Strange Boutique (November 2013)

My November column for The Japan Times is about the minor fan community scandal that bubbled up after A-chan from Perfume made some awkwardly worded remarks about gay fans. It was obviously not intended with any negative inflection, but looked at a certain way, it’s perhaps a little clumsy. I’m not going to go into what actually happened, you should read the original article here.

(First up, the opening is paraphrased from the American playwright August Wilson. I wasn’t sure whether I should cite him or not and in the end left it up to my editor. In any case, it’s his idea and I stole it. Just putting that out there.)

Now as a straight, middle class, white man, I’m have pretty much the most privileged life and background in all human history, so I’m not going to start telling people what kinds of things are legitimate and illegitimate sources of distress or offence. On one level, all that happened was that a fan asked her a silly question and she didn’t know how to answer it, but as she relates the story, her language (“neither” gender) segues rather awkwardly into the discussion about gay (presumably just as male as anyone else) fans and then her description of the fan’s partner as a “girlfriend” (did the fan use this term or was she editorialising?)

As I said, I don’t want to dismiss this as a non-event because gender politics are a tricky subject, but that said, the story here really shouldn’t be about A-chan. I spoke to the journalist who carried out the interview and asked him his assessment based on the context of the interview and from what I can gather, she was just being bubbly and ditzy. Perfume say they’re not idols like AKB48, but they’ve been brought up by the same kind of social machinery, inside the same pop industry bubble, and also in a wider sense part of Japan’s whole cultural bubble.

One thing that starts to hit you after a while when you live immersed in Japanese pop culture is the sheer narrowness of range it offers in terms of thought, ideas, and values. The significance of the “We Japanese” mindset is sometimes overplayed, but it’s definitely true that far more than European or American societies, the idea that as a Japanese person you can sit across from someone on a train and know that they are thinking the same way as you is a great comfort. Pop culture here is completely geared towards the reinforcement of this idea, and people who deviate from it are usually only permitted a pop cultural platform if they either perform obeisance to Japanese cultural traditions (“Wow, he is more Japanese than Japanese!”) or neuter themselves, rendering the outsider that threatens the consensus harmless by playing the clown.

This is often true of transgender people on Japanese television (although it’s not quite that simple and m’colleague Philip Brasor has written brilliantly about LGBT issues in Japanese TV here, here and probably many other places), and it’s certainly true of foreigners. A commenter on my Facebook page relayed a story of the naturalised Japanese but Nigerian-born TV tarento Bobby Ologun, whose son was appeared on a show with him and popped the awkward question, “Daddy, why are you so foolish on TV but not at home?”

Not only minorities, but a woman’s role on TV variety shows is far too often simply to nod along and smile to the older male comedians. Show hints of intelligence or independent thought and there is a ritual of ridicule they must go through to ensure they are cut down to size. Only loudmouthed female comedians, usually from the Osaka/Kansai area, are allowed to openly joust with male guests and co-hosts.

OK, now someone who watches more Japanese TV than me (almost anyone in the country really) will be able to pick holes in this assessment, but the overall picture is very much as I describe it. So pop music is really part of a wider pop cultural world devoted to maintaining a certain set of values and a certain sense of what Japan is and what the Japanese are.

Why this is is another matter. I suggest two theories in my column, the first of which could be summarised as the Antonio Gramsci view, where the channels through which culture is transmitted are used by a ruling class to establish “hegemony” and instill in the population a set of values that don’t necessarily benefit them. The other view is basically that of Theodor Adorno, namely that capitalism by its very nature drives the “culture industries” towards standardisation, in which all choice is an illusion. Likely there are elements of both conservatism and commercialism at play in bringing us to this point.

Whatever the reason, the Gramsci and Adorno positions both describe a system that serve the same ends: that of limiting discourse in the public arena.

But of course Japan isn’t homogeneous. Despite strict visa requirements, it’s racially less and less so, certainly in Tokyo, and among Japanese themselves there are many different kinds of people as well. By enforcing this limited and limiting media metanarrative of Japaneseness, it at once restricts people’s ability to empathise with and engage with people who don’t fit the standard, and at the same time gives those who don’t fit the mould a stark choice between conformity and alienation.

Gay people are a particularly pertinent example here, because more than almost anyone they have no control over what makes them different. Westerners are visibly different and are freed from the choice of fitting in or not (we never will, so just suck it up and learn to enjoy it — the situation of Zainichi Koreans is rather more complex), and it’s possible to a limited degree to drive unwanted ideologies like Communism out of the media to the extent that the ideas cannot easily be disseminated, the propaganda cannot be propagated. Gay people in Japan, however, do not choose their identity or arrive at it through social circumstances the way one might adopt a political position. Also, unlike foreigners they are just like “standard Japanese” on the surface so cannot escape the subtle added pressure that going unrecognised in the media creates to put on the face of conformity.

