Being queer in Japan (Q&A)

A couple days ago, a graduate student from France studying journalism, Elina Pernin, interviewed me via e-mail. I asked them if I could share the interview on my blog and they kindly agreed, so here’s the interview.

Could you present yourself and tell me what you’re doing in life? Where do you live and where are you from?  

I am Masaki C. Matsumoto. I am a freelance writer and speaker on issues pertaining to gender and sexuality politics, while also being the owner and co-manager of a minority-friendly diner/bar FAT CATS.

Do you consider yourself a LGBTQIA+ activist? And if yes, what do you do as an activist? I can see that you are a queer writer in your bio, could you detail that and present it to me?

I used to call myself an activist, back when I was in college and grad school where I was involved in student activism. If running FAT CATS (see above) counts, then I guess I can call myself an activist. Otherwise, I am more a critic than an activist.

What do you think about the declaration of Yuriko Koike of December 7 about the extension of the partnership system in the whole Tokyo metropolitan expected by 2023? 

Yuriko Koike is infamous, at least in social justice circles, for her blatant racism where she has never issued a letter as the governor to the annual memorial for the ethnic Koreans, estimated to be at least 6,000, lynched to death during the 1923 Kanto Earthquake by the Japanese army, police, and vigilantes——something all previous governors have done. So, whatever positive thing she says or does for the LGBTQ+ populations, I take it as pink-washing.

What will change thanks to this measure? Do you think that this is enough?

In areas where such policies exist, not so many same-sex couples have actually registered as a couple, perhaps because it doesn’t change their legal status at all. I think partnership laws are just a deflection. It works well for the governments because it’s symbolically a good thing. Marriage is symbolic, too, but if we are to win anything, it has to be something that ensures legal statuses. Most queers are in the closet anyway, and many will register as a couple without sharing the news with families, colleagues, or neighbors. If we are to do it discreetly, we want it to be actually legally beneficial.

How would you define the partnership system, what rights can it give to the same sex couples?

I think that depends on each local partnership policy, but as far as I know, there’s only so much local policies can do (e.g. apply as a couple for public housing).

According to your daily life in Japan, could you say that Japan is an open minded country about the LGBT subject? Or not?

I live as a very openly queer person, so maybe anti-queer bigots are just staying away from me, but I don’t encounter much bigotry against queers in my daily life. Even in Gunma where I live (mostly suburbs and farms), people are usually cool with queers. It’s 2022 and people adult-age usually have already met at least one or two queer persons before. My 78-year-old friend has a gay brother, for example. My 95-year-old grandma knew a lesbian woman back in school. So, in terms of queer acceptance, people here are generally cool, except right-wing people (who, by the way, make up the majority of the ruling party LDP, which is really bad because laws and policies matter). 

I think that such acceptance, however, stems from the general idea in Japan that sexuality and gender identity are mere personal preferences, like kinks——something some people are brave enough to share but others are too embarrassed to talk about. That’s probably why many queers, including straight people who have sex with the same-sex and cisgender people who crossdress, want to stay in the closet despite the high level of social acceptance.

Also, in terms of acceptance, the TERF ideologies have already infiltrated feminist circles (scholars, students, activists, and politicians) in Japan, and we are seeing a rise of transphobia online and offline. 

Did you already experience discrimination because of your sexual orientation or gender? Or felt unsafe sometimes? What do you think about the fact that there is no official law to punish discrimination on the subject in the country?

I once was sexually assaulted by a man, probably because I was openly queer. Also, I used to occasionally dress as a girl and hang out with friends, and whenever I did, I would be very scared someone might attack me so I stuck with friends all the time. Other than that, I just get comments, mildly homophobic and/or transphobic, by people who are just ignorant.

As for a lack of legal protection, I am anti-prison. So, increasing punishment for hate crimes and discrimination doesn’t seem to me to be a good way to go. More education, maybe?

Do you have hope for the next years, about an improvement of the LGBTQIA + rights in Japan? What would you expect?

I don’t have hopes, honestly. The Japanese society, on both structural and cultural levels, is full of racism, especially anti-Korean/anti-Chinese sentiments. Right-wingers and some feminists are teaming up to crush trans rights. Given that, I think we need to take with a grain of salt anything seemingly good that happens to LGB people in Japan, as there might be a hidden agenda (cooptation, pink-washing, etc.).

Masaki C. Matsumoto
A queer writer and YouTuber. UChicago MA dropout. My preferred pronouns are they/them. Read more

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