Sharon Chalmers

Emerging Lesbian Voices
from Japan

London and New York, RoutledgeCurzon, 2002.
184 pp. ISBN 0-7007-1702-1 Hardback £55/US$90

reviewed by James Welker

The first published book produced by and about the lesbian community in Japan, the collaboratively produced Onna wo Ai Suru Onnatachi no Monogatari [Stories of Women Who Love Women] appeared in 1987,[1] while the first self-published Japanese lesbian newsletters [mini-komi] predate this book by nearly a decade.[2] Further, articles reflecting on the history of and the current nature of the lesbian community have appeared on occasion throughout the 1990s in Japanese publications aimed both specifically at lesbian readers and in those aimed a wider audience, often in special gay-and-lesbian, or specifically lesbian-themed issues.[3] Books by individual authors about lesbian lives began to appear in the early 1990s,[4] and glossy lesbian magazines have been around since the mid 1990s.[5]

Yet, while a number of academic books in English focusing on male homosexuality in Japan have appeared since the late 1980s,[6] until now, lesbianism in Japan has been relegated to an occasional article or book chapter.[7] More commonly, however, female-female homosexuality has been brushed away in brief asides in books and articles about Japanese women or about male homosexuality. It was not until 2000 that Marou Izumo and Claire Maree's memoir Love upon the Chopping Board[8] was published, becoming the first book in English to focus on lesbian lives in Japan.

As the first academic book in English examining Japanese lesbian existence, Sharon Chalmers' Emerging Lesbian Voices from Japan has been long overdue. While two valuable ethnographic studies of women who do not identify as heterosexual were published in Japanese in the late 1990s,[9] Emerging Lesbian Voices paints a more in-depth, analytical portrait of the lives of individual lesbians and their ever-changing relationships with themselves, their families, their friends, society at large, and the Japanese lesbian community. Chalmers succeeds in shattering the myth of Japanese lesbian invisibility that has allowed previous English research on 'homosexuality' in Japan to side step an exploration of the realities and complexities of Japanese lesbian lives.

This groundbreaking work is based on interviews Chalmers carried out while living in Japan and participating in lesbian community activities between 1993 and 1994, followed up by interviews in 1998. Rather than providing a series of case studies, Chalmers explores narrative themes using her informants' experiences to vividly illustrate fragments of Japanese lesbian lives. Her informants are, themselves, quite reflective and analytical both about their own lives and about the lives of lesbians and the status of women in Japan in general. In this respect, Emerging Lesbian Voices adds to the growing discourse in Japanese and English which dispels any notion that Japanese women continue en masse to passively and unreflectively accept second-class status in- and outside the home at the hands of the patriarchy. By incorporating recent scholarship on Japan studies and lesbian and queer studies with her informants' analyses of their own experiences, Chalmers manages to create a well-balanced, critical portrait of Japanese lesbian lives.

In addition to offering a few Japanese lesbian voices and experiences to English readers, Chalmers' overview of the lesbian community and its history provides a great deal of information which was previously unavailable in English—or difficult to find. In particular, her friendship with and the extensive cooperation of Kakefuda Hiroko, writer of the groundbreaking 'Rezubian de Aru' to Iu Koto [On 'Being Lesbian'], has enabled Chalmers to share with her readers the ideas of the woman who, through her writing and media appearances, was often seen as the public face of Japanese lesbians in the mid-1990s. Kakefuda's comments add an invaluable critical perspective and counter-balance to the Western lesbian and cultural theory that Chalmers has used in her own discussion.

Emerging Lesbian Voices opens with a look back at lesbian sexuality in the early 20th century, including the influence of European sexologists and the role of the Takarazuka all-women musical review. The focus then turns to an overview of the beginnings of the more organized lesbian community which can be dated back to the late 1960s or early 1970s, predominately centered around the tachi/neko [butch/femme] world of the early lesbian bars and nascent lesbian feminist activist groups.

