Introduction to the Queer Japan Special Edition

Mark McLelland

  1. I have been researching and writing professionally on topics relating to sexual and gender minorities in Japanese society now for well over a decade and as a consequence I have gained a certain amount of visibility—if only because only a handful of others in the discipline of 'Japanese Studies' are engaged in this kind of research or care deeply about it. As a consequence, I frequently receive requests for assistance from students with an interest in Japan from all over the world including Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Korea. These students tell me that there are no academic resources in their native languages dealing with sexual minority histories and communities in Japan—none whatsoever. Not only (so they say) can they not find any secondary materials, but their academic libraries have collected no original Japanese materials dealing with this topic. 'Do such materials exist in Japanese?' I am asked, and 'How can they be obtained?'
  2. This lack of research into minority sex and gender communities in both Asian languages and Asian societies is a problem that was emphasised recently at the 'Sexualities, Genders & Rights: 1st International Conference of Asian Queer Studies' held in Bangkok in July 2005. Over five-hundred delegates from throughout Asia and other parts of the world attended, and among the most common points for discussion were the lack of institutional support for 'queer'[1] work within Asian academic institutions and the extreme difficulty of obtaining research data, particularly printed text (including ephemera—that is locally produced materials circulated only within small groups which are often our only surviving resource for early networks). Since local support networks for queer people in Asian locations are usually unacknowledged (and sometimes persecuted by) their governments, it has proven extremely difficult to archive and protect material relating to local queer histories and, as older members of these communities pass on, their valuable life testimony, too, is often lost from the human record.[2]
  3. Of course, this is not a problem for Asian societies alone, Michael Warner points out that even in the relatively privileged context of the United States, lesbians, gays, and other queer people lack 'the institutions for common memory and generational transmission around which straight culture is built'.[3] Unlike mainstream communities whose histories constitute official narratives that are passed on via families, churches, schools and community organisations, new generations of queers often have to reinvent themselves. Because of the stigma and shame that queer people face, almost no effort is made by official bodies to record their history and the result is that they are simply 'hidden from history.'[4] All too often, what historical materials do exist are in the form of police records, trial documents and medical reports – evidence created by those outside and hostile to queer lifestyles and which offer one-sided, distorted accounts.[5] Life-narratives, too, have been cruelly interrupted by the AIDS pandemic that has in the western world disproportionately targeted male homosexuals, literally erasing millions of queer men from the historical record. It is no surprise that young queers still come of age wondering if they are the 'only ones' faced with these transgressive desires.
  4. Western academics are, however, privileged to the extent that a few limited opportunities for jobs and funding exist in the context of universities in Australia, the US and elsewhere for research into and the recording of queer life. Over the past decade, this research has expanded beyond the recording of western community histories to encompass studies of societies outside the west, and increasingly Asian societies are being researched. Given Australia's geographic location, some queer Australian academics have been able to take advantage of funds made available for 'understanding Australia's place in the region' and it is no accident that the Bangkok conference was largely the initiative of Australian academics, myself included. The privileged position of Anglophone universities and the global reach of English have meant that new work describing local Asian queer cultures is being widely disseminated but there are also problems of bias and distortion that come with this material being recorded in English and researched almost entirely from Anglophone perspectives. Given the relative lack of support for queer research in Asian societies, local queer people and communities have had few opportunities to frame the discussion that takes place about them or to combat the interpretive frameworks that are applied to them. These issues were much debated in Bangkok and one suggestion was that more effort should be put into translation, to make materials detailing the specificities of queer life in a range of Asian locations available in English and other languages via the Internet.
