Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 7, March 2002

My Queer Career:
Coming Out as a 'Researcher' in Japan

Sharon Chalmers

  1. I have been trying to write this paper on and off for some years now. It has been an attempt to tell an account of my personal experiences of carrying out my doctoral research in Japan among self-identified Japanese lesbians.[1] When I tell snippets of the story to friends and colleagues, overwhelmingly the response is 'you must write it down, it's as interesting as the research itself.' In fact it is intimately associated with the content and form the research finally assumed. But, the notion of intimacy is not one usually taken up in writing about our fieldwork experiences. The more obvious difficulties I faced were first, working within a non-Anglo-European lesbian community and second, coming out as a lesbian within the research process and the final text. On the other side of the same coin was a more unusual situation. In contrast to lesbian and gay researchers who usually hide or disguise their identity my dilemma became how to come out as a researcher within a Japanese lesbian community.
  2. As explained further, the first twelve months I worked with ten women with whom I carried out between three or four open-ended semi-structured interviews. I also undertook several one-off interviews throughout this initial period. The problem was that after spending the first twelve months working, playing, interviewing and generally falling in love with a Japan I previously didn't know existed, the last three months of my stay turned my world upside down. Several women withdrew from the project and as these events slowly unfolded over a number of weeks I was faced with the possibility of abandoning the project altogether. In the end I didn't, but inevitably these issues and experiences continue to have a profound effect on the way I think and carry out social action research. This story, however, is not one of my woes, nor is it one of justifying my naivety or the misunderstandings that took place. Rather, it is an attempt to explore some of the issues around undertaking academic research in a context where I regularly declared that I was 'losing the plot'—a claim I now realise was non-sensical simply because there was no plot to follow as a lesbian doing research in Japan, or, for an Australian researcher working within a Japanese lesbian community.[2]

    Searching for a plot
  3. My first introduction to Japan was in 1985. I was twenty-eight years old and travelled on a one-year working-holiday visa. At that time I lived in Sojiji, a small town in between Kyoto and Osaka. I taught English in Osaka six days a week and studied Japanese language in Kyoto one morning per week. There wasn't much time for socialising outside of joining my students —overwhelmingly businessmen —who regularly took me to their usual hostess bars. These drinking excursions were mutually beneficial. They allowed my students to show me off as a blonde, blue-eyed Anglo-European foreigner whom they knew, as well as someone with whom they could practise their English. For me, it was a wonderful introduction to the male-centred nightlife of the business world and an opportunity to chat with both the men I accompanied and the hostesses who served us.
  4. After about six months, however, I was becoming increasingly aware that as a lesbian-feminist [queer not yet being an option][3] who was unable to speak these words out loud I was beginning to question my decision to spend so much time in Japan where connections with other lesbians seemed extremely remote, particularly outside Tokyo. I therefore made the decision to go looking. After numerous attempts at standing at the local phone box and dialling half the phone number of the Osaka Women's International Network (WIN), I finally swallowed hard and began speaking. The conversation went something like this:

      WIN contact: Hello?

      Sharon: Yes, hello, umm ... I got your phone number out of Kaleidoscope Kyoto[4] and was interested to find out where and when your group meets.

      WIN contact: Yes, of course. We meet on the third Saturday of every month and newcomers are always welcome. We usually meet outside the Big Video screen at Osaka Hankyu Umeda complex at 5 p.m. [Umeda Station is the largest train and bus station in Osaka.]

      Sharon: Thanks very much for the information. Umm, by the way, I was also wondering whether you know if there are any lesbians involved in your group?

      WIN contact: (Slight pause), umm ... well, no, I don't think so but maybe that is something we could talk about one day.