Chalmers then moves her discussion forward to the past decade to look at how women are able to negotiate their lesbian identities and imported concepts such as kamingu auto [coming out] with the seemingly rigid bounds created by the uchi/soto ['inside'/'outside'] dichotomy—which in Japanese society is considered to be the framework around which are structured individuals' relationships with people inside and outside the groups to which they belong. Throughout the book, in fact, Chalmers illustrates the liminality of the lesbian in Japan. As she explains, 'Although marginalised, Japanese lesbians are neither inside nor outside Japanese society but rather work in a variety of inter-locations within mainstream discourses' (p. 135).

As with the liminal position of the Japanese lesbian, the 'family', however it is constructed, resonates throughout the book. Three chapters specifically examine ways lesbians manage or fail to fit themselves into ever evolving Japanese extended and nuclear families. Indeed the family has both limited and liberated lesbian lives, and some lesbians, in turn, have worked to re-shape and re-create the notion of the family, at least for themselves. Because of the central role the family plays in all aspects of society, for lesbians who do not belong to a socially sanctioned family unit appropriate to their age, as Chalmers shows, unique challenges can arise in, for example, finding and keeping employment, housing and, for lesbian mothers, childcare and navigating the education system.

The last chapters explore the vital roles friendship and community have played in Japanese lesbian lives. Chalmers considers the construction of female friendship in Japan and how lesbians translate this into their friendships with other lesbians. For lesbians with children, in opposition to the 'ryōsai kenbo [good wife/wise mother]' image of Japanese women, their need for socialising plays a major role in their friendships with each other, as opposed to being 'an adjunct to their children's needs' (p. 108). Yet, they remain 'more than aware of how the moral precepts that define the idealised "Japanese family" and "motherhood" might affect their children' (p. 116).

As Chalmers explains, unlike women in the heterosexual sphere, 'lesbians must self-create spaces for "belonging"' (p. 104). Chalmers' informants are a part of the generation which built up lesbian spaces, social networks and a sense of community, affording some women the freedom to explore their same-sex erotic desire and develop a sense of identity. This community now has lesbian organisations, bars and frequent dance parties in a few major cities, a number of publications, semi-annual lesbian weekend retreats, and, in recent years, a proliferation of lesbian information available in Japanese on the Internet. Additional 'snapshots of lesbian visibility' (p. 140) are provided by annual lesbian and gay pride parades, film festivals and other events held in cities such as Tokyo, Sapporo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Fukuoka.

One limitation of the book is the small number of informants and the fact that, as Chalmers explains, her informants, primarily in their late 30s or their 40s at the time of the interviews, only represent the 'first generation of women who accepted lesbian sexuality as part of their conscious subjectivity and one from which they could articulate their understandings and personal experiences' (p. 6). Thus we do not hear from younger lesbians who, like their heterosexual peers, are less and less constrained by social pressure to get married and have children, and who have grown up with access to or at least the possibility of being part of the ever more diverse and vibrant lesbian community. Further, all of Chalmers' informants were either living alone, with their children, or with their partners (p. 10), all presumably within the greater Tokyo area. Thus, unfortunately, we do not hear then from lesbians living with their families, nor married lesbians; nor do we hear about lesbian life in the hinterlands (which is also a problem in Japanese lesbian publications). Rather than seeing this limited focus as a deficiency, however, it is perhaps better to consider this book an exploration of but one loosely defined segment of lesbian life in Japan. As Chalmers herself aptly explains, 'no one lesbian discourse can constitute a transhistorical "Japanese lesbian culture"' (p. 135).

As the first full-length academic study of Japanese lesbian life, Emerging Lesbian Voices from Japan makes an invaluable contribution to the fields of lesbian studies, queer studies, and Japan studies and should be of great interest to anyone wishing to more deeply understand the various and multifaceted lives of women in contemporary Japan.


[1] Bessatsu Takarajima, no. 64, Onna wo Ai Suru Onnatachi no Monogatari [Stories of Women Who Love Women], Tokyo: JICC Shuppankyoku, 1987.

[2] For example, the short-lived mini-komi Subarashii Onnatachi [Wonderful Women] 1976; Hikariguruma [Shining Car] 1978; and Za Daiku [The Dyke] 1978. The mini-komi Regumi Tsûshin [Regumi Communication] was first published in 1987 and is still being published today. See 'Komyuniti no Rekishi 1971-2001: Nenpyô to Intabyû de Furikaeru [Community History 1971-2001: Reflecting Back with a Timelines and Interviews]' in Aniisu, Summer 2001: 28-67; in particular the section 'Liberation,' pp. 38-41.

