Pots, Cats and Lilies, but Nothing Changes?

Japanese Lesbian/Transgender Identities in Contemporary Media.

The anime and manga community will probably be familiar with the term okama (literally, kettle), variously translated as ‘transvestite’ or ‘Drag Queen’, which is commonly applied to (effeminately) gay characters, especially in a cross-dressing context. mr.2_3Bentham/Bon Curry from Oda Eiichiro’s One Piece may turn being okama into a martial art,  but he is still an example for the ridicule transpeople often face. Also, in the Japanese gay community there is an ongoing debate about the offensiveness of the term okama because it transports associations not only of a passive sexual role but also of prostitution.[i] Possibly even less known fact: there is a corresponding term for female-to-male cross-dressers, onabe (literally, flat pot), which was obviously coined in response to the male equivalent. Yet, onabe are not simply female okama; and not just because there aren’t as many flamboyant 2D-examples.[ii]

The (Internationally?) Ghosted Lesbian

Japan’s relatively lenient approach to male-to-male homosexuality, in specific contexts at least, has been discussed previously.[iii] By contrast, hardly anything has been said, or indeed can be said, about the history of women’s non-normative sexualities, in Japan or elsewhere.[iv] In the West, this has been due to the (Victorian) assumption that women are not supposed to even have a sexuality in the first place, and the complete disregard of any possibility of female-to-female sexuality. This has produced what Terry Castle so pointedly termed the ‘Apparitional Lesbian’: non-heterosexual female experience is ghostly, not-quite-real, because lesbian desire fundamentally challenges the patriarchal hegemony.[v] It would of cause be condescending and essentialist to assume that the same principles structured a society as vastly different as that of Japan, but there is a basic similarity – the patriarchal society (Buddhist and Confucianist rather than Victorian Christian, in the case of Japan), which needs to deny deviant sexualities and gender identities to maintain itself. This allows for the assumption, I believe, that female sexuality outside strict lines of necessity (dynastic procreation) was obstructed and condemned in a similar fashion in Japan, and that (especially non-heterosexual) female desire was similarly ghosted. Indeed, there are but a few hints, as Mark McLelland describes in his interesting, though necessarily sketchy, history of female cross-dressing in Japan.[vi]

Therefore, my sources mostly consider only the time period from the 1960s to the present. I am going to take an even narrower focus and try to find some narrative depictions I can mention, and perhaps venture to say a thing or two about their recipients, because that is what I, as a literary scholar, am interested in and feel competent to deal with. So, which images of lesbians and transpeople can one come across in Japanese media?

Imitation and parody: Cross-dressers

A first sign of lesbian visibility, Lez Bars (again a reaction to male Gay Bars) began to open in Tokyo the 1960s. Mainstream magazines covered this trend and their clientele;[vii] allegedly, this consisted of both curious heterosexuals, and two types of lesbian women. In an imitation of heterosexual gender roles (as McLelland points out), there was supposed to be a male role player, called tachi (this term can be linked to the leading actors in (all 1789male) kabuki or (all-female) Takarazuka (see an example on the right), or to the idea of a sword-bearer, or simple to the ‘standing’, i.e. up, partner), and a feminine role player, called neko (literally, cat).[viii] In addition, there is also rezu, the abbreviation of the transliterated English ‘lesbian’), but it is often associated with the porn industry.[ix] Neko were seen as the more subversive type, both because they seemed like ‘normal women’ and because they were deemed especially lustful.[x] While tachi simply associated a masculine lesbian woman, there were also onabe: waiters and bartenders who dressed as and acted like men,([xi]) and were therefore more acceptable, especially if they looked down on ‘carnal’ neko.[xii] This is no doubt an expression of general misogyny – tachi and onabe at aspired something ‘better’ by being more masculine; and this binary idea of masculinity entails misogyny.[xiii] In a backlash against this, the 80s women’s liberation movement was very critical of the tachi/neko image, to the extent of excluding cross-dressing women.[xiv] There are so many kinds of small-mindedness… Especially if you consider Judith Butler’s theories, which suggest that the enactment of traditional gender roles by people not qualified, i.e. masculine acts performed by biological women, and vice versa – actually deconstruct the gender binary.[xv]

