Sunday, 15 August 2010

This World, This Path


Buoyed by good news this morning from the campaign in Australia for equal rights for same-sex couples, I want to share a detail from a detailed and rewarding book I’ve discovered. Mark McLelland’s Queer Japan from the Pacific War to the Internet Age is a rich layer-cake of analysis, history and examples from “this world” (この世界), the diverse communities of queer Japan.

McLelland’s two main scholarly-political points have relevance beyond Japanese studies. Sexuality doesn’t work to a timetable, whereby countries like Japan can be chided for being niggardly in ‘catching up’ with the West and its putative Enlightenment (something of this is used, with greater or lesser degrees of shame-facedness, in the liberal defense of murder justifying the war on terror). Instead,

Japan was never a passive recipient of western influence. The Meiji period did not see the sidelining of original or authentic Japanese sexualities by new notions imported wholesale from the west. Rather, sexuality was constituted through a highly complex and contested process in which traditional terminologies were continually being overwritten by new meanings and in which foreign loanwords and ways of knowing were strategically redeployed to serve local uses. (221)

Secondly, the proliferation of discussions about and explorations of sexual minorities, identities and subjectivities in the ‘perverse press’ of the post-war period in many ways anticipates queer theory’s emphasis on social construction, fluidity, and sexual stories over fixed identities.


Walking ‘this path’ (この道), then, is not so much about catching up with a solid Western identity as it is about negotiating – and struggling over – how sexualities are forged within a given social formation. “Globalization,” McLelland argues, “results in creative indigenization and cultural admixture much more than it does in any unilateral imposition of western sexual identities.” (221)

Intriguing here are the relations between the fixing of names – a vexed enough process anywhere – and the act of translation. McLelland maps out the genealogies and differences between homo, homosekushuaru, gei, okama, bian, rezubian and rezu, each identity position shaped by and shaping a particular historical and social moment.

The history of “gay” as a term in Japan is particularly interesting. Now used much in the same way as it is in English-speaking countries, gay as a loan word fed into older Japanese discourses of sexuality. The katakana loanword ゲイ is a homophone of the kanji 芸 – arts or artistic accomplishment, used as in geisha – and so the term gei boi from the post-war period had connotations of both the “gay boy” and Tokugawa-era sexualities and patterns of same-sex desire. “Gei boi (homosexual)”, McLelland points out, “elides into geisha boi (entertainer), such that the stress is not on sexual orientation so much as artistic performance.” (110).

[But don't you know that we've changed so much since then / Oh yeah / We've grown]

Impatience with these definitional complications can have damaging effects on people’s lives, as McLelland’s chapter on transgender identities makes clear: to see oneself as a nyuuhaafu or transgendered is quite a different matter from accepting a diagnosis of “gender identity disorder” (sei douitsusei shougai) and the rigid definitions and stigmatisation that label brings. The limits to our ability to self-create and self-define and negotiate our sexual identities are the limits of our homophobic and heteronormative social formations: whatever the inability of the terms ‘man’ and ‘woman’ or 男 and 女 to encompass the range of human gender identities and bodies, the patriarchal power of the family register and the law’s definitions shape us in ways we’re unable to fully resist or avoid.

So, as always, there’s work still to be done. Walking this path is about discovery, and it’s also about struggle.

Further Reading

McLelland edited a special issue of Intersections on Queer Japan in 2006 which is full of fascinating articles. An earlier article of his on Orientalism and coming out narratives is also well worth your time. You can order a copy of Queer Japan here.

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