    I did go to the next meeting and was taken around and introduced to various women with the repeated tail-line of 'And Sharon is interested to find out if there are any lesbians in our group' with the common response of 'Oh, really, how interesting (omoshiroi ne!) which invariably brought the conversation to a speedy conclusion.
  5. Throughout this first trip one of the constant questions I was asked was why I was still unmarried in my late 20s. In response I spent a significant amount of time either lying about my sexuality or at best not using 'he' or 'she' when discussing past partners - somewhat easier in Japanese than English given the possibility of avoiding the use of gender-personal pronouns. My second trip was in 1989-90 and again I lived in Osaka. My aim was to continue to improve my understanding of Japan both linguistically and culturally. This time I was with my Australian partner and we both taught English. Although less isolated, with the odd exception, we both kept up a heterosexual pretence in our local community and work places. At this stage lesbian events had begun but because of our working hours (often in the evenings, Saturdays and sometimes Sunday mornings), we were invariably unable to attend.
  6. Given these and other experiences, I did have a pretty good idea of why it might be difficult to; first, make connections with Japanese lesbians; second, to gain the trust necessary to carry out a research project with their direct involvement and; third, to crack the heterosexist academic glass ceiling, particularly within 'Asian Studies' in Australia. Little research has been undertaken on the construction of 'lesbian' subjectivity outside of Anglo-European and more particularly the US context. Indeed, my initial aim to enter this area was very nearly quashed. When I first raised the idea of exploring female same-sex attraction[5] in Japan with my then supervisor I was advised that there was no literature and my chances of even gaining access to Japanese lesbians and then getting their agreement to participate in a research project were virtually nil. I was also cautioned about its 'academic validity', a warning that many lesbian and gay academics have tended to heed —at least by postponing publishing in this area —when considering their academic future.[6] As a result I took this cautionary advice on board and reformulated my research plan to include a full spectrum of women who were living in households without adult males. In this way, if I could make contact with lesbian households/families they could become one part of the research. What eventuated was that within six months of participating and socialising among initially non-Japanese and subsequently Japanese lesbian events I realised that there was a very real possibility of carrying out my original research proposal.
  7. In 1993 I arrived in Tokyo and made contact with what was known as the 'foreign' or gaijin lesbian community amongst whom were some women who had already spent several years in Japan. This group also included a few women who had built up friendships with Japanese lesbians to whom they introduced me. The ability of non-Japanese lesbians making connections and developing friendships with Japanese lesbians was to a large degree dependent on their respective language proficiencies, until the early 1990s more often than not based on the ability of Japanese women to communicate in English. However, a significant shift occurred whereby more women were entering and studying Japanese language, history and culture at mainly US universities but also in Australia, England and subsequently entering postgraduate studies in Japanese universities. This had two major effects. First, from the perspective of non-Japanese scholars, issues around linguistic and cultural imperialism were taken more seriously and second, original research in Japan demanded a working knowledge of the Japanese language.
  8. My opening or entry into, and my acceptance by the Japanese women I met who sexually identified as 'lesbian' was based on our collective identification as same-sex attracted women. However, this initial approval was consolidated by my university studies about Japan and my attempts to work in Japanese. Through participating in events and continually bombarding women with my ideas about the possibilities of carrying out this research project, I eventually began to build up my own network with Japanese women who were interested in participating. Some of these women then introduced me to others and the project began to take on its own momentum.
  9. However, in my anticipation of being able to carry out my original proposed research I did not realise the provisional nature of my seemingly successful 'arrival'. Although sexual identification was a significant common starting point, it did not in itself automatically give me a carte blanche opening into these women's lives. As Reinharz aptly reminds us 'identification is useful, not sacred.'[7] However, despite the apparent self-evidentiary nature of such a statement, I am still struck by the fact that issues around the entry of researchers into diverse locations and setting up relationships with various 'subjects' or 'informants' remains on the whole unexamined and taken as somehow peripheral or separated from 'doing research'. Yet, I would strongly argue that it is not.
  10. When working within mainstream communities patterns are much easier to locate and establish simply because of the large numbers involved and subsequently differences are either ignored or explained away as anomalies. Hence, one of the major difficulties when we do work with groups that exist outside of mainstream representations is this tendency to fall back on the traditional ethnographic formula of searching for patterns of sameness or differences from 'us' that can be linked neatly into a unified framework in an attempt 'to tidy things up as much as possible.'[8] On the other hand, smaller communities, and especially those that are socio-economically, politically and emotionally vulnerable, survive by virtue of the creativity that develops through their difference and marginalisation. Among the women I worked with this complexity was exemplified by the more conscious and overt subject positions that constantly demanded negotiation and re-negotiation. These were revealed in the way we juxtaposed a range of identifications in relation to our specific sexed and gendered interlocations - as women, lesbians, mothers, lovers, sisters, daughters, aunts, paid and unpaid workers, artists, friends - and for me in particular the role of academic researcher - none of which could be categorised as functionalist patterns, unilinear trajectories, or indeed, outside of the research process itself.

    Coming out as a lesbian in Japan
  11. During this period, one of the very few and probably the most prominent woman in Japan to take a public stand as a 'lesbian' was Kakefuda Hiroko. She made the decision to come out through the publication of her book Being a Lesbian [Rezubian de aru to iu koto] in 1992.[9] And here it is important to note her use of the term rezubian [lesbian].

      The first image people have of lesbians is through pornography, and some people see it and think it's okay ... [and] because the image of lesbians is so strong, some people refuse to call themselves lesbians. In my case I really disliked this pornographic image, but if I attach a different label to myself, there's no debate, the preconceptions and prejudices of society won't be confronted. So I think it's good if I can present another image than the stereotype of a lesbian, and use this to break down the stereotypic image. So really, any label would be okay. But if society is going to use the word 'lesbian', I want to show them the way that I live, and make them recognise that my life is reality, whereas what they see in a movie is just an image. In other words, if prejudice disappeared, then 'lesbian' or any other term would be equally acceptable of course. But because prejudice does exist, it's better to use the term 'lesbian'. [10]

    As Kakefuda explains, the common understanding of the word rezubian [lesbian], usually abbreviated to rezu, is women who take on roles in same-sex sex scenes in pornographic movies or magazines.[11] The connotation of this term is widely understood in Japan amongst heterosexuals and lesbians alike.
  12. Over the following five years both television and the print media generally called on Kakefuda for comments and appearances whenever a 'lesbian point of view' was required. She consistently asserted that one of the most difficult areas for lesbians in Japan to deal with is the overall social sanctioning of knowing when to keep silent as an instrument of both containment and oppression. Kakefuda argues that 'containment' of marginal groups has been historically constructed in terms of 'tolerance', which has also been long described in the language of consensus and harmony. However, this appearance of 'tolerance' can only be maintained as long as minority or marginal groups are prepared to accept that the dominant form(s) or hierarchical relationships will allow for their partial inclusion. She states:

      Traditionally, the way of thinking in Japanese society concerning minorities, and unusual people, strange people was not to exclude them. They were allowed into society, but society would act as if they weren't there, by ignoring them, and if that didn't work, telling them to keep quiet. So to that extent, Japanese society is not very aggressive toward minorities. Most lesbians at the moment haven't come out so they can't be seen. And because they can't be seen, society doesn't attack them, and is prepared to let them be. So for the lesbian too, that's OK. There are some unpleasant aspects, but if some one is prepared to put up with them a bit, there's not really a problem.[12]

  13. This invisibility Kakefuda contends is not generally manifest in the form of direct discrimination but rather as systematic cultural dis-ease that results in either objectification and/or omission of their daily experiences as embodied social subjects. And this is the issue that to a large extent precipitated her decision to come out. Kakefuda maintains that in Japan the fear of one's parents and family's reactions to finding out that one is sexually attracted to women is what prevents many women from taking this step.

      [But] the idea of telling their parents is enough to make most people panic.... It comes down to who is going to suffer! And of course within Japanese society, it is not the individual who is the most important. Putting yourself above others is simply not the acceptable way to think in Japanese society.[13]

  14. Kakefuda's view is premised on the assumption that Japanese social relations encompass a worldview in which the form or type of association of any given relationship becomes the privileged site.[14] In other words, 'I' only becomes meaningful by contextualising one's position relative to others and so 'I' is interwoven with and implicated in a multiplicity of constantly shifting hierarchical relationships. Arguably, this notion of a fragmented 'self' has the potential to open up spaces in which 'whole' identities do not need to exist in order to be inside various social contexts. However, to know which part to reveal in what situation, usually learned from early childhood in Japan, is a little more complicated for same-sex attracted women. As Fumie, one of the women who participated explains, when initially 'coming out' to her mother, her mother's (lack of) reaction clearly fits in with Kakefuda's analysis of the general response to minority groups in Japan.

      [S]he didn't say anything outright because we just have this custom of not saying things... and not saying positive things when you feel it. It's better not to express things. And that's what really oppresses me here [in Japan].[15]

  15. The issue, therefore, is that these different selves are contained in strictly bounded hierarchical groupings. In Japan these are primarily founded on sex, age, socio-economic status and ethnicity. The moment at which one attempts to recognise and/or separate one's self from one's accepted position within a relationship, the relationship based on 'form' and 'tolerance' is disrupted and sanctioned as anti-social. Further, there has been consistent misinformation and erroneous heterosexist portrayals of lesbian sexuality that perpetuate the myth of lesbian invisibility. By default, or rather, inherent in this construction is the assumption that lesbian sexuality in the form of everyday lived experience - in contrast to the ubiquitous representations of phallocentric female same-sex pornography in popular culture - is overwhelmingly a white Anglo-European phenomenon. That is, it remains outside of or foreign to Japanese socio-cultural experience.
  16. While it is true that the 'gay boom' of the early 1990s did increase the visibility of the existence of homosexuality in Japan, the ways in which both men and women were represented remained fixed in the category of voyeurism. While there was some increase in the number of magazines that were hoping to attract a lesbian and bisexual market, for example, Anisu and Phryné, due to the lack of resources and the lower wages that women earn, the opportunities for lesbians to produce, distribute and buy lesbian-focused magazines remained extremely limited.[16] Moreover, although discussions of homosexuality within the mainstream media did occur, the images tended to portray both lesbians and gay men as one-dimensional caricatures.[17] And even these were short-lived as the media 'searched furiously for any available homo/lez copy'.[18]
  17. The above conceptualisation of outsider and outsiderness, foreigner, sexual deviancy and lesbian were all deeply implicated in and to some extent framed how I questioned, shifted and (re)negotiated the constant slippages I faced from a variety of inside-outside and outside-inside positions that emerged throughout the research process. On the one hand, in the context of being in Japan as a foreigner and a white middle-class female academic, I was always going to be constructed as an outsider [gaijin]. I think it is also worth reiterating that the Japanese foreigner dualism remains the quintessential inside [uchi] and outside [soto] boundaries of the culture[19] and is embodied and performed in virtually all socio-linguistic and spatial dimensions in Japan. As Dorinne Kondo explains,

      The term uchi describes a located perspective: the in-group, the 'us' facing outward to the world.... Uchi defines who you are, through shaping of language, the use of space and social interaction. It instantly implies the drawing of boundaries between us and them, self and other.[20]