  5. This special 'Queer Japan' edition of Intersections therefore aims to introduce a sample of perspectives from Japan's extremely varied and vibrant queer cultures through translating essays and poetry by, as well as interviews with, some key figures from Japan's queer community. Lack of time and resources has meant that this collection could not be as broad as initially hoped but it should be read in conjunction with Queer Voices from Japan, a companion project edited by Katsuhiko Suganuma, James Welker and me.[6] These two projects together make available first-person narratives from over thirty diverse members of Japan's queer community, covering events from the 1920s until the present. It is hoped that the wealth of material contained in these testimonies will encourage professional researchers, particularly graduate students interested in Japan, to seek out and explore further Japanese queer culture so that a better understanding may develop, not simply of Japanese queer life, but of Japanese culture in general.
  6. Uncovering material relating to the experience and history of queer people in Japan is not, after all, that difficult. Although not enjoying the limited institutional support that is possible for queer research in some Anglophone institutions, the situation facing queer researchers in Japan is, in comparison with other parts of Asia, not unfavourable. At the Bangkok conference we heard many dispiriting stories, including from researchers in Malaysia, who had to write their grant application to study transgender culture in terms of a 'criminological' paradigm that diagnosed these communities as a social evil. We heard even worse stories from Nepal, of researchers working with transgender populations there being threatened with arrest and violence by the police.
  7. The situation in Japan is very different and although queer research does not yet have a wide profile in the Japanese academy, there is much excellent work being done by private researchers, intellectuals and community members and activists. In the past few years, some universities have begun to show interest in the developing field of lesbian, gay and transgender studies and there are a small number of opportunities for early-career researchers to work on queer issues with the support of academic status, salaries and resources. Furthermore, while there are no LGBT archives specifically founded by the communities themselves, materials relevant to the study of queer history are dispersed throughout a few key collections.[7]
  8. The 'Queer Japan' special edition begins with a 'commentary' section containing six essays, the first four of which are extracted from the Japanese anthology Dōseiai nyūmon[8] (subtitled in English as 'Welcome to the Gay Community') edited by Japan's leading gay writer and critic, Fushimi Noriaki.[9] Fushimi came to prominence in the early 1990s after the commercial and media success of his 'coming out' story, Puraibēto gei raifu [Private Gay Life].[10] After working as a writer and an editor on a range of publications concerning Japanese gay culture and lifestyle, in 1999 Fushimi went on to found Japan's only non-pornographic journal of queer ideas, Queer Japan, and in 2003 he won the 40th annual Bungei literary prize for his first novel, Majo no musuko [The son of a witch].[11] Fushimi is a great collaborator and has worked with numerous characters from Japan's queer scene in an attempt to establish dialogues across and between communities.
  9. Dōseiai nyūmon contains short articles from a wide range of Japanese queer figures. The choice of these four essays was made by Fushimi himself and includes two by Sunagawa Hideki,[12] originally an AIDS activist who in 2000 was the man behind revitalising the Tokyo Lesbian & Gay Parade. Sunagawa is now engaged in graduate research into Japan's gay community and his two essays translated here focus on Japan's gay history and the current social situation facing gays. Hasegawa Hiroshi, one of Japan's most prominent spokespersons for PLWA (people living with HIV/AIDS), contributes an essay outlining the situation regarding AIDS activism in Japan and Noguchi Katsuzō, one of a small number of professional university lecturers in the field of lesbian and gay studies, introduces some of the main themes and developments in this discipline in Japan.
  10. These essays are followed by a contribution from Masaki Masataka who describes his early life as a woman. Now living as a female-to-male transsexual gay man, Masaki's story offers us many insights into the social and legal difficulties facing transgender people in contemporary Japan. The commentary section closes with an essay by postgraduate student Katsuhiko Suganuma[13] describing his thoughts as a participant of the 2005 Tokyo Lesbian & Gay Parade.
  11. We then move on to a section of articles written by both Japanese and foreign researchers, starting with a contribution by Taniguchi Hiroyuki, an emerging legal scholar in Japan whose research focuses upon the situation facing sexual minorities. Taniguchi argues that there has been comparatively little legal debate about sexual rights' law in Japan since, unlike in many Anglophone societies, male-male sexual relations were never outlawed and there exist alternative systems (such as the adoption of adults) which enable same-sex couples to establish some safeguards regarding inheritance and other issues otherwise protected by marriage.
  12. Taniguchi's article is followed by a contribution from the early-career researchers Ishida Hitoshi and Murakami Takanori, both of whom have been closely associated with Chūō University's Postwar Japan Transgender Study Association, to-date the most proactive collaboration between Japanese academics and community members studying queer life. In this important essay, which presents groundbreaking information not otherwise available in English, Ishida and Murakami use media accounts dating back over fifty years to trace the discursive shifts that have taken place in popular understandings of male homosexuality and transgenderism.
