is very, very off. We as existences are all creation of society and creators of society, no matter our genders or sexualities. Of course, however, critiquing a specific TV series, movie, manga, anime, etc. is important work.

6. What do you think can be done to bring more positive representations of healthy queer relationships in the media?

I think that it is when people see not only “healthy” queer relationships but also “unhealthy” queer relationships and do not feel the urge to attribute whatever they find bad, disgusting, atrocious, etc. to queerness, that we can finally say that queer relationships have fully entered the general public’s cultural consciousness as part of human diversity. I don’t think that white-washing queer representation to make it look good and respectable is the only path we must take. It is precisely for that reason that I see hope in BL where the nuances and complexities of male-male relationships are most depicted. And I hope there will be more creators producing content in similar ways about lesbian relationships, trans-cis relationships, trans-trans relationships, queerplatonic relationships, aromantic relationships, queer friendships, and queer communities.

Related video

Here’s my take on BL (Boys Love).

Hyper Japan LGBT+ Japan Online Panel

I will be on panel at Hyper Japan on July 26th at 4PM BST (July 27th at 1AM JST). Set a reminder on YouTube via the embeded video below.

Join our guests for a discussion of LGBT+ Japan – with guests from the UK, Japan and around the world.

Watch the discussion and ask your questions to the panel, July 26th at 16:00 BST.

Bill Reilly (Haus of Gaishoku)

Masaki C. Matsumoto

Erica Friedman (Yuricon)

Ronald Taylor (Arama Japan)

Madame Wasabi

For more Japanese culture:

A Yelling Man in Japanese Train and the Problem with Speaking For Someone Else

I started using my 2nd Japanese Twitter account a.k.a. my bar business account to share short videos, like this one about homophobia and J-pop vocal covers.

In the video below (don’t worry, it’s subbed in English), I talk about this weird experience I had on a Japanese train about 10 years ago in Tokyo and how it taught me the importance of not speaking for someone else without consulting them first.


A Japanese YouTuber Trashes BLM and I’m Debunking His Bullshit

Japanese YouTuber Nobita saying "This is not the right time."

Trigger warning: racism and anti-Blackness.

A friend of mine sent me this video via Twitter DM today. I thought for a moment the text in the thumbnail read “BLM message to Japan,” but I was too optimistic. It was a horribly anti-social justice message from a Japanese man who seems to believe that he somehow represents the majority of Japanese people (and in his words, he “felt like it’s [his] obligation to tell [Japanese people’s] message to [his] audience”).

Don’t watch the video and give him views and thus money. I’ll respond to everything he says in the below. The URL is just for the sake of making sources clear.

*Before we jump in, let me humbly remind you that making fun of a non-native speaker’s errors in grammars and word choice is not cool at all. His English is decent enough for us to understand fully. I’ve added some words in square brackets [ ] to make sure what he says in Japanese is properly conveyed in the translation.

First thing first. The title.

It says “Black Lives Matter Pisses Many Japanese Off.” I am vaguely sure that he meant “Black Lives Matter movements” or “Black Lives Matter protests” but saying that Black Lives Matter pisses someone off sounds very racist. But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and move on.

To be clear, [the intention of] this video is NOT like insulting or attacking black people or BLM at all. Actually, it’s also towards Japanese protester, not just foreign ones. That’s why I’m speaking Japanese today.

(*All quotes are from his own English subtitles.)

First of all, let us capitalize the B in “Black.” I’ve made this mistake countless times until only recently, and I thank my friend, Princess, for patiently walking me through why the capitalization of the B was important. Now I know that “black” in all lower case means nothing but the color. So by calling someone “a black person,” you are describing their color like I call my curtain “my green curtain.” That is degrading. But Black people have reclaimed the name as a community and “Black” with the capital B now represents their collective identity, culture, and sadly, their history of oppression. See George M. Johnson’s Mic post, Yes, ‘Black’ is capitalized when we’re talking about race, to read more on this issue.