  18. It is significant to note however that within the general 'foreigner' category there is a further racist hierarchy at play that privileges the white Anglo-European over other Asian, Black and more recently Middle Eastern peoples. On the other hand as mentioned, slippages do occur, and in the context of identifying as lesbian within specific socio-political sites, the question surfaces as to who is the 'us' or uchi that is being referred to? What I found was that at times self-identification as a lesbian transcended Japanese mainstream hetero-normative discourses, and so foreigner as outsider, while at other times, lesbian as insider, was under constant negotiation and shifted respectively as 'other' and an other lesbian. That is, there was a working of spaces in-between insider and outsider.
  19. Sometimes the narrators chose to make their lesbianism publicly visible, as writer and political activist Kakefuda Hiroko did, but overwhelmingly they did not. This containment of their sexuality into 'appropriate' cultural contexts does not equate with a suspension of their sexuality but it does secure them a legitimate disguise under which they enter different social, political and economic sectors of society. In other words, despite the compartmentalisation or how in general we express our outward appearance —in the Japanese context this is known as tatemae —we are still always gendered and sexual beings and as such these factors contribute to any social interaction, 'affect[ing] how we respond and how others respond to us, even in non-sexual contexts.'[21] This is despite the general representation of Japanese heterosexuality as natural, neutral and fixed.
  20. This ostensible universal heterosexuality in Japan also shifted perceptions of my 'self'. Whereas I had previously, on the whole, experienced 'comfort' with my own sexual identification, I now felt on shaky ground when asked to explain to other academics in Japan what my research was about (the inevitable assumption that I must hang out a lot in Shinjuku ni-chome),[22] coming out to other same-sex attracted women as a lesbian and a researcher and finally how I was going to negotiate my own and the narrators' inclusion in the final text. None of these issues were static or self-evident and constantly re-surfaced as critical questions throughout the research process (both in Japan and on my return to Australia).
  21. In terms of this specific project, I asked the women how they would define themselves among a range of identifications, including the option of non-identification. They all chose either/or rezubian (lesbian) and/or daiku [dyke].[23] Because those who deride or eroticise lesbianism for male consumption have invented the majority of words that describe lesbianism in Japan, many lesbians I spoke with preferred the use of the English term daiku [dyke]. This latter term is effective for two reasons. First, it gives Japanese lesbians a word which is not associated with negative connotations and, second, it can be used both inside and outside lesbian circles because the majority of Japanese are unfamiliar with it. This is in contrast to the history of the term 'dyke' and where and how it is employed within Anglo-European lesbian communities.[24] The pronunciation of this word is also the same as the Japanese word for carpenter, and gives an added meaning for those lesbians who use it. The image is thus of a lesbian as autonomous, both physically and sexually. Marô, a woman in her mid-twenties accounts for her use of the term:

      I use daiku [dyke] when I'm talking to people in cafes, for example, because even if we are overheard the people sitting around us won't know what it means ... Usually heterosexual men and women don't understand. So we feel safe to talk.[25]

    While Cherry asserts that '[l]esbians in Japan are at a loss for words',[26] as Marô suggests, with a little imagination there are ways to break through these limitations.
  22. The fact that these women have to subvert and play with language attests to the few positive representations and little information available about lesbian sexuality in Japan. Further, the little information that there is often has to be surreptitiously searched out. This factor, along with distorted mainstream representations of lesbians in pornography, combines to produce a climate in which heterosexuality becomes naturalised. This naturalisation limits the notion of choice to either being married or not married, the referent for normalcy being implicitly and explicitly Japanese women's relationship to men. Thus the concept of woman as lesbian is read as either excess or lack but always remains within a heterosexualised hierarchy of male/female relations.

    Coming out as a researcher in a Japanese community

      By establishing a relationship with an-Other lesbian, I became both an insider and an outsider: an insider because I shared her marginalisation as a lesbian and her love of women, and an outsider because of our different sexual and cultural frameworks.[27]

