This semester I’ve been going to the lunch meetings of Doshisha University’s LGBT social circle, GRADATION. I had hoped to really get a picture of what it was like to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community as a college student in Japan. However, while I feel like I’ve been able to make some insights into the opinions of members of the group on their lives, I never really felt like I was really a part of the community or was ever really seeing what their everyday lives were like.
First of all, the group, by its very nature, is separate from the rest of the members’ lives. As I said in the last blog post, the members use nicknames in the club and agree not to relate any personal information discussed in a meeting to anyone outside of the meeting. I can’t confirm whether or not the names people used to introduce themselves were their real names or not. I got the feeling that for the most part the people attending the meetings didn’t know each other very well or at all outside of GRADATION. No one ever slipped and called someone by their real name. Other than two leader figures, one of which was the kaichō, there was significant distance between the members of the circle. Those two leader figures definitely seemed to know each other in ‘real life.’ They also usually sat next to each other. The rest of the regulars at the meetings always sat in the same seat, at least two or more seats from another person. To match the physical distance, there was obvious social distance between the members as well. Two of the regulars used desu-masu with the other members. There were also often awkward silences. Conversation was usually very hard to more forward. I’m sure that some of this was on my account, being a foreigner, but there was definitely tension between the members of the group as well. Whenever this happened, the kaichō or their friend would bring up a topic like food or anime that everyone could have an opinion on.
The topics of the meetings rarely turned to anything having to do with LGBTQ+ issues. When they did, there was a palpable apprehension from most of the members of the group. It was clear that the members were not at all used to talking about their sexuality. Mostly these conversations were about favorite districts, bars and clubs in Osaka. One day a member shared pictures of person in their class that they had a crush on. That was the closest the conversation ever got to the private lives of the members.
Another frustrating part of my experience was that gender never came up as a topic. In the meetings I attended there was never a Japanese person who performed as a woman. I’ve heard from others who attended that there are women who attend the meetings, but they are clearly a very small minority of the circle. Trans* issues never came up as a topic. In U.S. LGBTQ+ groups it is standard practice to give people a chance to request a specific pronoun to use when referring to them. Since gender pronouns are unnecessary in Japanese, this opportunity never came up. The gender identities of the group members were never discussed.
At first I was disappointed at the differences with American groups but I feel like this experience has given me a small look at how taboo LGBTQ+ topics are in Japanese society. And, consequently, how separate people’s ‘queer’ life is from their public life.
I had initially been considering doing GRADATION in addition to my other CIP, just for the queer community. However, I was a bit offput by the fact that it seemed to only include LGBT. Based on this, I would say that it could probably be limited to fewer letters, and that is certainly not what I look for in a queer community. I like conversations about the complicated nature of “gender” and sexuality, and I like discussing real-life experiences. When I think of a queer community, I image a larger degree of camaraderie and emotional support than what you have described here.
That being said, as you have stated, LGBTQ+ topics are regarded diferently in Japan than America. Therefore, it’s actually difficult and unrealistic to judge Japanese LGBTQ+ societies the same way. For example, in Japan its generally considered a lot more inappropriate to talk about something as personal as sexuality. In addition, I don’t think there’s as much awareness of LGBTQ+ issues. I do actually find the effort to protect people’s identities to be very interesting and admirable.
I personally think it would be better if Japanese LGBTQ+ societies developed to be more like their American counterparts and became more personal and conversational, more progressive and active. Based on your experiences, would you agree with this? Would you see any possibility that changes like this are likely or possible in the foreseeable future?
I’m always going to be extremely hesitant to suggest that someone in another culture should become more “American.” I personally think the Japanese queer community has to find their own way to figure how to get recognized and respected by Japanese society at large. I don’t think imitating activist efforts from societies as different as the U.S.A.’s is the right way to go. I expect Japanese queer activism will need to figure out how to make their anti-oppression movement work specifically for Japanese society, similar to the way feminist movements have tried to develop in Japan.
Very interesting blog! Sorry for such a late response, I trust it will not affect our friendship. I hope this group was still a good experience, even though it was quite a bit different than similar groups in the states. If I may ask a quick question about LGBTQ+ issues in Japan: do you think the status quo is stagnant, or do you it is starting to change?