Okay, so now we got Nobita’s intention. He means no harm to Black people or BLM. But the thing is, this is something that, when we hear it, we immediately get ready for whatever bullshit may come out of their mouth in the same breath. He nails that in just 7 seconds.

As you know, BLM is happening here now and unfortunately, many Japanese got pissed off. This is very rare but some Japanese even sent me emails and asked me like,
“You have many foreign audience, right?”
Please ask them to stop it!”

Some of my Japanese friends or [sic; he means “and”] acquaintances also said the same.
“This is not the right time.”

(*The embedded text on the video is underlined.)

What he means by “many Japanese” is vague. Is it 50% of the population? 80% of the population? Or 20 people with whom he’s friends or acquaintances with? I myself am Japanese and I live in Japan. I have a social life and most of the people around me are Japanese. I don’t even talk politics with them that much. They’re old classmates and people in the neighborhood. And I haven’t heard a single person expressing their anger towards the Black Lives Matter protests. See, “pissed off” is a very strong phrase to use. I wouldn’t be surprised if people were “skeptical” or “having mixed feelings.” Actually, my guess is that most people here don’t care much about the protests or they don’t even know that there were protests in Japan. “Pissed off” Japanese people and BLM supporters are both in their own epistemic bubble if they believe that even 1% of Japanese people are aware of the protests.

So, no. Not many Japanese people are “pissed off.”

As for the timing, I don’t know if Nobita knows this, but “not now” is the anti-social justice cliché that we always hear from bigots. Coincidentally, Nobita and I were both thinking about the timing of the BLM protests around the same time (June 15), and here’s my take on it.

Every social movement, and I mean, every single social movement, gets blamed for a “bad timing.” It’s always too early or too late. (E.g. former comfort women are blamed by Japanese alt-right bigots for not speaking up earlier which bigots attribute to an imagined political campaign.) That’s why we decide on our timings and never let them make that decision.

In fact, if you go see the Japanese internet (the social media/4chan/blogs,etc) [in Japanese, he omits “blogs,etc”], you see a full of angry Japanese complaining about it. Those comments are all written in Japanese so maybe it’s hard for foreigners to notice that but I wish the BLM’s organizers [had] noticed those Japanese opinions [in Japanese, he says “BLM organizers should have been aware of such opinions”].

EPISTEMIC BUBBLE. And 4chan is not a place to go to see public opinion. It’s an alt-right haven.

And how dare he suggest that the organizers lack Japanese proficiency and that they had no idea about Covid-19-related risks. That’s all his imagination. Readers, stay tuned for more of his condescending attitude toward the organizers.

I’m personally not pissed off [he doesn’t say that in Japanese], but I felt like it’s my obligation to tell their message to my audience who might plan to go to BLM.

Toxic fake neutrality. Nobita IS pissed off. He just doesn’t admit it, but pretends to be the messenger, some kind of mediator, when in fact he is completely siding with the bigots whose voices he WANTS to amplify on his platform.

They’re all saying the same thing;
“The BLM protests risk spreading coronavirus in Japan.
It may be more dangerous than police brutality or racism.”

Comparing racism and a pandemic is not gonna cut it when right now we are witnessing what racism in a time of a pandemic looks like. By the way, in excavating that link from the Google sea, I found a sentence in the article that struck me; “Politicians are also concerned the protests may trigger an increase in the spread of COVID-19, so public health experts are providing tips on how to protest safely.” The stark contrast between those public health experts and Nobita’s argument is just… I can’t even.

Especially medical workers or Japanese who refrain from attending a gathering, they are really not happy about it. The timing is quite bad. For this 2 or 3 months, residents here have been working so hard. The state of emergency was over and finally we could go to school/company. The infection cases were dropping down even to 20 or 10 but recently, it got up to nearly 50. For those who don’t know, in Tokyo, for example, (*translates the embedded text into Japanese).
“The request to suspend business will be considered when there are more than 50 positive cases a day.” – Yuriko Koike, Tokyo Gov.