  23. As discussed above, the introductions that I first received through 'foreign' or non-Japanese lesbians were a beginning, but certainly did not equate to either total or unquestioned acceptance. I was going to spend at least another year in Japan and I also wanted to become involved in different lesbian-related projects. This involvement culminated in helping to organise community events, running workshops at 'lesbian weekends' for Japanese and 'foreign' lesbians, working with Japanese lesbians to build a drop-in space for women and sometimes holding lesbian-only events, which all assisted in building up relationships. While I tried to sustain friendly relations with most women I knew, this does not mean that I agreed with or became friends with all the women I met and interviewed, and the nature and intensity of our relationships constantly changed. Thus, inherent in living any social reality are the contradictory, inconsistent, and conflictual as well as positive emotional affinity shifts that occur over time and place. When this situation is further complicated by a research process that demands time, space and reflection by all participants, it is not surprising that relationship boundaries become unclear.
  24. A good example of this is that I encouraged a conversational format rather than fixed questions and answers. Arguably, through the act of attempting to break down a hierarchical relationship, the intimacy established through our conversations created a negation of my researcher-self for some of the narrators and, at times, for myself. Thus, when I started writing and talking about the research outside of this lesbian community, despite our discussions and agreements, I was accused by some of being a 'traitor' and unethical. Ironically, this is in contrast to most lesbian and gay researchers, or indeed to my own previous research experience, amongst non-lesbian communities, where the opposite occurs. That is, we usually have to lie or keep silent about our sexuality, rather, it is our status as an academic or researcher which opens up our access to those with whom we wish to talk. In short, there was no plot to follow.
  25. The interviews cum conversations were held in a variety of locations which were chosen by the narrators and these changed depending on their particular schedules and living arrangements. They took place in their homes, coffee shops, workplaces, parks, and on trains. Again, depending on individual requests, we often waited until children were either absent from home or asleep before commencing our more structured discussions. In the case of one couple, I met them separately outside their home because of their decision not to discuss the research when together.[28] Although I began by interviewing couples individually, at times through either their or my own suggestion we held some sessions together. I also carried out an afternoon workshop with about twenty-five women while attending a 'lesbian weekend'.[29] All the interviews were taped and the participants received copies.[30]
  26. The age range of the women was from mid-20s to early 50s, with the majority being from their mid-30s to mid-40s. All these women lived either with their partners, children, by themselves or in one case, lived in a 'women's house' - an unusual situation among Japanese living arrangements. The women worked as teachers, artists, financial advisors, translators, store-keepers as well as university students. All of them had attended either junior college (2 years) or university (4 years). I did not interview women who were still living with their parents, or those who were living with their husbands. There was no conscious decision not to engage with the latter two groups. Rather I had become involved with the former groups and decided to focus on their 'independent' living arrangements. Moreover, I did not enter this research with any intention of trying to represent 'Japanese lesbians' as a homogeneous group, nor did I plan to look at 'real practices' in order to deduce grand theories. Both these methods, as Deleuze points out, simply privilege particular universalising truths and expose 'a process of totalization.'[31] Rather, I was interested in how these women, who constituted the first generation of women who were consciously prepared to identify as same-sex attracted within a lesbian community articulated their positions both from within and from outside Japanese society.
  27. Over the last three months of my stay in 1994 a number of women decided to withdraw from the research. In consultation with these women I signed an agreement that forbids me from using any material from the formal interviews we did or to discuss in detail the reasons for their withdrawal. No official consent agreements were signed at the outset of the project and in retrospect, having now gone through upteen ethics committee clearance procedures, my ignorance seems rather amazing. However the issue was never raised by either, at that stage, my second academic supervisor nor by the university bureaucracy prior to my undertaking the research. And, to be honest, I'm not sure it would have made a difference. While there were no formal agreements, all the women involved in the long-term interviews filled in a background information sheet (in Japanese) that explained that it was likely that the information/interview material collected would be published. And second, each person was given an opportunity to choose a name they felt comfortable with to use in the research. Despite this and on-going detailed explanations of the research project a snow-ball effect of distress and mistrust of my ethics and intentions became all-consuming issues within the community I was working - even among those who agreed to continue.
  28. In general terms, the major concern centred on shifts of information and identities (both my own and the narrators') between uchi [inside] and soto [outside] positions. And, this is where the issue of false intimacy and my role as a researcher, living and researching an extremely sensitive subject surfaces. An issue that becomes further complicated when put into a broader cultural context of knowing when and where to expose particular facets of one's self within Japanese social relations. First, sexuality is generally not discussed within the Japanese home space and as such is not a conscious identifier in popular understandings of the 'Japanese self'. Second, in the case of this long-term research project where regular interactions and intimate conversations took place, I (as a non-Japanese researcher) was moving through, in and out of other people's lives. This produced both intense moments of intimacy, which ordinarily would not occur, and the merging of roles that was not necessarily the social 'norm'. Thus, in the same way that uchi no kazoku [our family] summons up the values of intimacy and belonging to a contained family unit, so rezubian no komyunitii [lesbian community] invokes feelings of inclusion. Consequently, this false intimacy or group sense of belonging when moved out of a comfort zone of 'uchi, in our case between two lesbians or within a lesbian community, into multiple external (academic) spaces and (geographic) places cannot help but magnify all the associated connotations of feeling exposed or soto [outside].
  29. From my perspective a similar shift occurred. During the first year when things were running smoothly, there was a feeling of euphoria, of feeling like I belonged, uchi, and it was not unusual to hear the common compliment often proffered to non-Japanese when they get something right of 'You're becoming Japanese'. The last few months produced the same intensity but with quite different results. In contrast, all the differences I thought I had transcended became stark and unfathomable, inexplicable with disparaging comments such as 'You'll never understand the Japanese self. Why don't you go home?' And it is fair to say that on both sides of the divide, there was a like-minded retreat into self-orientalising and self-occidentalising cultural stereotypes. A withdrawal into our respective safe havens and familiar comfort zones, both physically and emotionally. This rift was of course intensified by the fact that the research focused on people's sexual, socio-economic, familial and emotional lives. Indeed, for many in the research, this was the first time they had overtly dealt with many of these issues, myself included. It is not necessarily that there were any serious ethical blunders but rather the potential fears of exposure were often tied together with personal, sometimes even political grievances.
  30. These concerns were directly associated with whether the material used would expose the participating women within their own Japanese lesbian communities and/or to the Japanese heterosexist mainstream including the academic world. Connected to this was the future possibility that the information collected would be translated into Japanese. In other words, who would read about their lives and would they be identified?[32] I was now seen to be - and this was certainly the case - the voice of author/ity, moving from inside the community back to a 'foreign' academic and cultural environment with extremely sensitive information. Throughout these latter months I was embroiled in constant negotiations and renegotiations that slowly chipped away at my self-confidence and subsequently my ability to differentiate between the personal, ethical and political dimensions of the private and public debates that occurred.
  31. A further worry by some of the narrators—although not necessarily by those who withdrew—was the academic legitimacy of the research methodology employed. I carried out informal group conversations, a video session and follow-up discussion, open-ended interviews and a workshop in which some of the long-term participant narrators, including myself, facilitated small group discussions around particular themes. I also participated in social and political events throughout my time in Japan. In 1994 and again in 1998 Mitsu, one of the long-term participants expressed some apprehension about the forthcoming academic response to the research.