[3] E.g., 'Onna wo Ai Suru Onnatachi no Shinjitsu: Rezubian no Hyaku Nin ga Kataru [The Truth About Women Who Love Women: 100 Lesbians Speak Out],' in Takarajima vol. 289, Feb. 9, 1994: 31-45; Ôya Akiyo, Shirakawa Kayoko, and Nakahigashi Motoko, 'Auto de Aru/ni Naru Koto: Tôkyô rezubian Gei Pareido wo Megutte [Be/Coming Out: Reflections on the Tokyo Lesbian and Gay Parade],' in Imago, vol. 6, no. 12, Nov. 1995: 52-69; and Izumo Marou, Hara Minako, Tsuzura Yoshiko, and Ochiya Keiko, 'Nihon no Rezubian Mûvumento [Japan's Lesbian Movement],' Gendai Shisô, vol. 25, no. 6, May 1997: 58-83.

[4] The most prominent of these include Kakefuda Hiroko, 'Rezubian de Aru' to Iu Koto [On 'Being Lesbian'], Tokyo: Kawade Shobo Shinsha, 1992; Izumo Marou, Manaita no Ue no Koi [Love Upon the Chopping Board], Tokyo: Takarajimasha, 1992; Sasano Michiru, Coming OUT! Tokyo: Gentôsha, 1995; and Ikeda Keiko, Sensei no Rezubian Sengen: Tsunagaru Tame no Kamu Auto [A Teacher's Lesbian Declaration: Coming Out to Connect], Kyoto: Kamogawa Shuppan, 1999.

[5] Two issues of Phryné [Furiine] were published in 1995 and Anise [Aniisu] was published as a quarterly in 1996 and 1997, and started back up as a bi-annual magazine in 2001.

[6] E.g., Mark J. McLelland, Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan: Cultural Myths and Social Realities, Richmond, UK: Curzon, 2000; Gregory M. Pflugfelder, Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600-1950, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999; Gary P. Leupp, The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995; and Tsuneo Watanabe and Jun'ichi Iwata, The Love of the Samurai: A Thousand Years of Japanese Homosexuality, trans. D. R. Roberts, London: GMP, 1989.

[7] See Jennifer Robertson, 'Gender-Bending in Paradise: Doing "Female" and "Male" in Japan,' in Genders no. 5, Summer 1989: 50-69; Linda May Peterson, 'Rezubian in Tokyo,' in Finding the Lesbians: Personal Accounts from Around the World, ed. Julia Penelope and Sarah Valentine, Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1990, pp. 128-135; Kittredge Cherry, 'Japanese Lesbian Life,' in Oceanic Homosexualities, ed. Stephen O. Murray, New York: Garland Publishing, 1992; Jennifer Robertson, 'Dying to Tell: Sexuality and Suicide in Imperial Japan,' in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 25, no. 1, Autumn 1999: 1-35; Hara Minako, 'Lesbians and Sexual Self-Determination,' in Voices from the Japanese Women's Movement, ed. AMPO-Japan Asia Quarterly Review, Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharp, 1996, pp. 129-132. There are also profiles of lesbian and bisexual women in Queer Japan: Personal Stories of Japanese Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Transsexuals, ed. Barbara Summerhawk, Cheiron McMahill, and Darren McDonald, Norwich, VT, USA: New Victoria, 1998.

[8] Marou Izumo and Claire Maree, Love Upon the Chopping Board. This work includes several chapters from Izumo's, Manaita no Ue no Koi, translated into English by Maree, as well as new material.

[9] Sei Ishiki Chôsa Gurûpu [Sexual Consciousness Research Group], Sanbyakujû Nin no Sei Ishiki: Iseiaisha dewanai Onnatachi no Ankeito Chôsa [The Sexual Consciousness of 310 People: A Survey of Women Who Are Not Heterosexual], Tokyo: Nanatsumori Shokan, 1998; and Yajima Masami (ed.), Josei Dôseiaisha no Raifu Hisutorii [Life Histories of Female Homosexuals], Tokyo: Gakubunsha, 1999.


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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