We first encountered Masaki through his video “5 Things You Didn’t Know About LGBTQs in Japan” in which he debunks popular myths about the real history and experiences of LGBTQ+ people in Japan. We linked to it here on AniFem, then started checking out his other videos and social media.
Learning more about Masaki, it became clear that he could give us insights into the experience of being not just queer, but a queer activist and self-identified feminist in Japan. We knew we had to interview him, and he was kind enough not only to agree but to respond in both English and Japanese so that we could open this discussion to a wider audience. It’s been a goal of AniFem since the start to showcase the voices of people talking about their own communities, and we are thrilled to be able to start here.
Editor’s Note: Masaki makes the point a couple of times, but the LGBTQ+ label covers an enormously diverse group of people. Masaki’s opinions are his own and he speaks for himself, not for some imaginary Japanese LGBTQ+ monolith. We hope to interview many more Japanese activists and feminists who will give their own views and add nuance to this conversation. Our concern is and will always be to simply present the opinions of marginalized people in their own words.
AF: What inspired you to make your video “5 Things You Didn’t Know About LGBTQs in Japan”, and how has response to it been?
MM: To be quite honest with you, I think most of the Western LGBT media fail to understand, or even respect, their fellow queer folks in other cultures. Many of their articles about Japan are misinformed and biased due to the lack of research. In 2013, I wrote a blog post about that because I was very angry. In 2015, I was still angry, and I made a video about it. So basically the latest video of mine, “5 Things…,” is another sequel to that. But this time around, I made it with the conscious intent not to show anger, but instead, to inform.
I’ve gotten very positive feedback on the video, actually. Many people shared it on Twitter and Facebook, the views went up within just a day, and most notably, I got 60+ new subscribers which is a great deal for a small YouTuber like me. The Like/Dislike ratio over total views is probably the best I’ve seen on my videos. I’ve received more responses than ever in the comments, via email, retweets, and DMs. So, although it’s not one of my most popular videos at the moment, now I see that many people are willing to learn about LGBTQs in Japan but it’s just resources are hard to come by in English.
AF: What does your work as a queer and feminist activist involve?
MM: Well, I started blogging about queer and feminist issues at 16. But I’ve been involved in a lot of small projects as well, sometimes as a web admin or translator, and other times more intensively. Starting from the queer student club I launched back in college, I have (co)organized book clubs, music/dance performances, lectures, protests, etc. both inside and outside the academe.
I launched a project on queer poverty a couple years ago, to address issues that surround queer folks living in/near poverty which almost never get talked about in the media or by popular activists. Queer poverty is the topic that I’m very passionate about due to my own experience and family background. The project is in a hiatus right now, but I hope we’ll pick up where we left off at some point in future.
Also, in my daytime job, I am a so-called salaryman but my job includes supporting migrant workers. So I have the privilege to spend most of my time doing that and still getting paid. Other than that, I consider writing and making videos a very important part of my activism.
AF: When and why did you start to identify as a feminist?
MM: I grew up listening to my mother’s critique of sexism like male-dominated workplaces, rape culture, demonization of sex workers, etc. Every time she saw injustice, she would respond and speak up. But it wasn’t until I stumbled upon a feminist book in the bookstore nearby that I found that what my mother had always been saying about men and the society had a name, which is feminism, and that it was something taught and discussed in universities.
To me, that was a great revelation. By that time I knew I was not heterosexual. So, suddenly a road has opened before me, a brand-new way to talk about gender and sexuality that’s completely different from my uncle’s dirty jokes or my classmates’ uncalled-for reviews of heterosexual pornography.
AF: How do you manage to meet other LGBTQ+ and feminist people in Japan?
MM: I’ve made friends over the internet, in student clubs, and political and festive events. Currently though, I’m actually not actively seeking friends solely based on their gender or sexual identities or political views. It’s always nice to know that you’re not alone, and I try to be as visible as possible as a queer feminist so that younger generations, and even older ones who never had the same kind of access to the information available today, can maybe find me and relate to me. But one of the things I’ve learned over the years was that you have so much in common with your cisgender, heterosexual friends. And you’re much more different from other LGBTQ+ people than you may think.