      I thought it was very good but I'm a little concerned. I haven't been a researcher myself, but I have had a bit of experience, being a student doing fieldwork and sometimes having to give papers at conferences. I think the [Japanese] academic world places a lot of importance on the scientific validity and objectivity of methodology, data, argument, that kind of thing. So I worry about how you will put together these interviews as research. Will academics criticise you or ignore you?[33]

  32. Mitsu had direct experience within the Japanese education system as an adult where, as she observes, concepts such as 'objectivity', 'data' and 'scientific validity' are still generally considered the 'norm' of mainstream social sciences and humanities. The Japanese education system thrives on the notion of collective learning, and 'difference' is seen generally as a negative attribute in student and teacher interactions.[34] This approach of fitting in is epitomised by the expression 'the protruding nail is hammered down' [deru kugi wa utareru]. Consequently, central to Mitsu's critique were reservations with how I would legitimate my subject matter and research methods particularly given the regimental structure of the Japanese education system.
  33. This worry is of course not unique to this work but is a fairly common reaction by women to participating as active voices in a range of research. That is, is what I am telling you and how I am telling it 'worth' anything?[35] Therefore, I think it is fair to argue that the silences and practices of marginalisation that overwhelmingly surround same-sex attracted women's lives in Japan are also indicative of the personal experiences of a number of marginal groups within academic institutions and mainstream popular discourses both in and outside of Japan. In other words, there was a risk not only from outside criticism, but we also had to overcome the negative attitudes to speaking about women, the language women use to express themselves.[36] speaking about sexuality, and speaking about lesbians, and all of this in the cultural context of Japanese socio-political relations. As Mitsu explains,

      I don't really know anything about the academic world in Australia, but in Japan there are women who are supposedly intellectual who still react negatively to women's studies. There was one woman at the last place I worked who was really outstanding... but even she rejected women's studies as a discipline. She said putting together a lot of opinions and impressions as a discipline would only give people yet another opportunity to poke fun at women... she considered herself a feminist... [but] as far as she was concerned an academic discipline wasn't a discipline unless it had the right sort of data and objectivity. Of course I don't know whether it's that important to be acknowledged by academic circles - that's your decision. But on the other hand, acknowledgement of your methods would be an indirect but important influence toward change in the academic world.[37]

  34. The precarious nature of feminist methodologies is further reflected in the on-going academic struggle between Women's Studies and the position of oral narratives as a legitimate research method in Japan.[38] This low status, in combination with the trivialisation of sexuality studies as a serious and relevant area of research,[39] work towards the marginalisation and delegitimisation of both projects as academically worthwhile.

    Finding our feet
  35. The withdrawal of some of the participants caused me great distress, anger and sadness (the latter due to the break down of close friendships), as I had already been working and collecting stories for one year. Acknowledgement of this situation by way of their virtual disappearance in the production of the final text is evidence of the sensitivity and vulnerability of their socio-political positions, emotional vulnerability as well as the inherent ethical dilemmas faced in the process of 'doing' research and intervening in other people's lives.[40] It also illustrates that there is nothing inevitable about maintaining friendships amongst those with whom one is working, for as Kath Weston astutely notes, as a lesbian carrying out a study about other lesbians one is 'living a social reality as well as documenting it'.[41]
  36. Contemporary female same-sex eroticism in Japan has been represented as 'deviant' either in terms of androcentric pornography or pathologised as abhorrent in the media, literature and by the medical profession. More commonly, however, it has simply been ignored! [42] And it is within this context that the women I met and interviewed chose to either speak out or remain silent. Consequently, what is seen as well as that which remains invisible sets the political agenda.[43] As such, the act of how researchers question and listen, and our preparedness to deconstruct and change the research process itself when necessary or when demanded is not always within our control.[44] While this may sound rather obvious, the core of anthropological pedagogy assumes a planned research agenda which covers all contingences. Even the notion of 'flexibility' within a plan presupposes it be set within a contained, albeit elastic, set of parameters. When the so-called 'subjects' challenge these very parameters the loss of control can send a researcher into a tailspin. It is everything a researcher is taught not to let happen, even though given in my case the use of a feminist methodology presupposes proactive participation by all those involved.
  37. The result for those continuing to participate in this research was that I changed the focus from the presentation of detailed life histories to a text in which the narrators became active participants in the discursive analysis of heteronormative practices within Japanese society. In other words, through re-presenting their voices as an integral part of deconstructing Japanese heterosexuality, the subjects decentred the object of analysis away from themselves. In so doing, whether with conscious intent or not, they challenged my legitimacy to define the research agenda through a redefinition of their very roles within the project due to their initial (lack of) authority within the process. A good example of this renegotiation of roles was the request made to me by those who were involved in the long-term interviews to postpone publishing the research until they had the opportunity to see the complete text. Only then was final written permission to publish granted and this took place at the end of 1998. At these meetings one of the most common remarks after our discussions was that they hoped the text would one day be translated into Japanese. But that's another story.


    [1] I use the term 'self-identified Japanese lesbians' when discussing the specific women I worked with who 1. self-identified as being sexually attracted to other women, although generally not outside their personal 'lesbian' communities and 2. employed the term 'lesbian' themselves as a sexual identification. A longer discussion of the terms lesbian and daiku [dyke] follows.

