Gay politics in Taiwan vs. Japan

I had been vaguely aware that gays are more open in Taiwan than in Japan (more active gay pride festival, spotting a very cleary labeled gay bookstore near Taiwan University), but hadn’t consciously realized quite how different things are before reading this article from yesterday’s Taipei Times.

Gay rights activists yesterday announced that they would form a voting bloc to support gay-friendly candidates in the upcoming legislative by-election in Taipei City’s Da-an District (大安).

“We’ve had six gay pride parades in Taipei in the past six years and more than 18,000 people took part in last year’s event — that’s where the voters are,” chief coordinator of last year’s gay pride parade, Lee Ming-chao (李明照), told a news conference.

“In the process of mobilizing the gay and lesbian community in Taipei, we estimated that around 10 percent of voters in Da-an District are gay — including myself. We can surely become a deciding minority if we stand together.”

He predicted that the turnout for the by-election would be lower than the 60.47 percent for last year’s legislative election.

This whole concept seems to me utterly inconceivable in Japan. While there is not much in the way of active discrimination against gays in Japan (like there is in most Muslim countries and some Christian ones, even including much of the US until recently) I get the impression that homosexuality and related issues are still generally more taboo here than anywhere else in all of East and Southeast Asia. Yes, there is a transgender politician in Tokyo, but Kamikawa Aya is said to be the only openly LGBT politician in the entire country of over 120 million people. Compared with Taipei’s apparently increasingly popular gay pride parade, Tokyo’s has been cancelled for this year due to lack of interest/resources.

20 thoughts on “Gay politics in Taiwan vs. Japan”

  1. But homosexuality also seems less controversial in Japan than in the west, no? In all the western languages I’m familiar with (English, German, French, Swedish) there is a word corresponding to “fag” which is used as a general swearword or insult. Can’t think of a similar word in Japanese.

  2. Without arguing over the degree of the insult, I would say that in most contexts ホモ (homo) and オカマ (o-kama) are terms of insult in Japanese.  Stick ‘yarou’ on as a suffix and the word becomes more emotionally charged.

    I haven’t found this on any list of “forbidden words”, although words like 芸人 and ハーフ do appear on those lists…

  3. オカマ, I think, is more like “queer” in that it has been taken over by Japanese gays as a term of self-identification. Although, having read a lot of manga, there certainly are bad things on the level of f@g that I don’t want to repeat here.

    One thing that I find interesting about the position of homosexuals in Japan is that there are actually TV programs where gays give life advice (you will be a happier person if….) – this is a bit different than “Queer Eye” as they are being put into a position of moral superiority / fulfilling relationship wisdom.

    In addition, every last Japanese that I have talked to about the subject supports gay marriage. I know that this is only anecdotal, but I have seldom seen such unity on an issue.

    I have a feeling that the culture will be receptive to political mobilization on gay causes – the most vital, I think, being hospital visitation.

  4. Interesting comment about the TV programs.

    There was an article in the Asahi Shimbun recently about a Prostestant pastor in Japan who after a couple failed relationships with men, at least one of them married, finally had a sex change operation and got herself legally changed from man to a woman, something that prior to 5 years ago wasn’t possible in Japan. Now she preaches to people, and has a following of people who look up to her for guidance in life.

    Setouchi Jakucho, a Buddhist nun, has her own tumultuous past to reflect upon whenever she doles out advice (often on TV).

  5. There has also been no end of “new half” features on TV. From one POV, they are exploitation, but in the focus on glamor and life stories that go from pain + confusion to operation to personal fulfilment, there is also a degree of sympathy and normalization that is nice to see.

    In any case, if anyone wants to translate this into political action, the time could be ripe – change is in the wind and previously (pretty much) voiceless groups should be ready to cash in.

  6. Couldn’t it well be that there are (almost) no openly gay elected officials, no “gay pride” marches, etc. because, well, no-one really cares what people do in their own bedroom? I suppose folks in Japan could run around screaming “I’m gay and I’m proud!”, but most folks would just look at them like “Yeah… and? I’m straight and I’m proud. So?”

