Chasing Cherry Blossoms
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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Out in Japan?

For my fiftieth post (WOW), I thought I'd share with you a piece I intend to submit for inclusion in the next issue of the AJET Connect Magazine. It's been a while in the making - I had to interview participants, transcribe their words, write it all up and then get their feedback but, at long last, it's here! Enjoy!

August. Amid fortresses of favourite-brand toiletries and more boxes of English tea than underwear, there’s one last thing to pack for my morning flight to Tokyo. I consider it for a moment. It’s been so long that I can’t really remember what it looks like. Three years, in fact. Nevertheless, I manage to reluctantly conjure it up and stash it away. At least it won’t affect my already-sighing baggage allowance (“Yes Mum, those three-tonne iPod speakers are an essential.”). And, who knows, maybe I won’t need it.

It’s a situation which many soon-to-be JETs have found themselves in. Coming from years of being openly gay at home, reacquainting oneself with the confines of The Closet can be a strange experience. Unsurprisingly, then, it’s natural for JETs to want to find a way out. But the motivation to do so isn’t always entirely self-driven. Lauren, a second-year JET, has experienced what it’s like to come out to her co-workers, and is now considering coming out to her students, too. “I want to show an example of a teacher being out and show that a person can be gay and proud”, she says; in doing so, Lauren hopes that she’ll be able to encourage her students to “question their own beliefs” on homosexuality. Sean, a first-year JET in rural Shikoku, also places the emphasis on his students: “when you come out to someone who’s old, they’re not really going to change, they’ll either accept you or they won’t… but with kids, I still think you have a real chance to change them for the future.”  If the JET Programme really is about grassroots international exchange, then, all these JETs ask is that they be allowed to do exactly what it is they’re being paid for.

Of course, exchange is an inherently two-way process: so, just as JETs may want to share a piece of themselves at work, they must be prepared to confront a piece of Japan in the process. And it’s in this domain that the Golden Cornerstone of the JET programme- that of Every Situation Is Different – rings true. Jarryd, a first year ALT in Osaka, received hand-written letters from his students asking “Are you gay?” (“all spelt wrong…it was hilarious”). Confirming both his staff and students’ suspicions was a revelation: “they thought it was the best thing ever! My teachers couldn’t wait to come out gay clubbing with me!” At the other end of the spectrum, Sean (above) recalls the aftershocks of an intimate, post-enkai moment shared with a bisexual JTE: “Now he won’t talk to me… and I don’t think anybody will ever know about it; most of the time he completely ignores me.”

Somewhere in the mire between these two extremes, however, it seems that, for many JETs, even the most meticulously planned coming out has, ultimately, materialised into something of a non-event. Although Lauren admits that her relationship with her JTE felt “strained” and “a little bit distant” immediately after leaving her closet behind, she confesses that, “the reaction to it was honestly not nearly as bad as I was dreading. I thought rumours would be flying everywhere and my students would know right away… sure, the men stopped chatting me up at enkais, but it seemed liked nothing really happened.” Josiah’s story is the same: “They didn’t seem that upset or surprised, really, and nobody asked that many questions. It’s pretty much remained the same since”.

Such apparent indifference may be something of a surprise in a nation where it appears homosexuality is otherwise invisible. The absence of any legal sanctions — or protections — is just one facet of this invisibility. Flick through the channels on your Japanese TV, and you’ll see (or rather, won’t see) another: the media in Japan has an astounding lack of established gay role models. When Jarryd eventually did make it out gay clubbing with his JTEs, their reaction spoke for itself: “A lot of them were like, “I didn’t even know this existed!” They just didn’t even know that gay people existed in Japan.” Little surprise then, that when Alex, a bisexual ALT and Stonewall activist, came out, she found that she was “the first person they’d ever met that was queer”. The truth is, as Alex herself puts it: in Japan, it’s seldom that one meets “queer people who want to be vocal”. And when the voice of the Japanese gay community barely rises above a whisper, it’s no surprise that many within Japanese society claim to be unaware of its existence entirely. Even at national “pride” events, such as those hosted in Osaka last October, Alex recalls that many chose to march “covering their faces…or in the ‘no photography’ section”. For an event predicated on the notion of “pride”, such behaviour seems, at best, baffling - and, at worst, undermining of the very purpose for which such events exist in the first place.