    [2] My thanks to Vera Mackie for assisting me to work out how to articulate this predicament.

    [3] Lesbian-feminist is an identity term used, primarily among white Anglo-European women, from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s for those who chose to self-identify as a lesbian and a feminist. By the early 1990s this term, by way of a critique of identity politics, was less popular and the umbrella term 'queer' has been adopted to describe a more inclusive notion of non-heterocentric sexual identities.

    [4] Kaleidoscope Kyoto: Bi-monthly Journal on Kyoto and Japanese Culture, Special Women's Issue, September-October, 16 (1985).

    [5] I use the term 'female same-sex attracted' to describe a wider range of Japanese women who recognise that they are sexually attracted to other women but who do not necessarily identify as 'lesbian'.

    [6] Walter L. Williams, 'Being Gay and Doing Research on Homosexuality in Non-Western Cultures,' in The Journal of Sex Research 30 (2 May, 1993, pp. 115-20; Ralph Bolton, 'Tricks, friends, and lovers: erotic encounters in the field,' in Taboo: Sex, Identity and Erotic Subjectivity in Anthropological Fieldwork, ed. Don Kulick and Margaret Willson, London and New York: Routledge, 1995: pp.140-67; Ellen Lewin and William L. Leap (eds), Out in the Field: Reflections of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996; J. Bradford, C. Ryan, J. Honnold and E. Rothblum, 'Expanding the research infrastructure for lesbian health,' in American Journal of Public Health 91, 7 (2001): 1029-32.

    [7] Shulamit Reinharz, assisted by Lyn Davidson, Feminist Methods in Social Research, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 232.

    [8] Renato Rosaldo, Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis, Boston: Beacon Press, 1989, p. 15.

    [9] Kakefuda Hiroko, Rezubiande aru to iu koto [Being a Lesbian], Tokyo: Kawade Shobo Shinsha, 1992.

    [10] Interview with Kakefuda Hiroko in Tokyo (1994). Frye makes a similar point in terms of claiming a language that can be recognised and used by lesbians themselves. See Marilyn Frye, 'Lesbian Sex,' in Lesbian Philosophies and Cultures, ed. Jeffner Allen, Albany: SUNY Press, 1990, p. 311.

    [11] Ishino Sachiko and Wakabayashi Naeko, 'Japan,' in Unspoken Rules: Sexual Orientation and Women's Human Rights, ed. Rachel Rosenbloom, London and New York: Cassel, 1996, pp. 95-101, pp. 98-100.

    [12] Inteview with Kakefuda Hiroko in Tokyo (1994).

    [13] Interview with Kakefuda Hiroko in Tokyo (1994). Also see Hara Minako, 'Lesbians and Sexual Self-determination,' AMPO, 25:4-26:1 (1995): 71-73.

    [14] Nancy R. Rosenberger, 'Antiphonal Performances?: Japanese Women's Magazines and Women's Voices,' in Women, Media and Consumption in Japan ed. Lise Skov and Brian Moeran, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1995, pp. 143-69, p. 102.

    [15] All the women interviewed, with the exception of Kakefuda, chose to use first name pseudonyms. Interview with Fumie in Tokyo (1994).

    [16] Ishino and Wakabayashi, 'Japan,' p. 98.

    [17] James Valentine, 'Skirting and Suiting Stereotypes: Representations of Marginalized Sexualities in Japan,' in Theory, Culture and Society 14, 3 (1997): 57-85.

    [18] Izumo Marou and Maree Claire, Love Upon the Chopping Board, Melbourne: Spinifex, 2000, pp. 120-21, 128.

    [19] James Valentine, 'On the Borderlines: The Significance of Marginality in Japanese Society,' in Unwrapping Japan: Society and Culture in Anthropological Perspective, ed. Eyal Ben-Ari, Brian Moeran and James Valentine, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994, pp. 36-57, p. 50; Iwabuchi Koichi, 'Complicit Exoticism: Japan and its other,' in Continuum 8, 2 (1994): 49-82, p. 51.

    [20] Dorinne K. Kondo, Crafting Selves: Power, Gender, and Discourses of Identity in a Japanese Workplace, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990, p. 141.

    [21] Jean Gearing, 'Fear and loving in the West Indies: Research from the Heart (as well as the head),' in Taboo: Sex, Identity and Erotic Subjectivity in Anthropological Fieldwork , ed. Kulick and Willson, p. 188.

    [22] Shinjuku ni-chome is considered the gay entertainment area of Tokyo.

    [23] For a further discussion of the terms used in Japan to describe female same-sex attraction see Sharon Chalmers, Emerging Lesbian Voices from Japan, London: Routledge Curzon (in press); Jennifer Robertson, 'Dying to Tell: Sexuality and Suicide in Imperial Japan,' in Queer Diasporas, ed. Cindy Patton and Benigno Sánchez-Eppler, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000, pp. 38-70.

