A Small Step In The Right Direction

The LGBT community lives in a bizarre hinterland in Japan. The public face of the community being its outspoken, popular ‘new-half’ presenters such as  Haruna Ai and Matsuko Deluxe and the private side of mass denial and FINGERS IN EARS LA-LA-LA-LA-LA!

Matsuko Deluxe
Matsuko Deluxe

There is a general consensus that although homosexuality is legal, lets not talk about such things around the dinner table please Taro!  Gay couples regularly face discrimination when trying to rent apartments or getting visitation if the other is in hospital.

This week the Shibuya district in Tokyo announced it will start to issue certificates that recognize such relationships as “equivalent to marriage.” Although the certificates are not yet legally binding they will hopefully put pressure on businesses, landlords and hospitals into providing the same level of service as heterosexual couples.

Same-sex marriage is currently not legal in Japan. Marriage is defined legally as “based only on the mutual consent of both sexes.” Compared with the west there is very little activism happening to fight that.  The certificates will be open to any resident of Shibuya Ku over the age of 20. It will give the couple next of kin privileges and they will be able to become each others guardian. It will be annulled if the couple breaks up.

Openly gay politician Taiga Ishikawa praised Shibuya and said that ;

“Cases overseas suggest that local municipalities’move to grant same-sex couples more legitimate status sometimes affects national policies. So I’m very happy about it,”

Famous LGBT activist Koyuki Higashi has said she is “over the moon” and plans to get a certificate as soon as they become available.  Higashi and her partner held the first same-sex marriage at Tokyo Disney Land in 2013. Although the marriage has no legal basis.

Higashi has said;

“We’re virtually married. But without legal backup, it’s still very difficult to live in this society. Prejudice remains deeply ingrained in Japanese society. But I hope this move will become the first step to turn Japan into a society more accepting of the idea of diversity.”

Koyuki Higashi and Hiroko Matsuhara's 2013 Disney wedding
Koyuki Higashi and Hiroko Matsuhara’s 2013 Disney wedding


Thou shalt not dance


The streets of Shinjuku 2chome (Japan’s gay mecca) have become Footloose. Dancing is now banned in the two most popular clubs, Arty-Farty and Annex.
Tokyo’s governor Ishihara has, for a long time wanted to close down this area.
In 2010 he was quoted as saying “I feel that they lack something. I think that has a basis in genetics”.

Today’s 日本語

チカン:- Chikan or train pervert (The term chikan really refers to any type of public molester)
By now I’m sure you all know about the trains in Tokyo (crowded, sweating metal tubes of grumpy commuters) Well this has provided the perfect habitat for the chikan.

A slight touch, a graze of the arm, a spreading palm; all warning signs of the groping in store. The problem got so bad that most rail lines offer ladies only carriages. The worst line has cameras installed in the carriages.
I’ve personally had 2 encounters. Once in a public bathroom I was at a urinal just minding my own, when a man wearing a surgical mask double hand grabbed my ass and disappeared, this was in broad daylight and the toilet was full of people! Not a word was said. My second was more innocent and slightly more creepy. On a busy train going to work I felt a hand against mine. (I hate hand to hand contact even with people I know so…..) I moved, it followed, move, follow, move, follow until I gave up and just let whoever it was hold my hand.
It’s never anyone attractive, it’s always some greasy, dandruffy, musty salaryman.
Figures for the period 1998 and 2000 show that most chikans were unmarried males in their 30s. The problem is they are all undersexed, Japan is the least sexually active nation with the average boning being 37 times a year (work/life balance, time for some research). Also people stay quiet, trains in Japan are super quiet and the concept of tatemae (outside face) mean that most victims just accept it and never get to express what happened. I have heard interesting stories of girls defending themselves; from using safety pins to prick the person to grabbing on and not letting go until the police get there.
The penalty if you are caught can be very severe. As it is such a famous problem the police make a big deal of making sure people get properly punished.