Well, for those who wanted to participate in BLM protests, the timing WAS bad. It was bad for me, too, since I have been extremely busy these past couple of months and I haven’t left my town (and ones adjacent to it) since February. So I do agree that the timing was regrettable for BLM supporters. But I’m sure Nobita gives no fuck about BLM supporters anyway. He only mentioned them to pretend like he cared and were “neutral.”

As for the statistics, Japan’s or Tokyo’s official numbers are questionable at best. We don’t know if the risks have lessened or not because testing remains quite low and the governments arbitrarily choose particular demographics to allow testing (e.g. people in Yoru no machi or red-light districts).

I completely agree that there are risks of contracting and spreading Covid-19 if you go out and about like we used to be able to before the pandemic. But Nobita could have chosen to support the protests AND raise awareness about risks and strategies like the public health experts I mentioned earlier are doing. That, he seems to do later in the video, but remember, he doesn’t actively support BLM in the first place.

Many companies and people’s lives are still in crisis or struggling a lot because of the virus. Currently, Japan has about 900 confirmed deaths from the virus which is quite lower than other developed countries. I don’t think it’s just lucky. The effort and sacrifice so many residents in Japan have been paying may be difficult to see for those BLM protesters. But I hope the organizers should care about those people who are really worrying about spreading virus infection.

Why he keeps assuming that BLM organizers and protesters are stupid, is mystery. They live here (except for few who didn’t happen to be in Japan at the time). They have seen plastic curtains in stores. They have stayed home as much as they could like everyone else. They closed their restaurants. They took classes online. They’re scared. They’re worried. They KNOW.

I haven’t been to any BLM protests, so I’m not really sure how much they’re actually taking virus-measures there. But from the live streams, I saw some of them chatting without masks at close distance or gathering in 1 small spot for a long time. They’re so closing [sic; he means “close”], breathing a lot which seems very high risk. And seeing like that, it’s no wonder many [Japanese people] are upset and asked me to warn about it.

Have you stepped outside your residence at all in the past couple of weeks, Nobita? People are having parties. People are karaoke-ing. More and more people are not wearing sanitary masks. Risky, indeed. Ignorant, maybe. Careless, for sure. But people’s behavior cannot be controlled 100%. Singling out Black Lives Matter protests for blame is a selective choice he and other bigots are making. It’s a choice one can only make if they don’t think Black lives do actually matter.

But I want to make this clear. It does NOT mean Japanese people don’t support BLM or we don’t care about black lives. No one in Japan says like that as far as I know. Actually, it’s kinda opposite. It [the death of George Floyd? BLM in the U.S.? not sure] has been a big news here in Japan too and I see many Japanese sympathizing with black people and agreeing with the intension [sic] and anti-racism action itself. But maybe it’s just not the right time and right way.

If now is not a good time to fight against racism and you care about Black lives, what about you started a BLM protest in Japan, say, 5 years ago? No, you didn’t. You didn’t do that because you do not care about Black lives. Starting a protest is such hard work (and for that exact reason we owe a lot to people like brianna who organized BLM Kansai). So let’s lower the standard. Nobita, have you ever spoken publicly against racism? Have you ever stood up for any Black person being harassed and/or stopped by the police? Have you ever offered emotional support to any Black person who needed it? If you have, well, I hope you continue your action and more. If not, you are not in a position to tell people, especially Black people, what timing is good.

Since BLM is happening all over the world, I understand maybe it’d be unfair if only Japan didn’t follow the movement. So I’d like to suggest the organizers if they’re watching this now. For example, how about protesting by zoom or online? Or maybe dividing into small groups and doing a demo in different locations not gathering in one spot for a long time. Or bringing a lot of masks or hand-sanitizers for those who aren’t so cautious. If those measures were taken, probably that so many residents wouldn’t have been upset. I know it may not be a normal protesting as you want but I think you could still get your message across and raise the awareness in Japan.

Has anybody said anything about unfairness? I don’t think so. Even if someONE has said such a thing, it’s definitely, absolutely not the primary motive behind the protests in Japan. This morning, I was asked on Twitter this question (translation follows):

English translation: Sorry for an abrupt question. I do understand that BLM is a protest against institutional discrimination and that as a result of that the Defund the Police demand emerged. But if that’s all true, don’t you think that it’s a domestic (U.S.) issue? What do we make of the BLM protests going on in Japan and Europe?

