Transgender people are popping up everywhere in the current Japanese media landscape. Whether it’s appearing on variety shows or hawking soft drinks or makeup in TV ads, the current crop of "new-half" celebrities have established themselves in the mainstream in a way that has surprised many onlookers.
One milestone on the road to this prime-time exposure was NTV’s variety show "Onee-Mans" (which roughly, and unofficially, translates as "Girly Men"). The show, which featured the supposed "ultra-feminine powers" of onee tarento (girly-men TV celebs) to help straight women attract straight men, held on to a coveted evening slot for some 2½ years from October 2006.
But what does this Japanese appetite for gay and transgender stars mean culturally?
Does it point toward a growing social acceptance of sexual minorities — or is something slightly exploitative going on here? Are people tuning in for the spectacle, to have a laugh at the expense of these so-called girly men? Or could it be that both — growing acceptance and the freak-show factor — are happening at the same time?
I put that question to a third-term member of Setagaya Ward Council in central Tokyo, Aya Kamikawa, who is Japan’s only transgender politician to have "come out."
At our meeting in Setagaya City Hall this month, Kamikawa responded, saying: "I would never want to get in the way of someone using their gender to express who they are in the media. But I question the motivations of the people who are simply laughing at them, without any second thought.
"I do feel like there are too many people who are innocently laughing at these people without considering the position of people who might be in a sexual minority within their own family, among their colleagues or in their circle of friends. (People who belong to sexual minority groups) can be anywhere."
Asked whether those TV programs might be misrepresenting a level of acceptance in society that isn’t really there, Kamikawa paused for a moment, her head tilted slightly to the side, before saying: "There is a huge gap between what people see in the media and what they hear from actual people. … I don’t really think those programs help to promote understanding of the diversity of sexuality."
Indeed, programs such as "Onee-Mans" have done little to further the general public’s understanding that ultra-feminine gay men and transgender women are not the same kind of person.
Specifically, gay men are men, and the type of gay man who was presented on "Onee-Mans" is only one kind of gay man. Conversely, transgender women are women, and whether or not they have had surgery they generally identify themselves as women permanently, in every aspect of their lives.
Moreover, it would likely never occur to viewers of such shows that transgender people also have sexual orientations — just like everyone else. So a transgender person, regardless of the gender they transition into, could just as easily be homosexual as heterosexual. Hence if someone identifies as transgender, they aren’t telling you anything about the type of person they are attracted to — only about their own personal gender identity.
Transgender people are frequently diagnosed by the medical community with gender dysphoria, also known as Gender Identity Disorder (GID) — which means they do not or cannot identify with the gender that matches their anatomy. Some people seek hormone therapy and counseling; some seek surgical remedies. And some people make films.
Transgender filmmaker Kashou Iizuka was, at 21, officially the youngest director to screen a film at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival. I spoke to him after the international premiere there of his film, "Boku-ra no Mirai (Our Future)," in September. The film is essentially autobiographical, and tells of Iizuka’s coming to terms with his gender identity as a female-to-male (FTM) transgender person, how he faced bullying at school — and how and why he "came out" to his parents.
"I wanted to tell my story. It’s very important to me," Iizuka, who is still at Yamagata University, told me during our conversation in the festival’s 10th-floor media center overlooking the city.
Didn’t it take considerable bravery to make such a personal film about an issue few in Japan know about?
"I agree it takes courage," he said, "but making a film was just one way for me to come to terms with my own experience."
Understood. But back in provincial Yamagata, I wondered whether there is a community in which Iizuka feels safe and accepted.
"Life in smaller communities can be difficult because there are fewer people to relate to, but my goal is to send a message to others, to educate them about people like me. Listen, transgender people are never going to be 100 percent accepted in society, but people need to understand that we exist, and I intend to do that by getting to know people in my local community. So I don’t have plans to leave Yamagata at the moment."
One of the critical scenes in "Our Future" comes when the main character, Yu, is walking down a street with Haruka, a male-to-female (MTF) transgender friend. Yu’s head is down as the pair encounter some of the students who have been bullying him at school. Haruka notices this and says to Yu: "Hold your head up. You haven’t done anything wrong."
Yu’s reaction though, is likely the norm — in large part for lack of any guidance at home, let alone at school or in wider society.
So, when I asked lawmaker Kamikawa if she had any advice for parents who think their child might belong to a sexual minority (because of their gender identity or sexual orientation), she answered: "Although there are definitely support groups throughout Japan for families of people in sexual minorities, what we have to understand is that, just as these children come to realize that they are different from their classmates and think that means there is something wrong with them, so too parents think that they (the parents) have done something wrong — which they haven’t."
Yes, indeed, but I wonder aloud whether parents who think they have done "something wrong" aren’t actually swallowing the common assumption that being part of a sexual minority is some kind of curse — the very thing that leads many such Japanese to live whole parts of their lives secretly.
Kamikawa, though, was more upbeat. "The way I view society has really changed throughout my life," she said. "There was a time when I thought there was no other way for me to live my life than as a hostess, but I don’t feel that way any more.
"I had never thought about becoming a politician until two months before the election. … But whether a person is gay or transgender or straight, it doesn’t change the fact that they are trying to lead their own life.
"I just don’t think there’s any difference between those people."
Kamikawa, in her calm and considerate manner that’s in marked contrast to most of the flamboyant TV performers, insists her role in society, for now, is to remain a politician.
"I’ve realized there are many more people other than sexual minorities who also have issues that need advocacy, so I keep running for election because I can’t just give up on these issues," she explained. "But essentially, I’m just a citizen who wants to lead a peaceful life."
Paradoxically, though, the situation Kamikawa faces on the campaign trail — as it faces filmmaker Iizuka in his life, and the character Yu in his film — is that in Japan, as in most of the rest of the world, people in sexual minorities generally have to say "look here, look at me" — in order to say "there’s nothing to see here."