Ankuru Tomu

Japan has a weird mixture of foreigners. Unlike the west, where a foreign face is normal. Japan is still pretty homogeneous. In a country of 127million there are only 2.5million immigrants.

There are generally a few types of foreigner,

  • The perpetual gap-yearer who flits around “experiencing the world”
  • The otaku who resides exclusively at home or in the maid cafes of Akihabara,
  • The guy who was ignored back home who has found a fountain of eternal women who are willing to overlook his clammy sweaty hands and back hair because he is “foreign”
  • The integrator, a foreigner who tries their upmost to avoid foreign contract carving out a Christopher Columbus like experience in some remote corner and getting deep on obscure Japanese facts,
  • The forgot-to-leaves, came with nothing in mind and ended up trapped due to the easy life, high pay (for generally doing the work of a department store Santa) and cheap living.

This last category is the one that is most depressing.  This person refuses to acknowledge anything wrong with the country. They hate other gaijin for reminding them of that they are. They are essencialy the apologists. Any critisim that is voiced is shot down with “if you dont like it leave”. In their eyes Japan can do no wrong. Everything about Japan is beautiful and better than anywhere else; “if you cant see it, you just don’t get Japan like I do”.

I’m mainly talking about white men. White men have never had the experience of being a minority or feeling powerless. Since time immemorial the white man has had complete power of every aspect of the world. He has never been discriminated against. This man then comes to Japan and is suddenly not top dog. This being new and terrifying he finds that to survive he has to ingratiate himself within the local population and separate himself from the “gaijin” pack. This is where the idea of the Uncle Tom Gaijin comes in.

Here is an example of the kind of gaijin on gaijin hate that is normal in Japan.

Stop acting like a foreigner. You know. Those kinds. The ones that don’t shut up in the train or the elevator. The ones that don’t remove their shoes before entering someone’s house. The obnoxious frat boys on vacation lurking around the Nishi-Azabu crossing. Simply put, you’re in another’s country, so mind your damn manners.

Do you ever cringe when you see foreigners clustered in a big group, looking around like they don’t know what’s going on? Me too. The only thing that sticks out more than a sore thumb is an entire hand of sore fingers, so whenever you can, take advantage of the fact that in this country—um, Japan, right?—you can actually hang out with Japanese people. You’ll be less noticeable while at the same time improving your Japanese language ability.


That quote is taken from the biggest English magazine in Japan, Metropolis.  It basically says is OK to be foreign but you MUST give up everything that makes you who you are and JUST FIT IN!

I have two examples of people who fit this group.

Example A:

He had met his Japanese wife in Australia where he had been a hotel manager. When his wife gave birth they decided to relocate to Japan just outside Tokyo. He was a teacher at the same large English school as me and was bitter. He had been there for around 5 years and thought himself high enough up the food chain to tell us other (younger, newer) teachers what to do and how to act in Japan. He at first refused to speak to us instead going through the school receptionist in his    much superior Japanese (with an Australian accent of course).  It was not until he heard me speaking Japanese on the phone that he started to treat me as an equal. I was invited to a BBQ at his HOUSE that he BOUGHT (his emphasis) where I was told it was fun because there would be no loud gaijin to ruin the fun. I was also chastised for living in Tokyo as I was excluding myself from experiencing the true Japan of the countryside.  This guy felt he was close to management and had the same authority as our supervisor. This all came shattering down when the company went bankrupt and he was sold off like the rest of us.

Example B:

Another man (of course), this one English. He had arrived on a tourist visa and within 6 months had met his Japanese girlfriend and gotten married.  He was very pro-Japan (which is a good thing) but to the point of ridiculousness. Japanese curry was “a lot better than the muck you get in England” (any English man that dismisses the perfect British curry clearly has no taste). Japanese bread (which bizarrely contains milk) was delicious, Japanese beer was fantastic (there he was right) Foreign girls look ridiculous in kimono, Futons are more comfortable than beds, and when I mentioned I hated the tatami (floor mats) in my apartment he looked as if I had shot at the emperor.