And I replied:

English translation: It basically is a domestic issue (except, it’s an international issue in the sense that there was transatlantic slave trade and the Nicaragua-CIA drug relationship behind the war on drugs). In my opinion, there are three important goals of BLM protests outside the U.S. (1) to show solidarity to BLM protesters in the U.S., (2) to show the U.S. government that the protest has expanded worldwide, and (3) to protest against the local anti-Black racism and prejudices that are interconnected with American anti-Black racism but also may manifest in different ways. In fact, most protests outside the U.S. are just a space for expressing opinions and none of them, as far as I know, has continued more than a day.

Now, Nobita says, “I’d like to suggest the organizers if they’re watching this now,” and I have a huge problem with him right here. No, Nobita. It’s pretty obvious that the organizers will never watch a video titled “Black Lives Matter Pisses Many Japanese Off.” BLM protesters and supporters know that bigots hate their activism. They have experiences of hatred directed at them. Your video’s title is screaming, “I’m going to talk shit about what you care about.” And you know what? We know that you know that the organizers won’t take a single look at your video. You’re not talking to them. You’re talking to your bigoted fans.

Online. Small groups. Those are valid suggestions. I do agree with Nobita on the “get the message across” premise. I just wish that he had made those suggestions to the organizers directly before the protests. But “bringing a lot of masks or hand-sanitizers”? Didn’t he say he “[hasn’t] been to any BLM protests” and he’s “not really sure how much [the organizers were] actually taking virus-measures there”? The BLM Kansai, for example, specifically instructed participants to bring masks and gloves.

They also talked with the public officials and police and obtained the permission to accommodate 200+ people under specific conditions e.g. social distancing instructions and the use of umbrellas. Masks, gloves, and protection glasses are mentioned, too.

And they asked people from outside Osaka not to participate. They also said anybody without a sanitary mask on would be escorted out.

So, my response to his statement that “[i]f those measures were taken, probably that so many residents wouldn’t have been upset” is fu*k you.

Again, most Japanese people are not saying BLM itself is a bad idea [in Japanese, he phrases this sentence as “most Japanese people don’t have any problem with the BLM movement itself”]. In fact, a lot of Japanese people also participate in it. But I think the organizers should keep in mind people’s lives in Japan do matter as much as black lives.

It is astonishingly condescending of him to assume the position of a third-party here. As a non-Black person, neither Nobita nor I could possibly judge BLM. We can’t. You don’t go around and pick up some movement that you have no stake in, and say, “hmm, this one is good.” It is not cherry picking, Nobita. It is not about whether you think BLM is good or bad. It’s about whether you think Black lives do matter and act on that belief, or fall on the bigots’ side. If you have health concerns about the protests, talk to the organizers.

And that last sentence doesn’t even make any sense. Black people and other people who went to the protests ARE people in Japan. You’re constructing a false dichotomy here. And to think that it never occurred to the organizers that lives of the people living in Japan like themselves matter? Nobita, you piss me off.

If you still want to do it in Japan, I’d appreciate it if you could do that in safe and considerable [sic; he means “considerate”] way.

No, you wouldn’t appreciate it. You wouldn’t appreciate Black Lives Matter protests no matter when they protest, where they protest, how they protest. You just don’t care.

Edit: @AngryDaenjangny pointed out that behind the BLM protests in Japan was also a recent incident of police brutality against a Kurdish man in Roppongi. Details in the Twitter thread below.

Also, that was not an isolated case of some random violence officer.

When Rainbow Flags Make It To National Television #Japan #LGBTQ #MISIA

Singer MISIA singing on stage

When I started college, there already existed prides and rainbow flags. I didn’t have to create queer spaces to join or queer symbols to identify with. They were there, and I’d join rainbow-filled events and groups. And I was constantly disappointed with how those events were trans-indifferent, gay men-centered, obsessed with money and reputation, anti-intersectional, ethnocentric, disability-unfriendly, male-dominated, etc. etc. 