This way of thinking has its roots in feminism, where the word “women” has been contested and constantly challenged by women of color, queer women, working-class women, migrant women, native women, and women with disabilities. We do not have a shared experience or history, but we still work together——that’s the spirit of feminism. I think the queer community has so much to learn from feminism.
AF: What kinds of different LGBTQ+ communities and intersections exist in Japan?
MM: As far as I know, every single social movement has two sides: a politics of respectability and a politics of difference. The former claims that minority populations are respectable human beings who should not be discriminated against. The latter makes a case that our society rewards a certain type of being and punishes others, like “normal” versus “different,” and that people who are “different” should not be forced or encouraged to be more “normal” to avoid the punishments. And to really make changes in the society, we need both of them. Checks and balances, if I may.
And as for LGBTQ+ communities in Japan, we are seeing a very rapid rise of respectability politics these past 3 years that consists of gay elitism, trans exclusion, ally-targeted industries, conservatism, couple-ism, even sexism, etc. It’s dangerously one-sided, what we see happening around us and in the media, and, I’d say, accurately reflects the entire nation’s ultraconservative, neoliberal leanings both in the political and cultural spheres.
AF: How do you feel everyday life is different for LGBTQ+ people in Japan compared to the US or New Zealand?
MM: I only lived in New Zealand for one year, so I can only try to make a comparison between Japan and the U.S. but I’d say there are regional differences within each country as well. It was nice in California and Chicago, where I lived and happened to be surrounded by LGBT-friendly friends and neighbors, but I’m sure those are exceptions. Some places are statistically more homophobic and transphobic than others.
You know, to some degree, you’re as LGBT-friendly as you want to be, and as homophobic and transphobic as you want to be. Maybe it’s cool to be accepting of queerness in your state. Or you may live in an area where it’s cool to call someone “faggot.” In that sense, it’s more about their identities than our queer identities, like, do you identify as a “cool” ally or a “cool” bigot?
But anyway, overall, at least in most blue states, more people in the U.S. than not think it’s cool to respect LGBTQ+ identities and lifestyles, and I think that’s a huge difference between Japan and the U.S. In Japan, LGBTQ+ people are a joke. It’s “fun” to act like a bigot. It’s “boring” to be accepting. It doesn’t matter how much of a bigot or an ally you may be underneath. Just act like a bigot, say “fags are kimoi,” have a man kiss another man for a batsu game, whatever. It’s “funny” and no one complains, because if you complain, you’re “boring.” Even no media company takes it seriously when they receive complaints about their homophobic and/or transphobic programs.
So, in my experience and observation, when you’re queer in Japan and want to be open about it, you’re gonna have to not just talk about it but laugh about it as well. As long as your sexuality or gender identity is a laughing matter, people will at least give you positive vibes. But as soon as you start talking about it in a more serious tone, you have to be really creative and find ways not to be mendokusai [a killjoy]. Things are changing now, though, and I see more and more LGBTQ+ people, especially young ones, completely open about their identities and their friends accept them the way they are.
AF: How well do you feel LGBTQ+ people are represented in Japanese pop culture in general?
MM: Not very well. I mean, Captain Jack Harkness is depicted as a hypersexual, flirty bi man, so I wouldn’t say things have vastly improved in the U.K. or U.S., either. But no, queer representation in Japanese pop culture is, for the lack of a better word, crap. Sometimes I stumble upon a J-drama that has an awesome queer character (e.g. Haiji from Mondai no Aru Restaurant and Kazuki from Gakko ja Oshierarenai!), and there are numerous BL comic books that depict homosexuality with respect and dignity. But overall, we still have a long way to go.
On a side note, I do not believe in accurate representation. We’re so diverse that it’s impossible to depict any of the subgroups of LGBTQ+ and be accurate. But, that doesn’t mean you can depict us based on the stereotypes. That’s annoying, and not very creative anyway.
AF: How do you feel about yaoi/BL anime and manga, which presents queer male relationships for a target audience of heterosexual women?
