Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 14, November 2006

Mark McLelland and Romit Dasgupta (editors)

Genders, Transgenders and Sexualities in Japan

London and New York: Routledge, 2005, pp. 218;
ISBN 0-415-40585-8 (paper) 20 (only available through Routledge)
ISBN 0-415-35370-X (cloth) 65

reviewed by James E. Roberson

  1. Over the past five to ten years, the diversity and pluralities that in dynamic tension with dominant singularities constitute gendered and sexual identities, experiences and discourses in contemporary Japan have finally become increasingly important fields of academic enquiry, interpretation and representation. Joining other research that critically interrogates ethnic and sub-cultural dimensions of difference (serious considerations of class remain regrettably sparse, particularly after the 1990s), a growing body of scholarly work is contributing to more complicated understandings of, as the title of this book puts it, genders, transgenders and sexualities in Japan. While more critically engaged research and writing remain to be done, especially regarding men and masculinities in contemporary Japan, we now have available in English a significant literature that deconstructs hegemonic gender/sex binaries in and about Japan through discussions of male homosexuality, emerging lesbian voices, bad girls and other cartographies of desire.[1]
  2. Genders, Transgenders and Sexualities in Japan is a welcome addition to this literature, bringing together diversely articulated historical, textual and ethnographic discussions of a plurality of discourses and identities. This volume also simultaneously displays the vibrancy of research about Japan being done by scholars in Australia and New Zealand and a laudable interdisciplinary and international collaboration that incorporates writing by established and rising voices from not only those countries but Japan, North American and Europe. The book is composed of 14 chapters: 1—'Introduction' (Mark McLelland and Romit Dasgupta); 2—'Hegemonic gender in Japanese as a foreign language education: Australian perspectives' (Yuriko Nagata and Kristen Sullivan); 3—'The origins of "queer studies" in postwar Japan' (Hitoshi Ishida, Mark McLelland and Takanori Murakami); 4—'Transgendering Shōjo Shōsetsu: girls' inter-text/sex-uality (Tomoko Aoyama); 5—'From The Well of Loneliness to the akarui rezubian: western translations and Japanese lesbian identities' (Beverley Curran and James Welker); 6—'The politics of okama and onabe: uses and abuses of terminology regarding homosexuality and transgender' (Wim Lunsing); 7—'Salarymen doing queer: men and the heterosexual public sphere' (Mark McLelland); 8—'Being male in a female world: masculinity and gender in Okinawan shamanism' (Matthew Allen); 9—'"Understanding through the body": the masquerades of Mishima Yukio and Morimura Yasumasa' (Vera Mackie); 10—'An introduction to men's studies' (Kimio Itō); 11—'Rethinking Japanese masculinities: recent research trends' (Futoshi Taga); 12—'Salarymen doing straight: heterosexual men and the dynamics of gender conformity' (Romit Dasgupta); 13—'Feminist futures in Japan: exploring the work of Haruka Yoko and Kitahara Minori' (Laura Dales); and, 14—'Commodified romance in a Tokyo host club' (Akiko Takeyama).
  3. Rather than commenting on each of these chapters in turn, I would like to point briefly to three important, multi-dimensionally composed and complexly interwoven theoretical themes that run throughout various of the discussions in the book. First is the idea of translation, which I use here to encompass terminological debates, discourse and the (transnational) translation of gendered/sexual identities. For example, the chapter by Nagata and Sullivan, otherwise the weakest link here, raises this issue in terms of the genderedness of the learning and teaching of Japanese as a foreign language, in which the situated strategising evident in actual speech—which makes problematic any essentialised homology of sex and language—is stereotypically simplified into gender/sex binaries and thus becomes ideologically charged. Raising his own and others' criticisms of the activist group OCCUR, Lunsing proactively engages in ongoing debates in Japan, which more broadly conceived are those of identity politics related to the use of culturally and politically appropriate lexical items—some of which in fact are translations from American English—to refer to male homosexuals and homosexuality. Curran and Welker similarly show the importance of translation—of terms and identities and as gender-political action—in the contested construction and articulation of lesbian sexual/identity pluralities. Differently conceived is the translation work indexed in McLelland's discussion of the 'expansive potential' (p. 105) of the Internet in providing an interactive space for the articulation of non-normative identities and concerns, counter to the 'relentlessly heteronormative' (p. 102) common sense of the public sphere of corporate workplaces.
