Inside & Out: Thoughts On Gender Hacking Japan
So yesterday I was "working" (reading blogs) and I came across Hack Gender - awesome sauce :3 I immediately wanted to toss some fuel on this fire. Here's what 24 hours, one and half "work" days, and last weekend's train ride into Nags with my dear friend Hobo-sensei have wrought. It's probably still frought with my spiderbrain-derived switchbacks and misphrasings, but then again I wouldn't want to claim it as my own if I completely smoothed those over. It's an artifact of thought process in progress.
Recently a friend and I had a very long discussion on the train, as middle-aged women slipped knowing glances our way and older salarymen peered disapprovingly at our blatant romantic exchange. We were in fact exchanging views about job satisfaction, but speaking in English, and after all we were brushing shoulders and looking into one another’s eyes.
My companion and I are English language teachers in Japan. We have both been at our jobs for two years, and during the summer I will leave the country while he will stay on for another twelve months. There are large differences in our living and working arrangements, but we share a certain zest for new experiences, similarly introverted personalities, and the common bond of being gaikokujin. The literal reading of the Chinese-derived characters is “outside-country people,” and I will come back to the implications of that in a while.
We inevitably got to talking about living in Japan. I told him I felt that I’d gotten the knack for daily life in my little adoptatown – hell, I’d even gotten myself through a doctor’s visit and the subsequent insurance paperwork, and this with no formal Japanese study past the third-year university level I’d ended on a year before graduating. But I could never see myself settling here; I feel I would have to compromise important aspects of my identity as a queer woman. He asked what I meant by that, and though I tried to explain, sad to say I failed to articulate myself very well.
During the back-and-forth that followed he raised a number of valid observations: There isn’t mainstream promotion of violent intolerance towards non-heterosexuals in Japan the way there is in America and many other countries. Because I am a person who reads as “foreigner” from first glance (tawny-haired, white-skinned), I am under absolutely no pressure to conform to cultural ideals of The Japanese Woman. And whatever it is I feel I’m missing day-to-day I can easily find in the big cities nearby, be it gay-friendly night clubs or just a community of fellow immigrants who will talk with and touch me without reserve.
While there is truth to all these points, and while they are are indications of the extraordinary privilege I receive as a valued cultural outsider, they also lie at the crux of my personal discomfiture and of Japan's enculturated gender troubles.
Fluid gender presentation is nothing new or foreign to Japan (witness the ancient traditions of kabuki theater). Nor is non-heterosexual love (witness the intimate bonds of the samurai class with their retainers, and countless untold partnerships throughout the history of the imperial courts). These practices, however, have always been neatly encapsulated within their own subgroups. Contrary to the subversive undercurrent of queer culture or feminist movements in the West, Japan's myriad subcultural identities tend to be subsumed under broader cultural ideals of harmony and cohesiveness. Such values are in themselves very positive, and modern Japanese society certainly benefits from a long history of cultivating group-minded attitudes. I doubt there is any other nation in which I could feel so secure walking down unlit streets in the middle of the night by myself, or forget a wallet or a housekey in some public space and be 99% certain that though I don't notice its absence until the end of the day, when I frantically rush back it will be exactly where I left it.
On the flip side of the coin, well-being is so closely associated with group-wide commonality of behavior, language, opinion, &tc. that diversity becomes synonymous with discord. Even in areas where ethnic and social differences are strongly apparent, there persists a widespread belief and adherence to the myth of national homogeneity. The Japanese Culture - singular and sacrosanct - must be defended against intrusions from "outside." Naturally this becomes a powerful deterrent against any efforts at social reform. Any movement shaking up the status quo that incidentally has a precedent in "foreign" cultures can be branded as promoting "foreign" ideology. Similarly, even the most transparent human-rights-based policy changes can be spun as suspect agendas at odds with Japanese Culture. Witness: abortion rights, gay marriage, genderfuckery of all flavors.
The prevalent myth of cultural unity was not invented by modern-day conservative factions, but it can be and is politicized by them to great effect. On the other hand, drawing inspiration and influence from tradition is not restricted to hyper-nationalists wishing to halt the progress of reformers. There are a plethora of organizations and enterprising activists who win over the public by grounding their ideas within the context of Japan's historical practices and modern concerns. Saitou Chiyo, Ide Sachiko, and Ochiai Keiko are just a few among the many amazing people advocating more & better options for Japanese men, women, and everyone in between.
For my part, I have been slipping in lessons on stereotyping and gay marriage at the rural high schools where I teach. They have been received with an encouraging level of maturity and consideration by the students, if with raised eyebrows and noisy fidgeting on the part of some teachers. In any given workweek I perform any number of genders – with my first-year students I sometimes feel it necessary to read as what they would take to be masculine, to capture their attention through difference and at the same time command a semblance of authority. Suit jackets work well with my already boyish haircut for this effect. I have an American coworker who is male-bodied, and we're both of us blonde, untanned and of medium build; frequently students catching sight of me from behind will call me by his name, an honest mistake which amuses and somewhat flatters me.
There are other days when I feel like being more elegant than what I can manage with my rather limited selection of trousers, so I'll don skirts, but my overall style is markedly different from the mass-marketed femininity plastered on every subway ad and TV screen in the country. I like to think I serve as an alternative example of gender play, and perhaps I do to some students.
On most days, though, I don't feel like I can circumvent my outside-country personhood. I am free to observe, to comment (maybe, if I keep a respectful tone, which in certain instances is just beyond my level of tolerance), to choose to govern myself otherwise, but I should not presume to meddle with Japanese Culture because outsiders just can't understand. These are the rules of the game at the present, though they are in flux. Sometimes they're enforced (mostly by older teachers who themselves have very little experience interacting with non-Japanese on a basic human level). Sometimes they cease to exist (in the minds of children who haven't yet completely absorbed the inside/outside mentality, or who have had experiences that serve to countermand it). I can accept this state of things; it is what it is, and I make personal breakthroughs and community impact both because of and in spite of it.
What I can’t do is live with it. This is what I failed to articulate to my friend on the train. I have, ironically, been struggling to keep from internalizing a cultural mythology that would outright reject the concept of internalization. I can’t sit and wait for the up-and-coming generation of transsexuals and queer couples and working mothers and single fathers to claw their way into the national discourse while I keep silence for fear of making the public perception of gender hacking too "foreign" too fast. Non-nationals of a stronger mettle than I must choose to remain here and encourage the homegrown outsiders of this country to flex their muscles and make themselves heard. And they do need that encouragement, that support across national lines from the diverse global community of activists, because all ethnicity angst and colonization hangups aside, people are people and they need to reach out to each other, period. However, activists and allies need to keep it apparent that they are supporting the expansion, not the fracturing, of Japan's culture. That simply isn't my fight. But perhaps it's yours.
DATE ADDED: 2010-06-30 12:03:55
COLLECTION: Gendered Bodies
ITEM TYPE: Document
CITATION: Del, "Inside & Out: Thoughts On Gender Hacking Japan," in HACKGENDER, Item #10, http://hackgender.org/items/show/10 (accessed December 5, 2013).
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