Male homosexuality and popular culture in modern Japan

McLelland, Mark J. (2000) Male homosexuality and popular culture in modern Japan. Intersections, 1 3: .

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Author McLelland, Mark J.
Title Male homosexuality and popular culture in modern Japan
Journal name Intersections
ISSN 1440-9151
Publication date 2000-01
Sub-type Article (original research)
Open Access Status File (Publisher version)
Volume 1
Issue 3
Total pages 1 article
Editor Anne-Marie Medcalf
Carolyn Brewer
Place of publication Perth, WA, Australia
Publisher Murdoch University, School of Asian Studies
Collection year 2000
Language eng
Subject C1
420303 Culture, Gender, Sexuality
750303 Gender
750308 National identity
Formatted abstract
There has recently been much discussion in the field of lesbian and gay studies about Dennis Altman's theory of 'global queering' which outlines the influence of the Civil Rights' Movement in the US and Europe on the development of lesbian and gay 'identities' which then, through the 'globalising' influence of post-industrial wage-based economies, consumerism, the mass media and tourism, in turn begin to affect indigenous understandings of homosexuality in societies where traditionally there has been no notion of a personal identity founded on the gender of sexual object choice. In this theory, the US is often assumed to be somehow in advance of the rest of the world and the models pioneered in that country for increasing the social space accorded to lesbian and gay lives are generalised as suitable models for lesbians and gay men in other countries to adopt.

Japan, as the world's only fully 'modernised' non-western culture, is an important testing ground for Altman's theory. To what extent have indigenous Japanese understandings of same-sex desire, fashioned in a religious and political climate quite different from that in western countries, been influenced by western models of lesbian and gay identity? Until recently, it was impossible to answer this question for, even five years ago, there was practically no information available in English about homosexuality in modern Japan and there was only one book and a handful of academic papers concerning Japan's well-attested historical tradition of male homosexuality. Today, there are a number of books which deal with the historical background of male homosexuality in Japan in considerable detail and others which look at homosexuality in modern Japan from biographical, cultural, literary or anthropological perspectives. There is now sufficient information available about male homosexuality in contemporary Japan to begin to make interesting contrasts with understandings of homosexuality in western societies.

Unfortunately, despite the new information that has recently been made available, some researchers still insist on viewing 'homosexuality' in Japanese society through western eyes and evaluating the situation facing lesbians and gay men in accordance with western models of what it means to be 'a lesbian' or 'a gay.' An obvious example of this approach is the collection of interviews with Japanese lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual individuals collected by Barbara Summerhawk et al. and published in 1998 as Queer Japan. Summerhawk complains of the 'difficulties' Japanese gay men have in 'the identity-development process' (emphasis mine) as if there ever could be a singular, universal 'gay identity' and suggests that Japanese gay men who do not wish to express themselves in terms of this imported terminology are in 'denial of their own oppression.' I have taken issue elsewhere with the extremely bleak impression that Barbara Summerhawk gives of lesbian and gay life in Japan in the introduction to her volume. What I wish to do in the present paper is stress how representations of (primarily male) homosexual love and even sex permeate Japanese popular culture to an extent that would be unimaginable in the US or Europe and that 'homosexuality' in Japan is therefore very differently conceptualised.

However, I must point out that the visibility of 'homosexuality' in Japanese media such as comic books, women's magazines, TV dramas and talk-shows, movies and popular fiction has not created the space for individuals expressing lesbian or gay 'identities' to come out in actual life. Yet, as recent research has shown, the notion of 'coming out' is seen as undesirable by many Japanese gay men and lesbians as it necessarily involves adopting a confrontational stance against mainstream lifestyles and values, which many still wish to endorse.

Just as the starting point for discussion of what 'homosexuality is' in the Japanese context will be different from that in America or Europe, the end point can also be expected to differ. Altman anticipates this when he comments that although 'new identities may develop' when non-western societies interact with western cultures, he is quick to point out that 'their development is not predictable through western models.' This paper attempts to outline what 'homosexuality' is made to mean in a variety of Japanese popular media and thereby account for the relative lack of 'identity politics' expressed by gay people in Japan.
Q-Index Code C1
Q-Index Status Provisional Code
Institutional Status UQ
Additional Notes Special Issue: "Cultural Translations, Cultural Appropriations: Spaces, Media and Performance".

Document type: Journal Article
Sub-type: Article (original research)
Collection: Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies Publications
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Created: Tue, 10 Jun 2008, 12:22:05 EST