image of book goes here
Fushimi Noriaki, Matsuzawa Kureichi, Kurokawa Noboyuki, Yamanaka Toshio, Oikawa Kenji, Noguchi Katsuzō

'Okama' wa sabetsu ka:
'Shūkan Kinyōbi no Sabetsu Hyōgen Jiken [Does 'okama' have discriminatory connotations? The discriminating expression case in the weekly magazine Shūkan Kinyōbi]

Tokyo: Potto Publishing, 2002,
174pp., ISBN 4-939015-40-8 C0036, 1500.

reviewed by Nanette Gottlieb

  1. Discriminatory language and whether it should be regulated or not have been hot topics in Japanese social debate for many years. The 1970s and 1980s in Japan saw an upsurge of protest from marginalised groups about the terms and stereotypes used to describe them in the language of public life, most often in the mass print and visual media. The Buraku Liberation League[1] and its forerunners had been active since the 1920s in rooting out and confronting any reported instance of derogatory language, subjecting offenders to a process of denunciation aimed at extracting both an apology for that particular instance and a promise of a more educated and serious approach in the future. Following their lead, disability activist groups, ethnic Korean resident groups and, to a lesser extent, women's groups mounted similar protests in the 1980s, energised by a wave of moral support offered by both international and domestic social changes occurring at the time. The International Year of Disabled Persons (1981), for example, provided the impetus for a change of terminology relating to disability in Japanese laws and statutes and for pressure to be brought to bear on media organisations about their use of language in this area.
  2. As a result of vocal protests from those groups affected, the Japanese media during this period drew up lists of words not to be used on any account [kinkushū] and lists of suggested substitute terms [iikaeshū]. Many of these lists were in-house only and were not made public, although that of Japan's major public broadcaster, NHK, was. Other early ones may be found included as appendices in Japanese books on the subject. The motivation behind the lists and the consequent self-censorship of contentious terms was simple: to avoid the embarrassment of public protest (which could be very vocal indeed and occasionally spilled over into violence) and consequent loss of face. A secondary motive for keeping the lists secret, as time went on, was to avoid the charge of 'kotobagari' [word hunts, equating in connotation to charges of 'political correctness'—with all that that implies—in other countries]. This became particularly salient in the mid-1990s following an incident in which prominent writer Tsutsui Yasutaka announced his decision to give up writing rather than submit to restrictions imposed on his freedom to write as a result of complaints from the Japan Epilepsy Association over a comment relating to people with epilepsy in one of his stories. The incident was highly publicised and accompanied by a great surge of public debate over media self-censorship versus freedom of expression.
  3. The Japanese word 'sabetsu' means 'discrimination'. This term frequently appeared as part of compounds referring to language from the time of the first protests: 'sabetsugo' [discriminatory language], 'sabetsu hyōgen' [discriminatory expression, encompassing not just particular offensive terms but also stereotyping which demeans the target in some way, as in, for example, the description of a gay man as 'mincing along' instead of walking] and 'sabetsu yōgo' [discriminatory language, the term preferred by media organisations when they drew up the lists of terms to be avoided]. Interestingly enough, despite the prominence of these terms in media and academic debate over the last thirty years or more, none of them appears in Japan's premier monolingual dictionary, the Kōjien. That no entries for these terms appeared in the first (1955) and second (1969) editions is not surprising, as arguments about discriminatory language had not yet impinged much on the public consciousness. By the 1998 fifth edition, however, I would have expected those terms to have become such a part of the language, given their currency in public debate over the intervening thirty years and particularly in the 1990s 'political correctness' debate, that they merited inclusion in an up-to-date edition of a comprehensive dictionary such as this. It is perhaps a reflection of the ongoing sensitivity and the depth of disagreement over this issue that they do not.
  4. Although the self-censorship practices of the mass media meant that language considered derogatory no longer appeared in print materials and on television (or in the movies, where it is routinely bleeped out of television replays of older films), since the late 1990s language of this sort has reappeared on the Internet, where there is no censorship to speak of other than the practices of individual web manager. Many sites do in fact carry disclaimers that they will post no discriminatory terms, but the unmoderated Channel 2 website is a free-for-all: anonymous posters to its discussion groups frequently indulge in racist and sexist tirades, as well as rants against people with disabilities, women, immigrants or long-term residents of non-Japanese ethnicity and other sectors of society. 'Die, eta[2] /cripple/Korean' is just a mild sample of what has been appearing. Gays are of course not exempt, as the relevant Channel 2 bulletin boards show.