In the more well-known and more popular world of the gay bars, MtF transvestite entertainers were known as gei boi or ‘sister boys’, leading to the term ‘brother girls’ for their lesbian counterparts, though those never achieved comparable popularity. And the entertainment factor complicates the picture. BUcB_NICIAAQ3RbLike the women throughout history who cross-dressed for the sake of travel safety or employment, how far were and are cross-dressed bartenders actually lesbians or transgender people? Have they been looking for work outside the gender binary, or are they simply trying to make a living?

If we look to narrative art, girls cross-dressing as boys have appeared a lot in the romantic genre, from Shakespeare to Rose of Versailles. Speaking of shōjo (‘for girls’) manga, depending on where you pinpoint the beginning of the genre, its very first heroine, Tezuka’s Ribon Knight, was a cross-dresser.[xvi] Sadly, cross-dressing (in romantic comedies and elsewhere) tends to be ultimately contained in a heteronormative ending. Even in the funnily deconstructive Ouran High School Host Club. Also, whereas the entertainer/bartender MtF transperson has appeared in popular media – tumblr_inline_mt1ai2qu3h1qz4rgpI think, for example, of the brilliant Eriko in Yoshimoto Banana’s Kitchen, or ‘Ranka’, the transgender father of the protagonist in the abovementioned Ouran – the reverse seems less popular to me.  I can think of a few examples of FtM transpeople, such as the librarian Oshima in Murakami Haruki’s Kafka on the Shore, or (argueably) the cross-dressing and duelling protagonist of Revolutionary Girl Utena, but not of any character who would fit the onabe bill. By contrast, depictions of carnal lesbians are still around, I’m afraid, and not just in the hentai corner. For example, there is Chizuru, a minor chchizuruaracter from Bleach. Here she is, doing what many of the male audience members might dream about doing, and thereby she demonstrates one important function of negative images of women: to represent man’s sinful urges and carry the blame for them. Also, of cause,, in Chizuru’s case, as in Betham’s above, the non-normative identity is essentially played for laughs, not accepted as a genuine alternative lifestyle.

Fantastic Lilies and Hammered-In Nails – Fiction and Reality

Previously, I mentioned shōjo manga and romance. Fans of the genre might be familiar with the term yuri (literally, lily) for female homosexuality. This metaphor actually gained currency in the same context; to be precise, in the personal ads columns of Boys’ Love Magazines directed at girl readers. James Welker argues that BL manga help girls to form concepts of sexuality, and since the protagonists are often quite androgynous, the stories can also be read as lesbian. Moreover, while the stories are about boys, the featured articles in the magazines he analyses deal with lesbian themes, and the personal ads are also lesbian.[xvii] The personal ad column of gay magazines being labelled bara tsûshin, ‘rose communication’, so the lesbian equivalentMaria-sama_ga_Miteru_light_novel_volume_1t came to be called yuri, ‘lily’,[xviii] and this grew to be a genre name.  Lily imagery can thus function as allusion or pun, as in the platonic yuri narrative of Maria-sama ga miteru (Maria Watches Over Us). Much like the male equivalent BL/yaoi, yuri can cater to many audiences and include anything from romantic friendship to sweet homosexual romance to various degrees of porn. One thing it hardly ever includes, though, is an actual depiction of homosexual life experience.

Therefore, the sheer amount of homosexual and trans characters in romance and comedy fiction should not be misread as a sign of broad social acceptance for deviant sexuality in Japan. Social pressure to stay closeted is strong, so that most queers cannot come out even to friends and family for fear of being rejected and isolated.[xix] Heterosexual marriage and childbirth are seen as conditions for full adulthood, for both genders; thus, while homosexuality is not illegal, homosexual individuals and couples cannot expect legal protection either. The lack of court cases about discrimination is probably based on this fear to stand out in a society which, as the proverb says, ‘hammers in every nail which sticks out’.[xx] Similarly, Japan’s educational system is hampered by heterosexist bias, as Sugiura describes students complaining about the lack of information regarding homosexuality and gender issues.[xxi] As with other personal and social problems, keeping face seems to be most important – whatever you do in your private time, or feel in your heart, do not let it disturb public complacency. Be it families, schools, or companies, it is commonly pretended – to the extent that it is believed – that non-heterosexuals do not exist. Thus, insulting jokes are made without hesitation, and the majority of Japanese believe homosexuality to be ‘wrong’.[xxii]

