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

Mark McLelland

Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan:
Cultural Myths and Social Realities

Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 2000,
332 pages; ISBN: 0700714251 (paper); price: $US29.95.

reviewed by James E. Roberson

  1. Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan is an important contribution to a growing English-language literature that discusses male homosexuality in Japan and is the first book-length work to focus on representations of and lived realities among gay men in contemporary (mid to late 1990s) Japan. The book consists of nine chapters essentially organised into three sections with a short 'afterword.' The first two chapters introduce the topics, terms and historical and social contexts of the discussions that follow. In chapters three to six, McLelland examines various representational 'myths' of male homosexuality found in popular media targeting (presumably heterosexual) women and gay men. Chapters seven through nine describe some of the realities of same-sex desiring Japanese men, including discourses among these men about gay identity (politics).
  2. In Chapter 1, McLelland defines homosexuality as 'same-sex sexual desire' (4-5) and notes that 'it is clear that the myriad representations of homosexuality in Japanese culture cannot be judged in terms of a pre-existent, unitary, empirical sexual experience shared by all homosexual men' (3). The distinction and the differences between representations, discourses and experiences of male homosexuality in Japan as multiple(x) and as action versus identity based is the central theme of the book. A quick but useful historical review is provided in Chapter 2. Here emerge sub-themes of the non-exclusive and hierarchical nature of homosexual relations across much of Japanese history. Of most direct relevance is the disclosure that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a 'gay boom' in Japan, including homosexual themed movies, television programs, popular magazine features, writing by (male and female) homosexual authors and academic discourse. However, McLelland questions the influence of these on the (visibility of the) lives of gay Japanese men (37). He also notes that same-sex sexual interactions are largely unregulated by law (37) and suggests that 'Japanese homosexual people face no legal discrimination' (41)—which, while generally true, discounts the inability of same-sex partners to be included as spouses in koseki family registries, as beneficiaries in insurance policies, etc.
  3. McLelland is at his best in Chapters 3 through 6 while discussing popular cultural representations of male homosexuality. Chapter 3, 'Just Like a Girl: Images of Homosexual Men as Feminine,' discusses how homosexuality is commonly conflated with feminised transgenderism. This is tolerated and enjoyed when manifest as transvestism and/or effeminate speech among persons working in the entertainment businesses, including cross-dressing male entertainers and pop stars. However, homosexual men who are found to be co-participants in everyday contexts such as at work, school, in the neighbourhood and family are commonly conceptualised as figures 'to be feared and or despised' (55). In Chapter 4, 'The Love between "Beautiful Boys" in Women's Comics,' McLelland describes how women's comics romantically fantasise and idealise love between feminised beautiful young boys as pure, loving and egalitarian, in contrast to representations of heterosexual relations that reinforce or reproduce the power inequalities between men and women. McLelland suggests that the bishônen [beautiful young male] 'can be read as a figure of resistance' (78) to real heterosex(ual/ist) men and representations thereof.
  4. In Chapter 5, McLelland argues that while heterosexual relations are represented as heavily role-based, socially constrained, oppressive and unfulfilling for women, a variety of discourses construct 'Gay Men as Women's Best Friends and Ideal Marriage Partners.' This is because of their supposed feminine traits, including domesticity, which allow for more equal and emotional relations and for greater individual independence. However, McLelland questions both the supposed femininity of gay men and their affinity to/with women.
  5. The realities of (heterosexual) marriage present gay men with a number of issues of identity and action—both public and private. While some men long for a 'heterosexually composed household or look forward to fatherhood, others feel pressured, by family obligations or social expectations, to marry. Many homosexual men who do (intend to) marry do not necessarily desire (exclusive) sexual relations or romantic partnerships with their wives. Such is often also represented as true of/for heterosexual men, and McLelland suggests that there is little difference between a straight husband or a gay husband having sex outside of marriage—an unfortunately masculinist-positioned contention, repeated elsewhere (221), which in either case appears to ignore wives' positionalities and subjectivities.
  6. Although gay men are constructed as feminine in popular media geared to women, in Chapter 6 McLelland shows that 'Images of Homosexuality in the Gay Media' primarily portray male homosexuals as hyper-masculine and hyper-sexual. While providing important information and advice and assisting in networking, McLelland notes that overall, 'gay media do little to promote a sense of gay identity or lifestyle beyond the pursuit and enjoyment of sex' (124). Furthermore, the gay media, like the gay scene and gay 'identities,' are very type-specific in terms of the preferred body forms or fashion styles of sexual partners. And, while women's popular media portray gay men as sensitive and egalitarian, gay media representations (and many actual relations) tend to emphasise hierarchical or 'vertical' [a la Nakane Chie] and amae [a la Doi Takeo] -based relations.
  7. In Chapters 7 through 9, McLelland discusses more ethnographically acquired data, primarily from interviews with sixteen informants, profiled in Chapter 7. McLelland recognises that his sample is biased toward gaisen-type men [specialising in [white] foreigners]. While one might ideally wish that more ethnographic fieldwork had been done (including descriptions of gay organisations—there are well over thirty—and events such as the Tokyo Lesbian and Gay Parade), McLelland does balance his discussion by using other available literature.
  8. In Chapter 8, 'Japanese Gay Men's Self-Understanding,' McLelland notes that his informants do not necessarily share a discrete, separate 'gay identity' (192). Also, while most faced a range of social difficulties they were 'free of any kind of psychological distress or anxiety regarding their homosexual feelings' (195). And, none 'saw their same-sex attraction as definitive preferring to situate themselves in relation to workplace and family' (196). Most were negative about 'coming out' because they felt that sexuality is a private matter or worried that they would trouble or disappoint friends and family, unnecessarily disrupt other social relations or put careers at risk. Beyond connections with sexual partners, the concept of a 'gay community' had little meaning for most—though here one does wonder about sample bias. Attitudes towards same-sex sexual relationships (monogamous or other) and towards cross-sex marriage and families are diverse. Many of McLelland's informants see (imagine) the West as allowing a more open gay lifestyle, and it might have been interesting to more fully explore the discursive construction of the West (as reflexive symbol, etc.) in critiques of Japanese heterosexism/homophobism.
  9. In Chapter 9, McLelland further questions models of identity which presume a singular/homologous gay identity. He criticises sexual-rights and identity-politics oriented groups and public action, even while noting the desire among many gay men for more social space (239). One here wonders how McLelland envisions the possibilities of creating such social space without the activism of groups like OCCUR or the less political but also 'out' activities of other groups in Japan.
  10. While there are a few points where I wonder about McLelland's reluctance to be critical of his own or his informants' reproduction of masculinist privilege vis--vis women, or where I might wish to see him more strongly support groups involved in political activism, I find this a very informative, well-researched and well-written book. It will be of interest and use among readers and scholars interested in issues of gay and lesbian studies, gender studies (including studies of masculinities), popular culture and Japan studies. It is a welcome and an important new book.


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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