  5. The Internet is one of the few places where widely used vernacular terms relating to gay people are used or discussed. Reference to the queer community has been largely absent from the debate on language. To my knowledge, the slighting terms used in everyday speech to describe this segment of society are not discussed in any of the many books in Japanese on discriminatory language, linguistic stereotyping and media self-censorship published since the late 1980s. Nor do such words appear on those of the media lists that are available for scrutiny or in the annual Journalists' Handbook under 'terms to be avoided'. It is as if, even when an issue as relevant as discriminatory language is under discussion, queers do not exist in the public eye, although the language used to refer to them certainly does. Western scholars such as Valentine (1997)[3] and McLelland (2000)[4] have discussed particular terms: Valentine, for example, provides a comprehensive discussion of the various words used to label and identify queer Japanese. One of them used to refer to gay men is the word okama [pot], derived from the supposed resemblance between the shape of a cooking pot and the buttocks.
  6. Given this culturally sanctioned silence, 'Okama' wa sabetsu ka, which results from an incident in which 'okama' was used in a magazine article, constitutes a ground-breaking addition to the literature on discriminatory language. In a manner reminiscent of the earlier language protests by other groups, the Sukotan Kikaku gay and lesbian group complained to the publisher of the national weekly Shūkan Kinyōbi after an article appeared with the word 'okama' in the title in June 2001. The word had been omitted in the table of contents and on the cover, but appeared on the page in the title of the article itself. Sukotan Kikaku telephoned to complain on the day after the article came out on the grounds that there was no good reason to use this word in the title and that the writer's explanation of what it meant was incorrect. Moreover, Sukotan Kikaku, whose mission was to provide accurate information about homosexuality, had run a seminar on homosexuality and negative media treatment thereof for Shūkan Kinyōbi a month before this article appeared, and yet the word 'okama' had still been used. Two months later, following interim debate, the magazine carried a special issue on sex and human rights, focusing on the language used in the article and including articles by Sukotan Kikau's Itō Satoru and Yanase Ryūta, members of Shūkan Kinyōbi's editorial section and others. In September, as a result of ongoing criticism surrounding the incident, Fushimi Noriaki, gay writer, activist and editor of Queer Japan, organised the symposium documented in the book.
  7. The views presented in the symposium, naturally, varied among presenters. It was not a case of queer activists—the 'tōjisha', those involved through personal experience, i.e. in this case gay rights activists—toeing some sort of universal party line in an 'us' against 'them' division down the centre, but rather a nuanced discussion which offered several different perspectives about 'okama'. Fushimi mentioned that it was in fact because so many differing opinions on the matter had been expressed by both gay activists and journalists that he had decided to convene the symposium (pp. 35-36). Those taking part were Fushimi himself; Oikawa Kenji, the writer of the article; Noguchi Katsuzō, academic and writer on queer studies; Matsuzawa Kureichi, who writes on sexuality; Kurokawa Nobuyuki, head of Shūkan Kinyōbi's editorial department; and Yamanaka Toshiko, a writer for the magazine.
  8. In his introductory remarks, Kurokawa mentioned (p. 38) that he felt as though the symposium was some sort of 'kyūdan' [denunciation session, the tactic favoured by the Buraku Liberation League], but was reassured by a camp joke from Fushimi that it was not. Kurokawa's stance was that he was in general opposed to providing explanations for what had previously been published in the magazine but that he had made an exception in this case because so many readers had misunderstood. That was why they had published the subsequent special issue on the matter, and he was curious to know why it had attracted such a large amount of criticism. Noguchi fairly insistently belaboured the point that the special issue had been monopolised by Sukotan Kikaku writers despite the fact that in the interim the magazine had received several letters from other 'tōjisha' whose views differed from those of Itō and Yanase: why hadn't they been given a chance to contribute? Kurokawa maintained the line that only Sukotan Kikaku had complained about the original article and that therefore, because they had earlier written articles for the magazine on queer sexuality, they were the ones approached to contribute to the special issue. It became clear from the discussion that the gay community and others were not at all united on whether 'okama' was a discriminatory term or not. For example: questioned by Fushimi (p. 52) as to how the editorial department decided which of the various terms in circulation for gay people were discriminatory, Kurokawa replied that they tried to use none of them except 'gei', 'resubian' and 'dōseiai-sha' [terms in common use among gay people themselves], and that many people felt 'okama' to be discriminatory. Fushimi, however, was equally certain—given that the gay community encompassed a great diversity of opinion—that many quite liked it. A member of the audience was next applauded for enthusiastically congratulating Shūkan Kinyōbi on having published work on discrimination, sexuality issues and gender discrimination; he reported that although he had had reservations about 'okama' in the past, its use in the present article had not disturbed him at all.