A man inside? The re-enforcement of the gender binary

Queer individuals themselves suffer from this internalized prejudice. An autobiographic essay on FtM transgender experience, for example, reads: “I learned the term “gender identity disorder” (sei dôistsusei shôgai) [from TV shows], but I couldn’t face such reports head on, as I felt that I couldn’t be one of those freaks (hentai).’[xxiii]

An example of this internalized homophobia is the treatment of the LastFriends-RukaMichiru6queer character Ruka in the television drama Last Friends. It becomes apparent at the end of the first episode that Ruka is in love with her childhood friend Michiru, who also holds her dear. However, both Ruka’s family and Michiru herself are disgusted by the idea of Ruka having sexual feelings for another girl. Ruka’s family hopes for her to eventually lead a traditional life (the keyword here is ‘bride’), despite her dislike of feminine dress and behaviour, and her masculine profession (she is a motorcross biker). Her protective actions toward Michiru are read as masculine by her friends, somewhat jokingly, but still as a transgression of her gender role.

This transgression is contained, however, by the fact that Ruka is not portrayed as a tachi lesbian or onabe. Instead, she seeks consultation for gender identity disorder and wishes for sex reassignment surgery – in other words, she is ultimately designated a transsexual in the small-minded way Japanese law acknowledges transpeople [xxiv] – as a heterosexual man in a woman’s body, so to speak. This gives an aura of righteousness to her formerly transgressive actions: she may act and dress in a masculine fashion and desire Michiru, because she is ‘actually’, psychologically, a man, and men are entitled to do so.

Such a view is not only blatantly misogynistic and homophobic. It also depicts transgender feelings and actions as sick and portrays trans people as ‘victims of nature’, who must be treated medically in order to fit back into the precious binary sex/gender role system.[xxv] Various transgender phenomena are subsumed under the label of ‘gender identity disorder’,[xxvi] for there is no need to consider the individual wishes, needs and sufferings of a person if you can just stick a label onto them, or, even better, if you can use surgery to ‘fix’ them and have them return to a normative life. Also, if it is the person who is ‘sick’, then society itself does not have to change to accept gender variants. And sadly, this is how the drama ends: The transgressive, progressive elements of the series dissolve as Ruka decides not to come out at a press conference. Whether she continues to live as a woman or seeks surgery to live as a man, at this point everybody’s face is saved, the heterosexual matrix is preserved, and nothing changes.

Web 2.0 – A New Hope?

Many of my sources express hope that the internet will enable more visibility and connection of the queer community, and McLelland states that with the ‘gay boom’ in the media in the 90s, ‘Japan developed a gay culture […] and that both gei (gay) and rezubian (lesbian) are now commonly deployed as identity categories by Japanese homosexual men and women.’[xxvii] Perhaps fiction still has to catch up to fact in this case. Hopefully. In any case, I’ll be more than happy to read and watch such narratives.

Links and References:

[i] Lunsing, Wim, ‘The Politics of Okama and Onabe: Uses and Abuses of Terminology Regarding Homosexuality and Transgender’, in Genders, Transgenders and Sexualities in Japan, ed. by Mark J. McLelland and Romit Dasgupta (London, New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 81–95, p. 81.

[ii] For the treatment of transgender identity in Anime, see http://www.dailydot.com/geek/transgender-characters-anime-boston. For a non-exhaustive list of anime’s MtF trans characters, see http://transetheralbrimwylf.tumblr.com/post/48181242428/canonically-trans-characters-in-anime.