    Personally I like the Japanese way of looking at the issue. Acceptance of gays should mean what it does in Japan (no one gives a crap), and not what some in the States or Europe seem to think it means – running up and hugging people while saying “God bless you for being gay!”

    And homosexuality taboo in Japan? Hardly. It is right out in the open if you know where to look (and even if you don’t – Piko/Osugi/Haruna Ai/Carousel Maki/etc. etc. etc.) What it is not is “in your face” like overseas, but it is very much there and accepted.

  7. While what the poster says is mostly true it misses a good deal of subtleties in Japan
    and Taiwan. Also, if you think that Japan is closeted, try Korea.

    The Japanese are very into compartmentalization. It is quite common for people to never
    discuss their private lives with coworkers, and the concepts of in and out group are only
    the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how the Japanese group their friends,
    family, neighbors, coworkers etc. etc.

    The gay scene in Japan is mostly split along age lines, in terms of how out people are.
    Men in their 40s and older are still often closeted, including being married and having children, while also fooling around on the side. Given the primacy of men in Japanese
    culture, i.e. they can get away with a lot, it’s relatively easy for these men to lead double
    lives and for no one to work it out. Also Japan runs on denial so while a non-Japanese
    would immediately be able to work out where “Tanaka-san” is on a Friday night the
    guy’s wife never would consider it.

    Men who are in their 30s are currently an in-between generation, more akin to
    gay men in the US in the early 1970s. Many are out to friends, but not to their
    families. They usually do not marry but remain “bachelors” to their families for
    many years. Eventually their parents will die and they can then lead somewhat
    more open lives.

    The youngest group of men currently are the most out. There are many who live with
    their boyfriends, though this is complicated by the fact that housing discriminination
    is both widespread and accepted. Landlords will simply not rent to two men.
    Many gay men in their 20s are out not only to friends but to their families as well.

    All of the above statements are generalizations and need to be modified based on
    class and, most often, work environment. It’s far easier to be a gay person in
    the traditionally gay industries, fashion, hair dressing and the like than to be
    openly gay as a high powered executive or as a construction worker.

    It is the compartmentalization of Japanese culture that helps to keep a gay political
    culture from developing. It will likely be another decade until such a thing happens
    and many gay Japanese simply do not think in these terms at the moment.

  8. Why exactly does Japan need a “gay political culture” or an “openly gay politician”? What purpose does it serve? A politician exists to serve the needs of his/her electorate. All of it. If someone is running on a platform of “I will serve the gay community” that’s nice and all, but what about the rest of the voters? Do gays have some special political needs that are so different from the needs of their straight neighbors that only a gay elected representative can understand them? Hardly.

  9. There have been some moves on the political scene of late. Kanako Otsuji was a publicly gay candidate for the DPJ in the last upper house election. She lost but drew a lot of publicity, both positive and negative, not least because she held a partnership ceremony a month before with the support of the party leadership. Aya Kamikawa became the first transsexual to run for office when she entered a local election for a seat in Setagaya ward in 2003. She won and was subsequently re-elected in 2007.

    ExKuma’s makes some very good points, especially about the generational differences. An older gay man who runs a bar in Kabukicho touched on this when he talked about how Shinjuku ni-chome had changed over the years. He had very mixed feelings about it. He recalled the fifties and sixties, when no-one working for corporate Japan could consider coming out to his colleagues as gay. Nevertheless, a lot of straight Japanese would patronize the bars of ni-chome, including leading politicians, businessmen, sportsmen, celebrities etc, and this made the area a cultural hotspot on a par with Ginza. Now, however, he felt that as it had become easier to be openly gay, ni-chome had become less integrated with mainstream society and more of a gay ghetto. Celebrities still stop by but you won’t see political leaders any more. The bar owner quite clearly missed that old mix while also appreciating that life offered more diverse opportunities for young gay men today.

    M-Bone mentions the role of nyu hafu on television and it is interesting to see that NHK’s education channel has just announced a plan to use Ayana Tsubaki as a counsellor on one of their Saturday night programmes looking at problems in society. She is breaking new ground for transgender individuals. While someone like Ai Haruna will still be called a nyu hafu, you don’t see that term used about Tsubaki. Here’s how the Mainichi introduced her in a recent piece: “性同一性障害を公表している女子大生モデルの椿姫彩菜”.

