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    When I’m back here in the States, people are always asking me this unanswerable question: “So…what’s it like to be gay in Japan?” I never really know what to say. I can describe my gay life there just fine, obviously. But I’m a foreigner, of course, so I don’t have anything like the experience my Japanese friends do. Sometimes, the way people put the question is, “How easy is it to be gay in Japan?” That’s even harder to answer.

    Japan, as you’ve no doubt heard in various contexts, is a shame culture rather than a guilt culture. I love our American forthrightness and sincerity, but (partially on ethical grounds and partially because of plain old temperament) I always feel a sense of release when I’m boarding a plane back to Narita. It comes from the knowledge that I’m returning to a place where every last little turn of phrase or arch of eyebrow isn’t mirthlessly prodded for complex psychological motivations, where you can expect people to be polite and considerate in public, and where no one cares about your private life as long as you don’t force people to reckon with it.

    Of course, not everyone marks private off from public the same way. I would like to be able to establish Atsushi publicly as the person who would speak for my interests if I were incapacitated and with whom I’ve formed a household. I personally have no interest in discussing my sex life with anyone. If people insist on imagining it, anyway, I don’t see how I can stop them; but I also feel no responsibility for preserving their complacencies by pretending not to be gay.

    That sort of balance has not been struck by gay activism in America, but even approaching it would be unthinkable in Japan at this point. Forced arranged marriages are now unconstitutional in Japan, but marriage is still much more a social and economic contract than a meeting of the minds, to an extent that I think would give even the most biological essentialist, far-right American pause. And despite the dramatic rise in the median marriage age for both sexes, you’re a weirdo if you’re not married by your mid-30’s.

    Still and all, there are benefits to Japan’s tradition-mindedness that I think a lot of gays in America have been too willing to cast off. The lack of gay ghettos means that it’s pretty much impossible to wall yourself into a queer-positive echo chamber and start seeing rank-and-file straight people as an enemy arrayed against you. It also means that very few people see their homosexuality as their entire identity, with anti-gayness blamed for every disappointment, setback, depressive episode, and failed relationship. You never hear Japanese gays getting into princessy snits about not being approved of or officially sanctioned exactly like straight people in every last finicking little detail. At ordinary gay bars, you meet brittle, desperate guys who are obviously using a constant stream of sex partners to avoid dealing with their issues much, much less frequently than you do here in the States. (Even here, they’re a minority, of course; their attention-whoring just makes them disproportionately noticeable. But the Japanese in general don’t put the burden of self-definition on sex to the point that we do in the US.)

    The bad side, obviously, is that it can be hard for people coming out to find resources, and that people have to keep their most meaningful relationships hidden. It’s not uncommon for employees at the stodgier companies to be informed that they will not be promoted up the usual management-track escalator until they marry and start producing future contributors to the Social Insurance kitty. So many guys use pseudonyms in their gay lives that I only know the real first and last names of, I’d say, my ten or so closest friends. Japan’s shame culture puts pressure on vulnerable gay kids as much as our guilt culture–there’s no finessing that, and it sucks–but most adults who have come out to themselves seem pretty content.

    So if you’re willing to make the available trade-offs, being gay in Japan doesn’t strike me as all that hard. (I guess I should point out that I live in what’s probably the most gay-friendly part of the whole country, the Shibuya-Shinjuku axis of western Tokyo, though I now live a little outside Shibuya, rather than in the shadow of the 109 Building the way I did until March. Anyway, the point is, I’m talking about urban gay life and not about the provinces, but I don’t think Japan is much different from other developed countries in those terms.) And if, like me, you’re a foreigner and not subject to the full litany of rules Japanese people are, it’s even easier. It’s just an additional weird thing that makes you a typical gaijin. But as I say, my Japanese friends themselves are mindful of the social rules, but I don’t get the sense that they live in fear.

    2 December 09:38 EST

    7 Responses to “尋問”

    1. Simon World says:

      Asia by Blog

      Asia by Blog is a twice weekly feature, posted on Monday and Thursday, providing links to Asian blogs and their views on the news in this fascinating region. Previous editions can be found here. This edition contains China’s emerging blogosphere, the A…

    2. Eric Scheie says:

      Damn fine post, Sean. A contribution to human understanding!

    3. John says:

      Everyone in Japan is mindful of the social rules. A bit stifling at times, but we could use a dose of that over here. I find Japanese culture to be strngely compatible with old-school, small town Southern culture.

    4. Sean Kinsell says:

      We aim to please, Eric.
      And John, it will be no surprise that I agree with you about restoring formal behavior to American politeness. What makes Japanese etiquette seem so impenetrable is that there are a greater number of different little rules to cover minute variations on the same type of social exchange. Well, that and that certain values (self-effacement being the obvious one) are emphasized to extreme degrees.
      America needs simpler, more transparent rules because we want people to be able to enter from abroad and be socially mobile once here, but that doesn’t make it a good idea to burn the rule book and assume we can all get by on ad-libbed goodwill. That’s a much bigger subject than gay life, though.

    5. Eric Scheie says:

      Read Andrew Sullivan’s post, Gays in the South in which he compares attitudes towards blacks in the Jim Crow South to the attitude of the “Republican right” towards gays.
      (Nice, um, meme, Sean!)

    6. Sean Kinsell says:

      My rule nowadays is, the moment someone invokes “civil rights” as an underpinning for a pro-gay marriage argument, I smile and nod along while inwardly diverting my attention to my favorite Sean Connery fantasy (the one in which I whisk him off that cruise ship in Marnie, barechested and [temporarily] in his pajama trousers, and introduce him to the island ways of love. Yeah, it means Tippi drowns–which is unfortunate, because we just adore Tippi–but it’s not like she wasn’t trying to off herself anyway), snapping back to attention when the subject gets down to brass tacks like the estate tax or hospital visitation. I just can’t see the “civil rights” line of argument as anything but a desire to coerce people into postures of approval, and the comments Sullivan has appended to that e-mail do nothing to change my mind. Did you find him persuasive? You’re much more generous-minded on this topic than I am.

    7. Eric Scheie says:

      I don’t find the argument persuasive that an inability to obtain an official license constitutes denial of full citizenship. (Remember, homosexuals are not barred from marrying — as long as they marry persons of the opposite sex.) And why is it that so many of the people who claim the right to a marriage license is a basic right of citizenship do not also believe in the right to keep and bear arms? A same sex marriage license is not something I’d wave around unless I was prepared to defend myself!
      (I’m not including Sullivan or other consistent libertarians who believe in same sex marriage as well as the Second Amendment, but they’re a small minority.)