Those guys were not bad people they just wanted to fit in and they thought that by denying everything they were was how to do it. There are two big foreign stars in Japan, Thane Camus and Dave Spector.  they have both made their careers on playing the foreigner and being a novelty. The amount of hate and jealousy directed at them on the big Gaijin forums is ridiculous. People seem to be so angry that they have been made mainstream while they have been looked over. The idea of how much gaijin hate other gaijin is a hot topic that gets people very heated. We are a broad bunch of people that all came here for different reasons. The only thing that connects us is the shared experience of Living in Japan.

I’m not suggesting that we make friends with every foreigner we see but it would make our lives a lot better if we didn’t try to undermine and top down any every gaijin we met. Just because someone is having the same experience as you doesn’t make it any less unique or special.


Night of the Living Dollers

When Masahiro Mori (the famed japanese robot technician) coined the phrase the uncanny valley, a term which describes the feeling of revulsion humans experience when facing a robot or android that looks too human, he was describing Dollers . 

Dollers are an extreme niche of the cosplay world. The great majority are men in their late teens to early twenties and they look a little like this.

The wide, dead stare, the flawless plastic skin and the silent smile of a killer.
Recently Madonna used dollers in her music video for “Give Me All Your Luvin'” (they were the second most plastic thing in it).

Animegao employs full body suits and full head masks made of plastic, fibreglass and clay. The can be bought online (how could you go into a shop for it?) for about 80,000 yen ($1000). Many “dollers” choose to customise their own, gluing on wigs and painting in their own eyes. If you are looking for an art project check out Nukopan’s online shop.

Discover more with an interview with a doller here.

Human accidents

When this,

is a daily part of your life, its easy to see how it can lead to this,

Last week I rode the Chuo line, (for those of you not familiar with that fucking line, it is one of the busiest/suicidalist lines in Tokyo). BOTH directions were stopped because of two SEPERATE suicides at different stations at roughly the same time and yesterday my train line home was delayed to the point of having to get a bus!

Suicide by train (Jishinjiko 自身事故, literally human accident) is a huge problem in the capital. With long hours, isolated city lives and the romanticism of suicide, many train lines have installed defense barriers, calming blue lights and one station (after a particulary depressing few months) piped in classical music. A survey conducted by the Ministry of Health concluded that one in four people under the age of 35 had contemplated suicide. In 2009, suicide was the leading cause of death among men age 20–44 and is still the leading cause of death for women age 15–34 in Japan.

Suicide has a long history in Japan. A samurai would be expected to commit seppuku instead of being captured or disgraced. The act has never been made illegal and is more often than not seen as the morally responsible action. In 2007 after Cabinet minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka took his life after being exposed for defrauding his expense account
called him “a true samurai”.

Suicide clean-up squads are paid hundreds of dollars an hour to *shower* down trains, their first day quitting rate is somewhere around 70%.

Many people choose trains as they do not wish to burden their family with the mess, the ironic fact is that families are charged by the minute for train delays, the circle style Yamanote Line reportedly charges upwards of a million yen a minute, but rail companies refuse to officially release their suicide price list.

The worst part, is that it causes the most MIND NUMBING delays. On a Tuesday evening when all you want to do is get home and relax, the last thing you need is a wait in a crowded sweaty train.

If you hang around Tokyo long enough you are more than likely to see or be inconvenienced by someone just not being able to take it anymore. And I’ve heard that if you are in the first carriage………..you feel it.


Brand Loyalty in Japan

There is a huge obsession in Japan for luxury brands. Louis Vuitton reins supreme over the streets of Tokyo.

If you are not carrying, you ain’t no-one.

Japanese women make up just 2% of the population of Asia but make up 50% of the overall sales of luxury brands in the area. In 2010 a quarter of all luxury goods were bought in the Japanese market and Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Coach and Tiffany counts on Japan for an average of 13 percent of total profit.