  10. So Joe, how many gay, lesbian or transsexual legislators sponsored or voted for that legislation? Now, how many straight, non-transsexual ones did? Now, why is it again that you have to have gay, lesbian or transsexual legislators to ensure that such legislation gets through?

    You don’t. Anymore than America needed a black President to integrate the military in the 1950s, or get the civil rights laws through in the 1960s, or an all-female Supreme Court to declare abortion legal.

    As I said, a good politician (OK, oxymoron, but work with me here…) will look out for the needs of ALL their constituents. I could care less if my local representative is gay, used to be a guy, is black or what have you. I start caring when that person stands up and says “I belong to group xxx and if elected I will look out for all the members of my group!” Wrong answer. Correct answer: “I am running in Tokyo District 13, and if elected I will look out for all the people of District 13!”

  11. I don’t think any gay or transgender candidates run on the ticket that they intend to ignore their straight constituents. They may well run on a platform to raise issues which concern the LGBT community but that’s no different to every other politician who runs on a particular platform.

  12. I don’t see running on a LGB platform in priniciple any different then running on a number of issues such as being a green or a small businessman. The idea is that someone from a particular group will be more atuned to the needs of that group and be able to argue convincingly around legislation that touches that area. We all have our blind spots.

    An openly out political leader does change people’s perceptions of gays. It gives visibility to someone doing a responsible job. That a gay person is not restricted to entertainment and fashion.

    Visibility is important. For example Obama, regardless of whether he turns out to be a good or bad president, has changed people’s perceptions of the US. The general shorthand for American – is usually something along the lines of a fat George W Bush clone and the idea that a society often castigated as being racist has elected a black president has thrown many for a loop. Also that black people have other roles in US society besides sports and entertainment (Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell being two notable exceptions)

    An openly out official doing a good job would also do the same. However I must agree with LB’s point that to elect someone simply because they fall within our special interest group is short sighted. What’s needed is someone who can do the job AND look at the special areas of concern.

  13. Some very good responses. I was on a trip to Nagoya for the past two days so I was more or less disconnected, but Exkuma in particular elaborated on what I was thinking when I wrote the post but didn’t really explain. Such is the downside of wanting to quickly hit the “publish” button with only 5 minutes left before running out the door.

    Japan is kind of an odd case in terms of LGBT attitudes in that both historically and today the taboo against homosexual SEX seems to be on the weak side, but the space for gay/lesbian identity/culture is still very, very small.

    I personally have had basically no experiences speaking with openly gay Japanese men in Japan although there have definitely been a couple of likely suspects, although I do know some young women who are openly lesbian. When I was studying in Kyoto a few years ago I was friends with a couple of gay Filipino guys who were also studying in the area who didn’t seem to have any trouble meeting Japanese guys who were gay in private, but didn’t seem to have any luck meeting guys who would date openly.

    On a related note, interesting article here on recent events in China:
    When I was in Xian in 2003, I was rather shocked to find an extremely flagrant gay dance club directly next door to the youth hostel where I was staying (the disco beats were kind of irritating at night), since I had thought it was still banned in China. I was told by the hostel staaff that the police would go and raid it every once in a while, but were probably really just looking for bribes, and the club had made a habit of hiring women to hang out and drink so if authorities came they could make a reasonable case that it wasn’t REALLY a gay club. I’m curious to know if things have continued to become easier for them.

  14. LB’s view of the world is part of the reason why Japan is full of paved rivers and bridges to nowhere. Sure, politicians have to be accountable to their constituents–otherwise they won’t stay in office for long–but politicians have a broader accountability to the people of the state, including the minority. The district is important, but if it’s all about the district, the state ends up being a giant tragedy of the commons.

    Besides that, as a couple of commenters have noted above, most minority politicians are not explicitly running to serve their minority, except for a few whose minority happens to also be their home constituency (the Cuban-Americans in Miami come to mind).