  4. A second theme given multiplex expression in several of the chapters is what I will refer to as that of transgressional and transformative struggles. The volume as a whole, of course, is engaged in the ongoing struggle, indexed above, of transforming dominant homologised and essentialised representations of (gendered and sexual experience and identities in) Japan. Transformation and transgression are central to Aoyama's reading of shōjo shōsetsu, in which transgender and intertextuality intersect in criticism, parody and subversion of adult (male) gender/sexual conventionality; while the early postwar 'perverse press' discussed by Ishida, McLelland and Murakami gave textual expression to hybrid and bricolage constructions of eroticised, non-normative discourses and identities at a time of slippage in state sponsored gender/sexual hegemonies. The transgressiveness of the liberating enjoyment of non-reproductive sexual pleasures among Japanese women as consuming sexual agents is explored in the chapters by Dales and Takeyama. Dasgupta's chapter is an interesting and ethnographically drawn cautionary tale of the persisting dominance and hegemony of heteronormativity, even as renegotiated from within by heterosexual identifying young salarymen. Such dominance makes 'perilous' (to borrow from by Fujitani, White and Yoneyama) [2] all potentially transgressive acts and identities, in the double sense of their imperiling and being imperiled by a stasis-desiring and uniformly presented hegemony. And, it is the perilousness of transgression to gendered/sexual common sense in Japan that, as McLelland's chapter suggests, provokes (fears of) discriminatory exclusion and suppression. The chapters by Itō and Taga, meanwhile, usefully introduce and survey emerging internal critiques of and counter-practices to dominant masculinities ideologies and practices manifest among a range of men's studies and men's movement scholars and activists in Japan.
  5. The third theme I wish to point to here is that of plurality of gendered/sexual performance and performativity in Japan. Performance/performativity may in fact be (counter-) read in most of the chapters: for example, among gay salarymen doing straight, and visa versa; in the representational/textual performances inscribed in novels, magazines and other publications, or in internet dialogues; in language learning that does not recognise either native or learner pluralities but requires conformity to hegemonic stereotyping; and, perhaps, in the costs and constraints of attempting to be or remain masculine heterosexual men. However, it is in the chapters by Allen and Mackie that the performative nature of gender and sexuality is most fully, if (which, of course, is part of the point) very differently explored. In his interesting fieldwork based discussion, Allen combines ethno-psychological, ethno-religious and essentially ethno-methodological perspectives in describing the processes and implications of a young Okinawan boy's taking on an increasingly transgendered persona in response to symptoms that medical science defines as schisophrenia and mild neurosis but that Okinawan culture allows to be read positively as kami dāri [spiritual notification] (p. 115), especially if manifest among female gendered persons. Mackie, on the other hand, insightfully discusses the performance art of Morimura Yasumasa and Mishima Yukio, for both of whom the body, indeed their own bodies become differently composed artistic media through which (trans)gendered and (trans)national identities are invoked, displayed, parodied and played with.
  6. The eclectic plurality of Genders, Transgenders and Sexualities in Japan is its primary deconstructive strength and, depending on the purpose and perspective of its reader, perhaps also one of its weaknesses. In many chapters, space permitting, I would have liked to see fuller theoretical articulation or argument, for example regarding the roles of (broadly defined) state ideological and institutional structures in constructing and constraining the gendered/sexual contexts within which or against which the discourses, identities and experiences (practices and performances) described here occur. Overall, however, these are interesting, insightful and readable essays that should be of interest to a broad range of readers and that contribute to and call for further critical discussion of gendered/sexual plurality and difference as part of the everyday as well as the extraordinary in (and out of) Japan.


    [1] Some of the work indexed here, most also mentioned in the introductory chapter to the McLelland & Dasgupta volume, includes: James E. Roberson & Nobue Suzuki (eds), Men and Masculinities in Contemporary Japan: Beyond the Salaryman Doxa, London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003; Wim Lunsing, Beyond Common Sense: Sexuality and Gender in Contemporary Japan, London: Kegan Paul International, 2001; Mark McLelland, Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan, London and NY: RoutledgeCurzon, 2000; Sharon Chalmers, Emerging Lesbian Voices from Japan, London and NY: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002; Laura Miller & Jan Bardsley (eds), Bad Girls of Japan, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005; and Gregory Pflugfelder, Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600-1950, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

    [2] Takashi Fujitani, Geoffrey M. White & Lisa Yoneyama, 'Introduction,' in Perilous Memories: The Asia-Pacific War(s), ed. Takashi Fujitani, Geoffrey M. White & Lisa Yoneyama, Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2001, p. 3.


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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