  13. An essay by Darren Aoki follows. Aoki's topic is Barazoku, often referred to as Japan's first 'gay' magazine but, as the author points out, 'gay' is very much a misnomer. The most common category used to describe the magazine's readers was not gei [gay] but homo (from homosexual) a category that drew primarily upon native understandings of male homosexual community and desire and which had little reference to developments taking place in the US or elsewhere during the early 1970s when Barazoku began publication.
  14. Wim Lunsing's paper, which follows, is an exploration of the connections between yaoi, a genre of Japanese girls' comics specialising in male homosexual love, and representations of male-male sex in gay comics and pornography. Perhaps contrary to expectation, Lunsing discovers considerable cross-over in aesthetics and influence between the genres and his essay provides a particularly nice angle onto queer Japan, one in which heterosexual women are discovered to be as proactive in fantasising about gay sex as are gay men themselves.
  15. Next, Jeffrey Angles offers us a fascinating analysis of some of the homoerotic work of Japanese poet Takahashi Mutsuo, a former confidante of Mishima Yukio, and a prominent figure on Japan's literary arts' scene. When Takahashi began publishing in the late 1960s, his work was hailed as a breakthrough in 'gay literature'—an appellation that he found puzzling since he did not see himself as addressing a specifically homosexual audience. Angles (who knows Takahashi and presents an interview with him later in this edition) does an excellent job of locating Takahashi's poetry within broader Japanese literary genres.
  16. Following the articles section, we have two discussion papers that present some interesting work in progress. The first essay, written by myself, looks at the history of the category 'hentai' which can be nicely translated as 'queer' or 'perverse'. I suggest that as early as the 1950s Japanese popular culture had already developed a genre of hentai gaku or 'queer studies' that in many ways prefigures and anticipates developments that were to occur in western sexuality studies only in the 1980s. I suggest that the extent of this genre and its longevity should challenge many preconceived notions about the centrality of US histories and perspectives in the developing field of 'queer studies'.
  17. Next follows a report by Ishida Hitoshi on the commercial ethos underlying much of the interaction of the homosexual bars in the Ni-chōme district of Shinjuku in Tokyo. While much research into the homosexual subculture has focussed on identity and community building, Ishida outlines the manner in which the micro-economics of bar management in this Tokyo district exerts a strong influence on the kind of interaction that takes place in the bars. Ishida's essay also serves as a useful introduction to bar culture for anyone intending to visit the area.
  18. In an attempt to give more space to Japanese queer voices, next we have included a section of interviews, including two from Japanese women who both talk about their very different lives from a lesbian perspective. The interview with 'Y-san' is an example of how queer voices are so often lost from the historical record. This interview which describes Y-san's life in the cross-dressing lesbian bars of the 1970s was published in the now defunct coterie magazine Gekkō [Moonlight] and would no doubt have been forgotten had James Welker, the translator, not discovered it, tracked down the editor of the magazine and gained permission to translate. When speaking with the editor, Welker heard the unfortunate news that Y-san has subsequently passed away. The other interview from a lesbian perspective is from self-proclaimed 'pervert' Inoue Meimy, editor of Japan's controversial 'bitch-style' sex rag for lesbians, Carmilla. The section closes with an interview with poet Takahashi Mutsuo who elaborates on some of the personal experiences that have informed his work.
  19. In the poetry section, as well as examples of the homoerotic poetry of Takahashi Mutsuo, we offer selections from the work of AIDS activist Hasegawa Hiroshi who writes and performs under the artist's name Pink Bear. I have had the privilege of seeing Pink Bear 'proclaim' (read seems too underwhelming a term for the force of his presence on stage) his poetry at events in Tokyo and while his considerable personal charisma cannot be communicated via this translation, I do hope that something of the force of his personality is communicated via his words. Hasegawa's lyrical, painful but ultimately affirming poetry is a fine note on which close this all too brief survey of queer Japan.
  20. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Intersections editors, particularly Carolyn Brewer, for all their enthusiasm and hard work that made this collection possible. I would also like to thank the Australian Research Council, for funding over the last three years that has made this and several other queer-Japan related projects possible. Finally, I would also like to thank all the contributors and translators involved in this truly collaborative exercise as well as friends and colleagues on Japan's gay scene who helped with introductions and the obtaining of permissions.