  9. A salient theme in the discussion was that Tōgō Ken, a senior high-profile activist and editor of The Gay who was the subject of the article in question, being personally concerned was entitled to use the word 'okama' about himself, others were not.
    Figure 1. Tōgō Ken (p. 20) 'Tōjisha', in other words, were the only ones by whom this word could reasonably be bandied about without discrimination. This stance to a certain extent echoes the defiant reclaiming of certain terms in English, such as 'gay' itself by the Gay Pride movement, 'nigger' by African-Americans and 'crip' by people with disabilities. It is not a position often encountered in Japan, however: apart from the very earliest stages of the 1922 formation of the Suiheisha [Levellers' Society, forerunner of today's Buraku Liberation League], the term 'eta' was never used by Burakumin about themselves in this way, nor was 'fugu' [cripple] by people with disabilities.
    Nevertheless, the idea of the 'tōjisha' being the one to make the decision on what is discriminatory, while seldom encountered in the 1980s literature on language and discrimination, was by the late 1990s beginning to appear more frequently, and this symposium agreed that the use of 'okama' was really the province of those to whom it referred.
  10. The symposium also ended in agreement (more or less) that words such as 'okama' could not be simply edited out on the basis of their mere existence in a text without careful consideration of the context in which the term was used. In this, they echoed the stance of the Buraku Liberation League, which—despite its major contribution to the appearance of iikaeshū in the first place— was in principle opposed to the idea of wordlists, which both displaced the problem on to the words alone without addressing the underlying systemic discrimination they flagged and were drawn up by management fiat in order to 'put lid on a stink' (traditional Japanese proverb) without being the product of persuasion. Denunciations were only ever carried out after the League had looked at the whole context in which a certain word appeared and determined that it had been used with intent to discriminate.[5]
  11. 'Okama' wa Sabetsu ka is similar to several books published following the Tsutsui Yasutaku epilepsy-related incident mentioned above, in that it painstakingly documents the progress of the incident itself; reproduces the article and related articles or contributions published over the following five months; includes a symposium discussion between writers, activists, academics and the representatives from the magazine's editorial department on whether the title was discriminatory or not; and concludes with a collection of other short pieces on the topic. Here we can scrutinise both the facts of the case and the debate it stirred up, encapsulated in a compact and easily readable book which presents all the evidence in an accessible format: a kind of mini-encyclopaedia on the incident which presents the views of those who do not think the term discriminatory as well as those who do.
  12. The book will not satisfy those who want a polemic on gay rights and discriminatory language which allows no debate over the central issue. For readers who want a balanced view of opposing arguments, however, it provides a satisfying addition to the literature and a long overdue insight into issues of language and discrimination related to queer sexuality in Japan. It is also unusual in that, although debates between publishers and representatives of groups complaining about language slurs have been a regular feature of Japanese press life since the 1970s, they are rarely conducted as a two-way debate in public as this symposium was. Critics of the iikaeshū have remarked that in many cases editors automatically replace words on those lists without any real direction from their employers as to *why* the words are discriminatory. 'Okama' wa Sabetsu ka allows us a rare and useful glimpse into the viewpoints of and discussion between the relevant parties about one particular contested word.


    [1] A national organisation of Burakumin, descendants of outcasts shunned because of the polluting nature of their occupations, who still suffer considerable social discrimination today.

    [2] A highly discriminatory term referring to Burakumin, never used these days in the media, equivalent in connotation to the English 'nigger'.

    [3] J. Valentine, 'Pots and pans: identification of queer Japanese in terms of discrimination,' in A. Livia and K. Hall (eds.) Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender and Sexuality, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 95-114.

    [4] Mark McLelland, Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan: Cultural Myths and Social Realities, Richmond: Curzon, 2000.

    [5] Buraku Kaihō Dōmei Chūō Honbu Shokikyoku (eds), Sabetsugo Mondai ni tsuite no Wareware no Kenkai [Our Views on the Problem of Discriminatory Language], Osaka: Kaihō Shimbun Shuppan, 1976.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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