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    So hard

    There was a not-too-bad article in The Japan Times a few days ago–how often do I type that?–about what real, live Japanese gays think of Masaki Sumitani, a.k.a. Hard Gay. The writer can’t resist drawing hammy attention to what a broad-minded sensi-hetero he is, which is a little trying:

    How right can it be to satirize people who are so marginalized in Japanese society that they have effectively no freedom to respond?

    An official at Yoshimoto Kogyo Co., Hard Gay’s promotion company, said neither the comedian nor the company intend [sic–dude, find yourself a persnickety-grammarian fag friend and get him to explain the finer points of correlative conjunctions–SRK] to insult anyone.

    Still, the logical thing seemed to be to ask some Japanese homosexuals what they think of Hard Gay–whose handlers, by the way, say that he is straight and has a girlfriend.

    What did he find when he asked around? Some gays think Hard Gay is funny. He makes them laugh. Some gays think Hard Gay is mocking homosexuals. That makes them sad. And some gays don’t pay much attention one way or another. He makes them feel bored.

    A real revelation, huh?

    It’s hard to fault the reporter, exactly. Being in the position of weighing the positions of people whose world he doesn’t inhabit, he probably figured it was wise to keep asking around until he got one yes, one no, and one neither on the issue raised just to keep all the bases covered. Also, if you’re a foreign reporter who wants to find out what gay people think about this or that, you probably have little choice but to wander to Shinjuku 2-chome, choose a prominently gay shop with an open front door (implying that non-regulars are welcome), and start talking to the guy behind the counter. Or to look up gay organizations in the phone directory and start dialing.

    Unfortunately, that kind of approach produces the same problems that “researchers” who are taken more seriously get into when they conduct “studies” by trawling for subjects at bars or in classified ads, and they’re worth looking at. While he got a set of varied opinions, it’s questionable whether he talked to a representative sample of gay Japanese people.

    Guys who own gay shops and bars are, obviously, those who have elected to work as well as socialize in gay life. Gay organizations have relatively low memberships, too–partially because a lot of people would be scared to be on their mailing lists and things, but also because such organizations just aren’t very popular in Japan. (Most people have their hands full conforming to all the expectations within their companies and neighborhoods. The last thing they need is another group to be beholden to.) And obviously the sorts of people who are going to join a study circle dedicated to solemnly working out their feelings about a TV character are going to constitute a self-selecting sample. The Japan Times was therefore talking to a sample of the gay population that had an unusual amount of energy to devote to sitting around thinking about the meaning of homosexuality in society.

    That doesn’t mean there was nothing to learn from them. Their opinions are as genuine as anyone else’s–though the reporter doesn’t seem to have cared much that the guy from the Sapporo organization he talked is transgendered and not even gay. But experience leads me to suspect that the representative opinion was the one relegated to this throwaway paragraph:

    Other gays felt pretty much the same, he said. “We don’t really talk about him [Hard Gay] much.”

    I don’t know a scientific sample of the gay Japanese population myself, probably, but my acquaintance would seem to square with that. I have quite a few friends who hang out in little pub-like Shibuya gay bars and rarely venture to Ageha or 2-chome or other more high-profile places. They tend to be ordinary office worker types who don’t know many foreigners besides me. The other Japanese guys I know are those who like foreigners and hang out in 2-chome at the handful of foreigner-friendly places. Many of them have spent significant time in the States or places in the British Commonwealth and thus can compare gay life here to gay life in other places.

    And I’ve only ever heard Hard Gay mentioned twice. Once, someone told an acquaintance of mine that he looked like him, which he does (his facial features, I mean). Another time, when I went out in a black T-shirt of somewhat unforgiving cut, one of the bar guys cracked that I was “looking very Hard Gay.” (“No, he just looks like a homo as always,” a friend piped up.)

    Otherwise, nothing, even at gatherings where uncensored bitchy opinions are flowing freely about anything and everything. The implication of the article’s conclusion, that there are a lot of gay Japanese who would protest about Hard Gay’s image if they felt at liberty to, doesn’t strike me as plausible. If pressed, I guess most people I know would say that while Sumitani’s antics are a bit much, at least the stereotype he’s reinforcing is one of vigor rather than nelliness, and you can’t expect things to change in Japan overnight.

    Even the acknowledgment that gays exist in Japan represents progress. Open homosexuals are at a disadvantage here, but so are career women and ethnic Koreans. This is a society that values conformity above all, and everyone is used to the fact. Everyone here has secrets. In general, if you preserve the expected public face, no one is going to interrogate you about your private life. We can question whether it should have to be that way in an ideal world, but the gay guys I know all pretty much seem to accept with equanimity that that’s the way it is for now and that it’s a trade-off they can live with.

    4 Responses to “So hard”

    1. Alan says:

      I’m going to ask a culture question, so please don’t hesitate to call out my ignorance.

      Anyway, I saw this guy on YouTube. It’s a pretty interesting show, mainly because I don’t think something like it would fly in the U.S., but it’s famous in Japan. However, Japan is notorious for ridiculous television shows, so I’m wondering if the toleration and even fame of Hard Gay is less a sign of acceptance of gay Japanese (not that you ever said it was) than it is the “next level” so to speak in a trend of television shows. Does that make sense?

    2. Reporters make their living inventing conflicts

    3. Sean Kinsell says:


      “However, Japan is notorious for ridiculous television shows, so I’m wondering if the toleration and even fame of Hard Gay is less a sign of acceptance of gay Japanese (not that you ever said it was) than it is the “next level” so to speak in a trend of television shows. Does that make sense?”

      Yes, it does. And yes, I think you’re basically right. Put aside the gay part, and what you have with Sumitani is a run-of-the-mill Japanese physical comedian. You get them by the dozens on television here, and they all have some kind of gimmick. One of the paradoxical things about the whole business is that tendentious, annoying gay activists really don’t do much here. They exist, but they don’t affect the public image of gays much because gays don’t have a public image. So “satirizing” them doesn’t make much sense; there isn’t much to satirize. If such an act were intended to make a political point, it would be much more useful in the States, where loud, expansively obnoxious gay activist attention whores are a real menace and are practically begging to be sent up.


      “Reporters make their living inventing conflicts.”

      You’re right; I can’t believe I managed to write a dozen-ish paragraphs without raising that very basic point. At the same time, the JT reporter was just taking his cues from the Japanese media, which have also puffed up the Hard Gay routine as controversial.

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