I’ve been quizzed many times about why there are so many gay British men and so few gay Japanese, and looking at the British and Japanese pop industries, there are certainly far more openly gay stars in the UK. Is Japan a uniquely heterosexual nation? Of course not. It’s just that there is a tacit agreement in the media that it’s not part of the discourse (in Britain, Freddy Mercury’s death pretty much put an end to that). Japan’s gay pop stars remain in the closet, Japan’s gay teenagers repress their sexual identity, Japan’s gay salarymen get married, have kids and sneak off to gay bars on the sly or just simply keep it to themselves, and straight Japanese lack the familiarity or the vocabulary to talk about homosexuality comfortably.

This isn’t discrimination in the direct sense of the word, and the people who do it aren’t nasty homophobes. Japanese sociologist Yuki Senda relates a good example of how it works in practice:

“I was recently speaking with an American friend who happened to mention a mutual friend had just got married. ‘But isn’t he gay?’ I asked, a bit surprised by the news. My friend, in turn, was surprised by my own reaction, and said: ‘Yes, of course—and that’s why he married a guy.'”

“This incident made me realize that even though I specialize in the sociology of the family, my own outlook still seems to be bound by traditional Japanese notions about the family. Needless to say, I know from my research that same-sex marriage or civil unions exist. But the notion of gay marriage is still such an alien concept in Japan that the possibility did not immediately occur to me when speaking to my friend.”

Of course once discussion about offence and language gets round to the idea of political correctness, people like to whine. Political correctness is the black beast that stalks contemporary debate on media culture, but in its bare essence, as the great Stewart Lee pointed out, political correctness is really just, “…an often clumsy negotiation towards a kind of formally inclusive language.”

I mention that political correctness can be restrictive and Orwellian in its extreme applications (the term itself was coined by 80s lefties as an ironic reference to Stalinist newspeak, along the lines of, “Your new girlfriend seems nice, but is she ideologically sound?”) but real and much more extensive restrictions are being put on both language and thought by a media culture that doesn’t give people the tools they need to engage with ideas, values, and even people outside the mainstream.


Filed under Strange Boutique

4 responses to “Strange Boutique (November 2013)

  1. 2.5TT

    Between “Senpai didn’t mean it!” and people who don’t know anything about homosexuality in Japan (these both were present on a certain popular jpop blog) this has become annoying.

    They had mentioned previously another gay fan using similar terminology (「男の子なんだけど。。。そうじゃない人。」This is paraphrased). I found this a little strange and didn’t know whether this was a common way of speaking in Japan. Now it’s interesting seeing more insight into where the “neither” thing comes from (it appears to be paying homage to Aiko) and the broader issue of homosexuality in Japan.

    • Given that ArtInfo appear to be under an embargo as far as the original text of the interview goes, we can only speculate about the exact words that were spoken, although I spoke to the journalist who wrote the original article and he, his company’s translator, the translator’s boss, and Perfume’s label all checked and approved the translation he used.

      That said, I think there’s an interesting area of discussion to be had on what the Japanese vocabulary for discussing LGBT and related issues is. I’m not an expert on it, although the general impression I have is that the terminology can be pretty brutal when transliterated into English. Whether you read this as a mitigating factor that suggests that words that translate badly into English don’t have such a bad meaning in Japanese, or whether you read this as a problem with the kind of language that Japanese has embedded in it in the first place I’m not sure.

      I would say that I prefer not to dwell on A-chan herself here. Not just because I’m more or less a fan of Perfume, but also because making it personal draws attention away from the issue. I could have written this same basic story about all kinds of things, and it was only really that this Perfume story happened to be in the news at this time that it became the hook to this wider discussion. I could have chosen the thing about Ringo Sheena and her baby, the way Tower Records promotes “girls bands”, or any number of other manifestations of how unthinking assumptions promulgated by the media create a disconnect between reality as lived and the illusion of uniformity that we receive, but I didn’t.

      • 2.5TT

        “Whether you read this as a mitigating factor that suggests that words that translate badly into English don’t have such a bad meaning in Japanese, or whether you read this as a problem with the kind of language that Japanese has embedded in it in the first place I’m not sure.”

        In this case I don’t think I’m knowledgeable enough in Japanese language and culture to make that judgement. On aramatheydidn’t people tried to excuse the entire situation as Japan having different cultural standards. That’s frequently not a very good excuse since homophobic cultural standards are still bad.

      • Quite. I mean aramatheydidn’t isn’t usually the first place I’d look for deep thought and cutting analysis, but it’s usually good for providing a decent sized sample of fanboy opinion. I’d say “different cultural standards” helps A-chan’s case, but then I don’t think she’s really the story in the first place. With Japanese society as a whole, it makes it worse if anything.

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