For me, rainbow has always been a symbol of the ideal that we collectively aim at, something we go back to when lost in direction and imagination. It’s a symbol that reminds us of who we might leave behind if we stop caring for the entire community but those who are like “us.” That’s what it should be, and that’s why many of us queers work hard to make/keep rainbow spaces inclusive and try to stay humble when confronted with criticisms, and hold accountable those who do not live up to what the symbol represents. 

Most queers do not automatically identify with rainbow flags. Identifying with them requires constant work. The sense of community is hard to achieve and many of us try hard to make rainbow feel like “ours” by joining events and groups imperfect but *close enough*. It precisely feels like fitting in at school and you know what I mean if you were neither one of the “cool kids” nor one of the happy outsiders. If you were like me, you probably did the background color paint on the cardboard so the cool kids could do cool painting on it for a school project. You were there, but you could’ve been anyone. For me, queer events always feel like that school project that I was invisibly part of, that I could not ditch and go home because I was not happy enough an outsider. 

That’s why, that’s why we should not place rainbow flags in a nationalistic TV program that celebrates Japan’s Imperial family & the Olympics. NHK’s annual end-of-the-year music program, Kouhaku Utagassen, where musicians are divided into two competing teams of red (women) and white (men), did just that on New Year’s eve, 2019. 

MISIA, the singer who performed with drag queens and numerous rainbow symbols on the stage, is a gay icon and a long-time ally who has helped raise awareness about sexual diversity through music, performance, and collaboration with gay men. That, I don’t have a problem with (I just hope that she’ll start doing the same with the lesbian, bi, and trans communities). 

But the underlying theme of the entire program is national unity, with the utterances of words like Reiwa (Japan’s new imperial reign period that started earlier last year) and the Olympics recurring throughout the program. MISIA’s rainbow-filled performance, in such a nationalistic context, might be understood as a call for queers to join the “diverse Japanese nationals” bandwagon, or in other words, it can be understood as the formerly government-owned broadcasting company’s homonationalist tactics. 

Not the singer’s fault, obviously, but as someone who needs to work hard to identify with the rainbow symbol, someone who stayed after school only to paint the background so I could be part of the project, I was almost compelled to applaud. I still feel like I should feel happy to see rainbow symbols in Kouhaku because it’s such a big event and by feeling happy about it, I could announce to the world that I am part of the queer community, a legitimate member of it, indeed. 

But that would have meant I’d have to forget, at least for a moment, about my family and friends who are not welcomed members of the Japanese society. 

That’s why, that’s why rainbow symbols, which supposedly represent all queers and their diverse lives, should not be used like this. We should not use them in a way that tempt queers, especially ones who already feel alienated within the community, to identify with them in contexts of injustices. 

I wrote an article about this in Japanese for Wezzy. If you read Japanese, here’s the link. 
#NHK #Kohaku #Kouhaku #MISIA #LGBTQ #LGBT

*If you believe that nationalism is just, this post isn’t for you. Don’t even think.

*Cover photo has been taken off of MISIA’s official website.

Social Justice English#001: marginalized, prejudice, problematic, unacceptable

One of the reasons I started this channel was because I had activist/scholar friends who struggled with English when communicating with fellow activists, researchers, scholars etc. from other cultures. I wanted to help them. Some of my past videos are directly catered to that kind of audience, but here’s my serious attempt to create a repository of social justice vocabulary for them to learn. Also, if you’re learning Japanese, I translate each key word/phrase and example sentence into Japanese following English explanations.

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Introduction to Logic: Is lawmaker Mio Sugita’s homophobic argument VALID or SOUND?

In this English lesson video, I explain to ESL learners the meaning of the word “sound” in the sense of an argument being logical and based on truth, then move on to explain validity and soundness using one of the homophobic arguments recently made by Japanese lawmaker Mio Sugita where she argues that students should not be taught about LGBT issues in school.

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