During the Meiji period (1868-1912) Japan made a huge push to westernise and do away with the old political and social structures. Japan adopted the British government style, German medicine and French fashion. The people who survived these changes wore French clothes, held western style cocktail parties and engaged in social dancing. After the war, once again Japan adapted to the American style of education and business. Western brands were rare and highly valued, when food and clothes were cheap and poorly made, a famous name was the safest choice. The Japanese addiction to Western luxury fashion brands arose in the 1960s and 1970s with the rapid expansion of the new middle class that wanted to show off their success. Due to the tight space restrictions of Japan, especially in the cities, the Western way to enjoy, as well, as to exhibit one’s riches with mansions and large properties in leafy neighbourhoods, was near impossible. The Japanese chose to show their wealth by dressing richly. Additionally, the dense traffic and tight parking meant luxury cars were pointless. The more expensive the luxury articles worn the higher the status of the person wearing them. The ultimate status symbols in Japan were luxury fashion goods such as couture clothes, leather purses, shoes and accessories, silk scarves, watches, furs, and jewels.

But, in a country whose economy has stagnated for the last 20 years, there is a disproportionate amount of people walking around with the latest in high-end fashion. Young people including high school students who seemingly work regular jobs in offices and shops have enough disposable income to afford the best what Paris fashion has to offer. Japan has an issue with Parasite Singles, a recent survey showed that 60% of single men and 80% of single women aged 20-34 lived at home with their parents. A shocking 84% said they did not have to help with household expenses and 50% claimed to receive financial aid from The Bank of Mum and Dad.
An article in The Washington Post described one Parasite single;

Miki Takasu is 26 years old, beautiful, drives a BMW and carries a
2,800 USD Chanel handbag–when she isn’t using her Gucci, Prada or
Vuitton purses. She vacations in Switzerland, Thailand, Los Angeles,
New York and Hawaii. Happily unmarried, living with her parents
while working as a bank teller, she is what people here call a
“parasite single”…
…They shop. Rings and watches by Cartier, Bulgari, and Hermes
costing 2,000 to 3,000 USD are particularly popular among working
women, who buy themselves presents for special occasions–a Cartier
ring to celebrate her 10th anniversary on the job, or a gift to herself
on turning 30.
They travel. Miki, who earns about 28,000 USD a year, frequently
makes quick shopping trips to Korea, has been to Hawaii three times
and to Malaysia and Egypt as well–all with girlfriends.

This frees up a huge proportion of their salary to take trips, socialize and buy what ever they want.
As mentioned before Japanese society is seated in outward appearances and a sense of belonging to a greater group. Owning a brand that is coveted by others helps the owner to not only feel important and fashionable but also shows that they are part of the tribe. In the quest to fit in girls have been known to turn to more dramatic measures. The infamous enjo kosai problems of the 1990s when junior high school students would sell dates with themselves to older men.
Another reason brands are so important to young people especially women is the limited job market and low female social status. having the funds to buy yourself a bag, a watch, a car or to travel boosts your self-confidence in a way that a marriage and 1.67 children (the national average) can’t.

Brand loyalty in Japan extends also to food, electronics and cars although it is the opposite story. Japanese brands are trusted more than their foreign counterparts. Australian beef is cheaper than Japanese beef and vegetables from neighbouring parts of Asia are almost half what the Japanese versions cost. The 10 highest grossing brands in Japan are all domestic companies from Toyota to Sharp.

今日の日本語 Today’s Japanese

本音 (honne) and 建前 (tatemae).

Honne is ones true feelings and desires while tatemae is behaviour and opinions one displays in public.

Japan is a small, mountainous island whose population was 15million in 1800. As space was always an issue and living, working and playing quarters were close, the idea of social harmony was key to a successful and easy life
Even today Japanese people go to great lengths to avoid conflict and arguments with each other and social obligations are considered more than personal beliefs.

Tatemae (literally ‘façade’) is a social institution. An example would be going to an acquaintances house for coffee and being asked to stay for dinner, a tatemae response would be “I’m not hungry but thank you very much” (even if you are starving). Tatemae did help society when people lived and farmed together in self-sufficient communities but in today’s interactive and international world the pressures of tatemae can have more dangerous consequences. Social commentators have attributed the violent and fantasy driven nature of Japan’s notorious pornography to the desire to voice the oppressed honne. Another depressing result is the hikikomori who shut themselves away from the world and hide away from any form of social interaction including (but not always) their parents who they still live with.