MM: I must admit I love them. I know many gay men and straight men loathe yaoi/BL, but I have to say, they’re awesome. By the time I reached puberty, yaoi/BL comic books had become one of the genres that had a dedicated aisle in bookstores. As a kid who was just starting to discover his bisexuality, I turned to yaoi/BL immediately as I had easy access (the store in my neighborhood had a BL aisle, which expanded each year!). The romances and sexual activities depicted in yaoi/BL was the only resource I had to learn about homosexuality, and I spent the next 3 years dreaming of my future romances just as beautiful as what was drawn in BL.
That dream was crushed at the age of 16 when I found a gay porn magazine in a different bookstore with lots of photos of chubby, hairy men with beard and nothing else on. Suddenly, I was hit by my own homophobia. I hated what I was looking at. I was like, “no, I’m not like that! I’m more like that head of the student council with glasses who gets seduced by a blond playboy classmate who wants to have sex with all the girls in school and still falls in love with him! Aghhh!” ……
Well, I’ve since learned to see such rather graphic gay porn as part of the vast array of natural human sexuality, yet yaoi/BL still is the basis of my identity, which helped me accept my bisexuality greatly. I am grateful to all yaoi/BL creators for that. And I feel aggravated by the straight men who don’t give a shit about LGBTQ+ rights and dignity and yet accuse female yaoi/BL creators of misrepresenting gay men. I think there’s misogyny behind that, i.e. they can’t stand it when a woman depicts a man as she wishes.
AF: What social and political changes do you think Japan should make first to become an easier place for LGBTQ+ people to live in?
MM: We’ve seen some policy changes across the country for the past few years. There are now more than a few local governments who give recognition to same-sex couples. Nationwide policies about gender reassignment are in place. More and more politicians openly support LGBT people. But as I said earlier, we are in a time period where respectability politics is outrivalling the politics of difference.
When a politician, a successful businessperson, or a non-profit chairperson says or does something for LGBT populations, they’re only looking at a small portion of us: affluent lesbian and gay elites, gender-conforming transsexual men and women, poor, innocent queer school kids, LGBT ultra-nationalists, etc. But LGBTQ+ people are diverse and include people on welfare, sex workers, genderqueer folks, ethnic minorities, homeless people, etc. i.e. everything that the Liberal Democratic Abe administration hates.
In Japan, we have a more pressing issue than local recognition to same-sex partnerships, which affects all people including LGBTQ+, and that is, uncontrollable neoliberalism both in the political and cultural. We currently live in a society where not only the majority of the Parliament members but also most of your neighbors think that social welfare is a waste of money and that family members should provide for each other and not rely on the government. We must change that, first and foremost.
Of course, there are little things that need to be fixed, like gender reassignment surgeries not being covered by national healthcare, because they are not “little” things to some trans folks. We need those changes to happen, but we must not forget the bigger picture here. The jikosekinin society that Japan now is, reminds me of the Reagan administration that long ignored the AIDS epidemic because, to them, it was “gay cancer” that could have been avoided if gay men had obeyed the societal imperatives not to engage in anal sex.
AF: Which Japanese LGBTQ+ people do you think more westerners should be aware of and why?
MM: Thank you for asking me that! The first one to come to my mind is journalist Maki Tahara (田原 牧). Her very acute analysis of the history of the LGBT movement in Japan is exceptional. If you read Japanese, I’d totally recommend reading her recent column in Shueisha Shinsho.
Prof. Kaoru Aoyama (青山 薫) from Kobe University is a sociologist of gender, sexuality, migration and sex work as well as a sex worker’s rights activist. Her work always deals with intersectionality with great care, which, coupled with her activist/researcher hybridity, shows you just how complicated LGBTQ+ and other politics are over here.
Another great LGBTQ+ person I’d recommend you check out, is Ms. Junko Mitsuhashi (三橋 純子). She is a transgender activist and expert on the history of Japanese sexual cultures. Her scope of research extends as far back as antiquity, but her essays on Showa sexual cultures are just amazing. Lots of details. You can clearly see her passion for history.
Now last but not least, you should definitely check out openly lesbian manga-author Chin Nakamura (中村 珍) just because of her being what she is.
Masaki is a freelance writer and bar owner in Japan with a background in Queer Studies, queer activism, and feminism. You can find more of Masaki’s writing on his site Gimme A Queer Eye, watch his videos on queer activism and English language learning on his YouTube channel, and follow him on Twitter @QueerESL and @GimmeAQueerEye.