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NHK discusses gender with a fresh openness

by Philip Brasor

Two weeks ago, the nightly series “Heart Net TV,” which is broadcast on NHK’s educational channel, repeated a program about a 35-year-old Japanese man who married a 70-year-old Dutch man in the Netherlands. The series dedicates several programs a month to sexual minorities, and there was a sidelight at the end of the story about a local newspaper that covered the wedding. Same sex marriage has been legal in the Netherlands for almost two decades, so local media attention was about the age difference — and the NHK crew that was covering it. The Dutch thought it interesting that such a story would be considered news in Japan, which they had assumed was sexually open.

Actually, the wedding wasn’t news. NHK was the only Japanese media to cover it. In a perfect world that’s the way it should be, because it’s just a wedding. But the Japanese man was the subject of an earlier “Heart Net TV” report, which he used as a platform for coming out. At the time he was living on a small island in Western Japan and figured if he revealed his homosexuality on television he could also publicly explain his life so far and his hopes for the future. He thought his community would understand much better this way than if they heard about it through hearsay, but he was wrong. After the show aired he was disappointed with his neighbors’ reaction. He eventually moved to the Netherlands because, as he put it, he was interested more in a committed relationship than in sex. He met his partner, who was previously married to a woman and has two grown children, online.

“Heart Net TV” is a variety show about matters of the soul. It covers such subjects as depression, domestic violence and school bullying, focusing mainly on young people, which is why homosexuality and gender identity disorder (GID) are such frequent topics. The contradictory impulses some children feel with regard to their “gender assignment” can be troubling. On a recent show, the emcee presented a chart about the meaning of GID that listed three categories: one’s physical gender, the gender one identifies with “in the heart” and the gender one is attracted to. These three attributes can come in any combination. GID is a multifaceted condition: a boy could have homoerotic impulses without feeling the urge to dress up as a girl, while a girl might prefer boys’ clothing without the need to actually become a boy physically.

Last week, outspoken, plus-sized TV personality Matsuko Deluxe was the guest for a full half-hour show. A cross-dressing 39-year-old gay man, Deluxe said he has never had the desire “to become a woman.” He likes his body as it is, but as far as role models go they have always been female. “To me, men are just sexual objects,” he said wryly, “not objects of identification.” He recalled that he was attracted to men physically even as a child but didn’t try to analyze it. He never told his parents, and still hasn’t discussed it with them despite the fact that he and his gender issues are famous. As for the general attitude of the public toward GID and gay individuals, Deluxe said, “They just don’t understand how I feel and, frankly, I don’t understand them, either,” meaning that he doesn’t understand how people could divide society into men and women and nothing else.

This idea, that gender is fluid, is what “Heart Net TV” wants to address. When the series first started talking about homosexuality and GID some years ago it was cautious. LGBT (lesbian gay bisexual transgender) individuals who were profiled and interviewed on the show were masked and anonymous, the emcees and guest celebrities presumably heterosexual. Over the years this delineation eroded, which is important since the barriers that prevent LGBT people from engaging with society on their own terms is reinforced when the media presents them as faceless entities.

So one of the most important developments on the show was the hiring of 30-year-old Fumino Sugiyama as an occasional host. Sugiyama is a transgender individual who was born female. As an interviewer, he understands the feelings of his LGBT guests and thus can draw out more relevant responses about their experiences. In a recent interview in the Asahi Shimbun, he recalled his stuggle with gender identity as a child, how he hated wearing the girl’s uniform that was mandatory in junior high school, his sexual attraction toward girls and his passing thoughts of suicide when he assumed he would never be able to reconcile these feelings with reality. He became an emcee for NHK because he wanted to “talk to young people who felt conflicted the way I did.” More importantly, he wanted them to “confront their feelings,” and on TV if necessary.

Some people, including those in the LGBT community, may find this approach too forceful. The man who later married in the Netherlands only experienced more heartbreak by coming out on TV, but Sugiyama’s point is that withdrawal leads to self-pity, which in turn leads to despair. “If you try to run away from your pain,” he told Asahi, “you will miss a valuable lesson that can make you stronger.”

Gender identification is more complicated than conventional thinking would have it, but the goal of all people, regardless of sexual identity, is simple: happiness. Another LGBT individual who has become a semi-regular on “Heart Net TV” is Kayo Satoh, who was born male and is now a female fashion model. Satoh has embraced her preferred sexual identity with gusto. She is ultra-feminine in terms of appearance and, more significantly, demeanor. She speaks in the high-pitched, nasally tone of girl idols and acts coy with the show’s male announcer. The image is a social construct: More than identifying with a gender, she identifies with a specific style of femininity, and while some people might think that by assuming such an identify Satoh isn’t, in fact, “being herself,” she’s exceptionally expressive. She once advised teachers who fretted about how to approach their LGBT students to not take it so seriously. “Just treat each person as an individual,” she said.