[iii] For the widespread acceptance of male-male sexuality in Japan until the Meiji Restauration, see http://www.tofugu.com/2015/09/30/gay-samurai

[iv] As Chris mentioned in this post on homosexuality in Japan, http://www.japanpowered.com/?s=homosexuality

[v] I recommend you read the introduction of: Castle, Terry, The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), especially p. 2-5.

[vi] McLelland, Mark J., Queer Japan from the Pacific War to the Internet Age (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), pp. 116-8.

[vii] This is the topic of Sugiuras article ‘Lesbian Discourses’, to which I refer below.

[viii] McLelland makes this connection, Queer Japan, pp. 118-9.

[ix] Lunsing, ‘Politics of Okama’, p. 90; McLelland, Queer Japan, p. 122.

[x] Sugiura Ikuko, ‘Lesbian Discourses in Mainstream Magazines of Post-War Japan: Is Onabe Distinct from Rezubian?’, in “Lesbians” In East Asia: Diversity, Identities and Resistance, ed. by Diana Khor and Saori Kamano (Binghamton: Harrington Park, 2006), pp. 127–44, p. 131.

[xi] Sugiura, ‘Increasing Lesbian Visibility’, in Transforming Japan: How Feminism and Diversity are Making a Difference, ed. by Kumiko Fujimura-Fanselow (New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2011), pp. 164–76, p. 164. Lunsing points that the term is defined differently by every individual, but always carries associations of female homosexuality, cross-dressing, and transsexuality in varying degrees: ‘Politics of Okama’, p. 89.

[xii] Suguiura, ‘Lesbian Discourses’, pp. 132-3.

[xiii] See also Lunsing, ‘Politics of Okama’, p. 90.

[xiv] Sugiura, ‘Lesbian Discourses’, p. 134.

[xv] I recommend pp. 172-80 of Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1999). It is not exactly bedtime reading, but understandable, at least the second or third time one tries.

[xvi] Aoyama Tomoko, ‘Transgendering Shôjo Shôsetsu: Girls’ Intertext/sex-uality’, in Genders, Transgenders and Sexualities in Japan, ed. by Mark J. McLelland and Romit Dasgupta (London, New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 49–64, p. 53.

[xvii] Welker, James, ‘Lilies of the Margin: Beautiful Boys and Queer Female Identites in Japan’, in AsiaPacifiQueer: Rethinking Genders and Sexualities, ed. by Fran Martin (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008), pp. 46–66, pp. 47-9, p. 51.

[xviii] Welker, ‘Lilies’, p. 52.

[xix] For instance, Hara Minako writes that “[f]ear of parental disapproval is a primary obstacle stopping lesbians from coming out”. ‘Lesbians and Sexual Self-Determination’, in Voices from the Japanese Women’s Movement, ed. by AMPO (Japan Asia Quarterly Review) (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1996), pp. 129–32, p. 130.

[xx] Lunsing, ‘Politics of Okama’, p. 83.

[xxi] Sugiura, ‘Increasing’, p. 171.

[xxii] Sugiura, ‘Increasing’, pp. 169-72.

[xxiii] Takafumi Fujio, ‘How I Became an FTM Transgender Gay’, in Queer Voices from Japan: First Person Narratives from Japan’s Sexual Minorities, ed. by Mark J. McLelland, Katsuhiko Suganuma and James Welker (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2007), pp. 289–94, p. 292. See also Hara, ‘Lesbians and Sexual Self-Determination’, p. 131.

[xxiv] For the legal and political situation of transgender people in Japan, especially regarding sex reassignment surgery and koseki (family register) registration, see McDermott, Nicola, ‘Resistance and Assimiliation: Medical and Legal Transgender Identities in Japan’, in Manga Girl Seeks Herbivore Boy: Studying Japanese Gender at Cambridge, ed. by Brigitte Steger and others (Zurich: Lit Verlag, 2013), 3, pp. 177–226.

[xxv] Lusing, ‘Politics of Okama’, p. 89; my argumentation is of cause also based on Butler’s concepts (see note xiv)

[xxvi] Sugiura, ‘Lesbian Discourses’, pp. 140-2.

[xxvii] McLelland, Queer Japan, p. 189.