In 2011 when Japan was crippled by the earthquake and tsunami and the country was on the brink of nuclear meltdown, tatemae was blamed for the shocking cover up of how serious the problem was.

Micro aggressions

Last month an article was posted on The Japan Times. It was written by Debito Arudou (出人有道、a naturalised Japanese citizen who rallies against the “Japanese only” mentality of Japan). The article dealt with the idea of micro aggressions. These were described as;

“the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities, and denigrating messages sent to (visible minorities) by well-intentioned (members of an ethnic majority in a society) who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated.”

Most first time interactions with Japanese people are the same. “can you use chopsticks?” “can you eat raw fish?” “you speak such good Japanese!” (after all you have said is 2 words). Many non-Japanese (NJ) who have been here for longer than a normal visit will have heard these questions so many times the responses come automatically. First time encounters can be run on autopilot. Finding a real conversation is rare and usually happens with someone who has had experiences outside of Japan.

That is not to say Japan is not welcoming to foreigners. There is not the violent aspect attached to the racism that can be found in other countries, trains, restaurant menus, buses (in Tokyo at least), police stations, museums, and countless other services have English help (and a handful of cases Chinese or Korean).

There is a very strong undercurrent of Us vs. Them, and enjoyment of Japanese institutions such as sake, onsens and sushi is regarded as a cultural phenomenon (what person doesn’t enjoy alcohol, baths and healthy fast food?).

Being asked if you can use chopsticks is a small issue. It gets more depressing and alienating when people would rather stand than take the seat next to you on a crowded train or (a personal experience) seem visibly terrified when sharing the elevator in the building you have lived at for 3 years. Another micro aggression that grates many people is the automatic omission of the suffix -san, foreigners often find themselves relegated to first names only in a country that highly respects social standing, to turn the tables and omit the honorific for a Japanese person would be seen as social faux-pas. If this is ever mentioned or other annoyances over the separate treatment NJ get are voiced, the foreigner is labelled as over-sensitive, or it is remarked “I’ve heard foreigners are difficult to deal with”.

The social commentator and activist Debito has faced harsh criticism on his stance of forcibly entering “Japanese only” establishments (as a holder of a Japanese passport he believes that these signs are not about citizenship but about blood lines) and one time suing an onsen for refusing him service. He calls out for a wider understanding of what it means to be pigeon holed by deep-seated stereotypes. His main critics say that he chose to live in Japan, if you don’t like the status quo, feel free to leave. Debito claims that the fight is not for the NJ who come to Japan but for the growing number of mixed children that are not given the choice of what society they were born into.

Are you going to let Japanese society “microaggress” them into The Other, gaijin category, just because they look more like you than your Japanese spouse?

The underlying problem in Japan is looks. Uniforms and outward appearances are extremely important in every day social interactions. As are black and white judgements that are ingrained into the social fabric.

For a country which only open its doors in 1854 (and only then because it was forced) Japan has come a long way to foster internationalism. It is an extremely easy and comfortable country to live in as a foreigner. I personally have never been refused service anywhere and have only experienced minor confrontations usually with a drunk member of the older generation. Japan’s younger generation is definitely more focused on change than the old establishment. In the summer of 2012 the old seperate system of alien registration will come to an end. For years foreign people who wished to stay in Japan for longer than the tourist allowance of 90 days had to sign up for an alien registration card which was to be carried with you at all times and presented if you were asked without question. This year foreign residents will be offered the standard juminhyo. As big as a change as this is, it has not been unknown for towns and cities to give honorary juminhyo status to animals, characters and statues. In 2002 the Nishi ward of Yokohama gave a bearded seal who has taken residence in the river a juminhyo. This provoked NJ residents to paint whiskers on their faces in protest.