For an explanation, one must look to the insurmountable Japanese penchant for privacy. According to Alex, the reason why such outward “pride” is not desired is simply because “most peoplejust [want to] keep their private lives private… One even thought things were better in Japan because there isn't any violence towards homosexual individuals here and no one cares so long as you keep your romantic life private.”  But rather than such behaviour being endemic to Japan’s LBGT community alone, it appears that closetdness is simply the Japanese way, gay or straight. “I taught with a JTE for an entire year before realising he was married and had two teenage kids”, Joe, an ALT in the Kyushuu inaka, says; “…of all the teachers I’ve ever worked with, their personal life is rarely, if ever, talked about.” And it’s not just in relation to personal matters that such humbleness will arise – compliment any Japanese person on their English, for example, and you’ll be knocked back with a wave of the hands and an embarrassed rebuttal. In the context of LBGT rights, then, such a desire for privacy should not be conflated with a desire against political action in itself. The fact that Japanese people are attending pride events in Tokyo and Osaka shows a real grassroots desire for change. That they are doing so in ways inconspicuous does not detract from that desire, but is merely a manifestation of the unique Japanese character.

That said, there’s no denying that such an absence of outward pride is stifling the gay rights movement in Japan, both internally and externally. On the individual level, Alex recalls meeting “a lesbian couple that had no idea there were lesbian events in Hiroshima”. If the very people who would be a part of Japan’s LBGT community aren’t even aware of its existence, one may question how a real group identity can ever be expected to form: this is the internal problem. The external problem, then, is a consequence of this: if there’s no group identity, there’s no mobility, and if a group can’t be mobilised, change will never ripple throughout the wider echelons of society. It’s here that JETs are ideally placed to help sow the seeds for real grassroots development. Occupying a position outside of the Japanese group-based culture may, for once, be an advantage. After all, it is those within the group who have the most to lose by coming out. To come out as gay is to be different, and to be different is to risk exclusion from the group. But for foreigners, as Joe puts it, “They don’t expect us to follow their cultural norms and they kind of expect us to be different anyway because we’re foreign… so I think that being foreign and gay goes down a little bit easier than being Japanese and gay.”

This being  so, it may just be that it is Japan’s foreign community who are capable of providing the kind of gay role models which the Japanese media is currently lacking. (This may be taken as something of an irony, considering that, historically, the foreign community played a not-insignificant role in helping cultivate homophobia in Japan during the Meiji Restoration*). When Joe tried to look for an inspirational gay figure on TV, he found nothing but “silly clown-like folks”.  Sean, too, recalls that, “the only [gay media personality] I’ve ever seen… is this one guy who was incredibly effeminate and only used feminine forms in Japanese. So if you were a gay Japanese person trying to deal with coming out and you saw all these images on TV, you might think, ‘If  I come out, are people going to expect me to speak like that, and put on a wig and wear lipstick?’” Although such shallow, one-dimension portrayals of gay people may be taken as evidence of latent homophobia, they may equally represent a nation whose views on homosexuality are still in something of a formative stage. Josiah believes that “Japanese people might be “homophobic” because they think it’s the status quo and it’s cool to be homophobic, but once they’re confronted on it they don’t hold those values very deeply; they’re just surprised, and very curious.” It’s something which Alex found when she came out to her co-workers. Taking issue with one co-worker's characterisation of her bisexuality, Alex found that he had nothing further to say: “he just looked away… he didn’t want to talk about it anymore". The prejudice is there, certainly, but the manner in which it is held is less imposing and more kneejerk than the way many anti-gay rights vocalists in the West operate. It may be that this is explicable purely by the fact that the Japanese are an inherently more passive nation; but, if Josiah is correct, then just maybe the prejudice faced is more malleable than first anticipated.

Whether to tackle such prejudice head on is a decision only the individual can make; but coming out is not the only means by which to express oneself. Another may, for we teachers, be almost too obvious: classroom education. Sharon, a second year ALT, isn’t out at work, but still manages to “throw cultural insights into classes: ‘…you know gay people can get married in these countries’”; with it, she hopes to “show [her] students that [she’s] comfortable with that”. Lauren, too, believes it’s possible to “stand for gay rights… [without her] students necessarily knowing that” she’s gay: “if they talk about marriage I can always say 'partner' instead of 'husband' or 'wife'… and I try to ask them what they feel about gay people in general and do my best to make them question their beliefs.”

The options at a JET’s disposal are, then, as varied as the Golden Cornerstone of the JET Programme would have you believe. Out or in, the scope for change remains. And, for all the unpredictability which this cornerstone instils, one truism still triumphs: yes, the JET contract is finite, but the virtue of courage is enduring... and, when one dares to exercise it, has the power to inspire a change for future generations and beyond.

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