    [24] The English word 'dyke' originated in the 1950s and was often used by middle-class lesbians as a pejorative term in their descriptions of working-class lesbians who met at bars. See Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline Davis, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community, New York and London: Routledge, 1993, p. 68. Gilmartin in her work on middle and working-class lesbians in the US beautifully illustrates the distinctive class values associated with the terms through one of her narrator's explanations. 'They [working-class lesbians] wore the leather jackets and they almost chewed tobacco, they were so dykey. They were real low-down homosexual.' Conversely she describes her friends as 'artistic', 'intellectual', 'well-educated', 'top-notch people'. See Katie Gilmartin, '"We Weren't Bar People": Middle-Class Lesbian Identities and Cultural Spaces,' in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 3, 1 (1996): 1-51, p. 34. Also see Claudia Card, Lesbian Choices, New York: Columbia University Press, 1995, p. 21. Since the 1970s the negative connotations of the term are also used, particularly by heterosexual men, to insult women. See Brian McNaught, Gay Issues in the Workplace, New York: St Martin's Press, 1993, p. 55. Despite this, over the past ten to fifteen years, some lesbians have reclaimed the word and it is used commonly among many lesbians. Nevertheless, it still carries with it certain class nuances, and is rarely used in public heterosexual spaces by lesbians themselves.

    [25] Interview with Marô in Tokyo (1993).

    [26] Cherry Kittredge, Womansword: What Japanese Words Say About Women, Tokyo and New York: Kodansha International, 1987, p. 115.

    [27] Evelyn Blackwood, 'Falling in love with an-Other lesbian" Reflections on identity in fieldwork,' in Taboo: Sex, Identity and Erotic Subjectivity in Anthropological Fieldwork , ed. Kulick and Willson, p. 69.

    [28] There was one exception towards the end of my stay when I did go to their home and interviewed them together.

    [29] 'Lesbian weekends' occur around Japan a number of times during the year. They are nationally advertised in various lesbian newsletters.

    [30] In the case of the workshop, tapes were sent only to those who requested them—approximately half.

    [31] Gilles Deleuze, 'Intellectuals and Power: A Conversation Between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze,' in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. and trans. Donald F. Bouchard, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977, pp. 205-17, pp. 205-06.

    [32] Carol Warren gives an example from her fieldwork in which one of the male gay participants wrote a letter after publication of her research Identity and Community in the Gay World, explaining that he had had to completely redecorate his lounge room after reading her description. See Carol Warren, 'Fieldwork in the Gay World: Issues in Phenomenological Research,' in Journal of Social Issues 33, 4 (1977): 93-107, p. 99.

    [33] Interview with Mitsu in Tokyo (1994). However, again in our discussions in October 1998, Mitsu repeated similar concerns.

    [34] Joy Hendry, Marriage in Changing Japan, Vermont and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1981; Lois Peak, 'Learning to Become Part of the Group: The Japanese Child's Transition to Preschool Life,' in Journal of Japanese Studies 15, 1 (1989): 93-123; Thomas P. Rohlen, 'Order in Japanese Society: Attachment, Authority, and Routine,' in Journal of Japanese Studies 15, 1 (1989): 5-40; Merry White, The Japanese Overseas: Can they go Home Again?, New York: The Free Press, 1988; Merry White, The Material Child: Coming of Age in Japan and America, Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1993.

    [35] Cited in the 'Introduction' by Susan Contratto, in Dignity: Lower Income Women Tell of Their Lives and Struggles, Fran Leeper Buss, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1985, p. 1; Kennedy and Davis, Boots of leather, Slippers of gold, p. 16.

    [36] There has been a growing literature on women's narrative particularly in the late 1980s and early 1990s that emphasised the difference that ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality and class make in the way women interpret both their own and broader social experiences. See for example, Sherna Berger Gluck and Daphne Patai (eds), Women's words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History, New York and London: Routledge, 1991; Personal Narratives Group (eds), Interpreting Women's Lives: Feminist Theory and Personal Narratives, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989.

    [37] Interview with Mitsu in Tokyo (1994).

    [38] Tomida Hiroko, Japanese writing on women's history, Nissan Occasional Paper Series, 26, 1996, p. 22.

    [39] Mark J. McLelland, Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan: Cultural Myths and Social Realities, Surrey: Curzon, 2000, p. 61.

    [40] Rosalind Edwards, 'Connecting Method and Epistemology: A White Woman Interviewing Black Women,' in Women's Studies International Forum 13, 5 (1990): 477-90, p. 185.

    [41] Kath Weston, Families we Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship, New York: Columbia University Press, 1991, p. 14.

    [42] Chalmers, Emerging lesbian voices from Japan, (in press).

    [43] Reinharz, Feminist Methods in Social Research, p. 46. The most obvious examples of this in anthropological works are those carried out in the same places but which represent and produce completely different perspectives. Compare for example, John F. Embree, Suye Mura: A Japanese Village, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982 and Robert J. Smith, and Ella Lury Wiswell, Ella, The Women of Suye Mura, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. Note that despite the significant difference in dates of publication the research was carried out during the same period. Also see Weiner's reanalysis of Malinowski's accounts of Trobriand society—Annette Weiner, Women of Value, Men of Renown: New Perspectives in Trobriand Exchange, Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1976.

    [44] Blackwood, 'Falling in love with an-other lesbian,' p. 55; Chandra Mohanty, 'Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,' in Feminist Review 30, Autumn (1988): 61-88, p. 62; Personal Narratives Group (eds), Interpreting Women's Lives, p. 216; Reinharz, Feminist Methods in Social Research, p. 44.


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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