    I think the key benefit of having minorities in politics is that they bring some of the minority’s voice directly to the policy-making table. All these laws go through committee, and the committees are generally less about constituencies than they are about focused legislative expertise.

  15. “I get the impression that homosexuality and related issues are still generally more taboo here than anywhere else in all of East and Southeast Asia”

    The only country I have been to in (North-) East Asia is Japan, so I don’t know what the situation is like in China, Taiwan, South Korea, etc. I have been all over Southeast Asia though, and I can’t agree with such a broad statement. If you compare Japan to Theravada Buddhist countries like Thailand or Cambodia, sure. homosexuality is accepted pretty openly – although many people will say that it’s wrong, they tolerate it. But compared to the predominantly Muslim countries of Malaysia and Indonesia (and also to the less-Muslim-but-anal-retentive Singapore), I would say Japan is much more accepting of homosexuality. I don’t know about the Philippines as I haven’t been there.

  16. I haven’t actually been to any SE Asian country aside from the Philippines and Thailand so some of this is hearsay, but I have heard and read that cross-dressing, transexuality, etc. are more tolerated in Malaysia than generally believed, although “sodomy” is illegal under Muslim law there. Indonesia is also predominantly Muslim, but has a significant Hindu population, and the Islam practiced by Javans, the largest ethnic group, retains a number of beliefs and customs left over from their older animist and Hindu traditions and is said to have much of the tolerance of reincarnation-believing Hinduism and Buddhism for LGBT persons. Buddhist countries such as Thailand (the only one of SE Asia I’ve been to) are definitely pretty liberal in this regard, although Adam would know much more about it, as he lived there for about a year. The Philippines is also an interesting case. Although they are as overwhelmingly Catholic as Malaysia is Muslim, tolerance for homosexuality is one (presumably ancient) custom that the Church never had any significant impact on. While I do not believe the law provides for any same-sex relationship rights, cross-dressing and homosexuality seem to be completely tolerated on all levels of society in most of the country. A surprisingly large proportion of my Filipino friends and acquaintances have been gay or lesbian, and they all say there is basically no problem. Fun fact-the first gay marriage ceremony was performed in 2005 by Communist Guerrillas. Needless to say it was not recognized by the state.

    However, while I do believe that Japan is less liberal about LGBT rights/issues than any SE Asian country (with the very possible exception of Malaysia, and perhaps Singapore) I may very well have exaggerated in the comparison with Korea and China. Oh, and let’s not forget North Korea. I can’t imagine the DPRK takes very kindly to it.

  17. With words and phrases like Gender Identity Disorder and transsexual appearing more often in the press in Japan, its interesting to wonder how someone like “Peter”/Shinnosuke Ikehata would seem today. For all intents and purposes, Peter lives as a woman, appears on television, including NHK, features in commercials and is a well-established figure in the entertainment world. However, he still maintains a male identity when he uses the name Shinnosuke Ikehata. Most famously, he played the Fool in “Ran”, Kurosawa’s version of Lear, but according to his Wiki entry, he also used both names when he voiced two separate characters, a male lead and a female dragon, in the Playstation game Drakengard. In a different way, I suppose Ikko has a similar dual-identity but, offhand, I can’t think of comparable individuals in the west. The Japanese language probably helps because you could easily speak or write about both Ikko and Peter without ever needing to use a male or female pronoun whereas it would be hard to avoid making the choice in English.

  18. “Japan is kind of an odd case in terms of LGBT attitudes in that both historically and today the taboo against homosexual SEX seems to be on the weak side, but the space for gay/lesbian identity/culture is still very, very small.”

    I had shared flat with French gay man in Chiba for about eight months.That doesn’t make me an expert on Japanese gay gulture,but according to what he says,Shinjyuku 2cho-me is the largest gay/lesbian identity/culture district he had ever seen,that including Le Marais in Paris.Also I’ve learned Hibiya park is one big rendez-vous point for gay in Tokyo.

    Part of the reason why LGBT rights in Japan a minor issue is because this has been considered as personal business and not social issues.And npbody was against this because they weren’t oppressed by the power.

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