    [1] I use the word 'queer' in this special collection in the same sense as that used by the conference organisers. 'Queer' is both a shorthand for the full diversity of homoerotic, transgender, and transsexual behaviours, identities, and cultures as well as a term describing critical forms of theory that draw on poststructuralist and postcolonial analyses. The conference organisers also emphasised the need to rethink queer theory in Asian contexts, simultaneously critiquing homophobic discourses and practices in Asia and questioning the Eurocentrism of Western accounts of sexuality and gender. It is hoped that the materials translated here from the Japanese will contribute to this process of (re)theorization.

    [2] A poignant example of this trend is the passing of Samshasha, Hong Kong's first gay activist and historian of Chinese homosexuality. I interviewed Samshasha in Hong Kong in 1999 and the interview entitled 'Interview with Samshasha, Hong Kong's First Gay Rights Activist and Author,' was published in Intersections. Sam had, over the course of thirty years, accumulated a vast amount of material relating to Chinese homosexual history. Presumably his personal collection has now been lost – thrown out by his family. (Sam told me that his father was in the habit of going through his things and destroying his books and personal papers concerning homosexual research).

    [3] Michael Warner, The Trouble With Normal: Sex, Politics and the Ethics of Queer Life, New York: The Free Press, 1999, p. 51.

    [4] See Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey (eds), Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, London: Penguin, 1991.

    [5] This having been said, there have been some attempts, particularly in the US, to establish LGBTQ archives. These important resources include, the Quatrefoil Library and the Tretter Collection, both in Minnesota; the ONE National Lesbian and Gay Archives in Los Angeles and Homodok in Amsterdam.

    [6] Mark McLelland, Katsuhiko Suganuma and James Welker (eds), Queer Voices from Japan: First-Person Narratives from Japan's Sexual Minorities, Lanham: Lexington Press (forthcoming 2006).

    [7] Of particular importance is Tokyo's Fūzoku Shiryōkan (somewhat awkwardly translated on their website as 'Abnormal Museum') which houses a large number of sexological periodicals published since the early postwar period as well as a patchy collection of gay magazines and materials relating to crossdressing.

    [8] Fushimi Noriaki (ed.), Dōseiai nyūmon [Introduction to homosexuality], Tokyo: Potto Shuppan, 2003.

    [9] Japanese names are, in Japan, normally written with surname first; hence Fushimi (surname) Noriaki (given-name). In English-language scholarship about Japan, the Japanese system of surname first is usually followed. However, this is complicated by the fact that Japanese scholars who work in English often adopt the western system of family name last. In this special edition we use the Japanese order when discussing Japanese scholars who write in Japanese for a largely domestic readership, and the western order when discussing Japanese scholars writing in English for a predominantly western readership.

    [10] Fushimi Noriaki, Puraibēto gei raifu [Private gay life], Tokyo: Gakuyō Shobō, 1991.

    [11] Fushimi Noriaki, Majo no musuko [Son of a witch], Tokyo: Kawade Shobō Shinsha, 2003.

    [12] Sunagawa is his surname, see note 9.

    [13] Katsuhiko is his given-name; see note 9.


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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