by Mari Aida
On January 25th, poet Shuntaro Tanikawa dedicated a poem for the 140th anniversary of the Asahi Shimbun, one of the most eminent national newspapers in Japan. The piece, dubbed “Shimbun ha Kotoba da”, contemplates the fluid, ambiguous nature of words, a feature that allows it to be used both positively and negatively. In a follow-up interview in relation to this release, the poet demonstrated how our perception of the world is governed by words, discussing the introduction of the term LGBT into Japanese media as a positive example (the media popularized this version of the term, not LGBTQ). “With the advent of the word LGBT, we’re able to talk about a wider variety of love, not just the kind between men and women, but also for man and man or woman and woman,” he commented. “It expanded the definition of love a little.”
Tanikawa’s celebration of the term signifies a clear shift in what has been a mostly heteronormative society. The fact that Tanikawa, who has been a prominent figure in the Japanese literary scene for over seventy years, is showing support towards queer individuals is in itself substantial. But exciting changes can also be seen on larger platforms, such as queer activism. Tokyo Rainbow Pride, the paramount queer celebration hosted in the Shibuya- Harajuku neighborhood, is one such event that emblemizes the increasing enthusiasm surrounding queer issues. The annual parade and the preceding promotion campaigns have become increasingly large and influential through the years, attracting some 150,000 participants in 2018, the most attendants in the parade’s history. I was one of them.
I arrived somewhat late to Yoyogi Park, where the staff were taking receptions for parade participants. While I was on my way I’d come across an online article advising Pride rookies to wear sunglasses, hats, masks, anything that would obscure their face if they were nervous about public exposure. Oh no, I’d thought. I was one of these people, and my face was very much exposed from a recent haircut. As soon as I got off the subway I’d run to an American Eagle, conveniently located just outside the station closest to the park. There I bought a nondescript baseball cap at a discount, and while my new hat did ease my anxieties about showing up at Pride, I was still somewhat worried. What if I ran into people who knew me? What if my parents found out I was there? What if Pride simply wasn’t an event for a closeted teenager like me? Also, what if they’d already left and I have no choice but to go home?
These thoughts dissipated as I approached the queue for the parade. The participants were leaving the park in blocks, leaving me ample time to observe my surroundings as I snuck into a row of five. Many of the attendants looked prepared for the event, brandishing rainbow-colored items and colorful signs. They were varied in age, self-representation, and race. But what surprised me the most was the number of people who’d gathered for the event, and the amount of positive energy that seemed to create. By the definition of the event, every single person waiting in line for the march supported queerness, which was something I’d rarely seen explicitly in others up to that point. I felt elated as the crowd started to move forwardー it was our turn to walk and tell the world we were queer and proud.
Things took a different turn during the parade. I was walking behind a group of university students, and I happened to overhear a part of their conversation. One of them glanced at the participants, the onlookers on the sidewalks, and the uncanny number of tourists who had seemingly gathered just for this occasion. Then he said, with astounding nonchalance, “Well, none of this is really our business.” After a brief moment of shock, I continued eavesdropping in utter disbelief. I couldn’t begin to imagine why this person was in the parade at all if he considered it irrelevant to himself.
To summarize his argument, he said that the notion of LGBTQ itself felt detached from Japan’s sexual minority scene when so much could only be explained in English. Due to the lack of politically acceptable terms in Japanese, we have to borrow even the most basic terms from English in order to talk about queer issues; we regularly make do with transliterated vocabulary such as “gei” or “rezubian.” When the essential foundation for queer activism feels foreign, the very action of fighting for queer rights inevitably becomes foreign as well. “Like, look at all these white dudes in roller skates and shorts,” he said. “This is their parade.”
He had a point. By making these casual remarks, this person seemed to be implicitly criticizing homonormativity, the assumption that certain people within the LGBTQ community are superior to others because they have a set of hegemonic traits or behaviors. While this term originates from an Anglophone social context, it can be interpreted and applied to other societies too. In this case, the person front of me was accusing the Japanese LGBTQ community for internalizing homonormativity, putting its American counterpart in a position of authority as their role model for queer activism.
How fair are these judgements?
What this encounter highlights is an arresting divide between the self-proclaimed members of the LGBTQ community and the individuals who are skeptical of of such communities. Although the Japanese media’s introduction of the term LGBT had many positive outcomes, it wasn’t entirely free of faults. One shortcoming was its failure to articulate the history behind the term. Contrary to popular Japanese belief, the term LGBT became widely recognized only in the mid 2000s; before that activists had pushed for GLBT, and prior to GLBT’s emergence, queer folks apparently made do without an umbrella term or accepted “gay and lesbian” as the phrase to describe all members of the sexual minority. Each change was made in response to changing ideas of queerness and a collective yearning for further inclusivity. And because these evolutions took place in the US, each word was tailored to a specifically American population. While the most active members of the Japanese LGBTQ community are well aware of this linguistic arms race, the information is simply not available to all queer people. Therefore, people like the person walking in front of me shy away from LGBTQ categorization, feeling that it’s not an accurate representation of themselves. They understand the word and anything built off of it as unreasonably Americentric. The foreignness of the term LGBTQ raises another problem: people with normative identities may start labeling people who don’t conform to cisgender, heterosexual norms as members of the LGBTQ community regardless of their political choice (do they endorse the American backdrop to the word LGBTQ or not?), which consequently alienates them as a whole.
Taking these two issues into account, the term LGBTQ seems to be discouraging Japanese sexual minority members from the community rather than functioning as an inclusive umbrella people can use to fight on behalf of each other. And as I understand it, the word was invented so that oppressed communities could work for the collective benefit of one another. As of now, it seems to be doing the exact opposite. That said, it’s unfair to write off LGBTQ as an utterly problematic term. It’s precisely because my rebel forerunners imported this term from its Western origins that they were able to shed light on the often ignored queer population and the members’ respective struggles. After all, people like 88-year-old Tanikawa are acknowledging same-sex relationships for the first time thanks to the introduction of this word. In a kind of society that has neglected sexual minorities for so long, mere visibility is extremely important. What needs to be done for the increased well-being of the Japanese queer population is to find a way to better integrate the word LGBTQ into Japanese society. If we could engineer a new model for queering, one that pays homage to its American roots and provides insights into how we can promote better lives for queer people in Japanー we might be able to bridge gaps within the community, or maybe even outside it.
On my way home after the parade, I learned that Tokyo Rainbow Pride had had a period where they couldn’t host annual events for more than three years at a time. According to their own website, Tokyo Rainbow Pride’s operating team was prone to inner conflicts regarding the execution of the actual event. Their history of hiatuses and reunions were also a continuous struggle for better queer life, one that had perhaps arrived at a large milestone that year. If the parade had become such a success despite the time and effort it took, maybe other daunting projects could be implemented through perseverance. Maybe I could help devise a dialectical version of the word LGBTQ. Who knew?
I took my cap off and put it in my backpack. Next time, I’d be back without it.