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Is Japan ready for the LGBTQ revolution?

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Special To The Japan Times

This past spring, at a restaurant in Tokyo’s upscale Omotesando neighborhood, I encountered something new in Tokyo: a prominent sign written in English on the door of the communal WC declaring it “gender-free.”

In recent years, there have been a number of encouraging signs that Japan is belatedly beginning to embrace diversity — at least when it comes to sexual identity — but so far only small steps have been made. Shibuya Ward recognizing same-sex partnerships and Disney catering to such marriages at their Tokyo theme parks are such steps in the right direction, but the conservative national government has provided no leadership on ending discrimination, whether it relates to sexual identity, race or gender. Alas, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is not likely to champion progressive legislation beneficial to Japan’s LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual and Queer/Questioning) community.

Small civil society organizations are pitching in, for example by preparing emergency disaster manuals for non-Japanese in the LGBTQ community and lobbying government officials and politicians. But as Japan gets ready to host the 2020 Olympics, there is much work to be done to raise awareness and establish programs that meet the needs of Japan’s vibrant LGBTQ community — and to ensure that Japan provides a proper and inclusive welcome for tourists.

Ironically, Japan’s rich artistic tradition complicates prevailing norms and attitudes, revealing a culture that reveled in diversity. Where did that disappear to?

Well, some of it made its way to Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). A current show running through Nov. 27 — “A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints” — displays mostly ukiyo-e woodblock prints focused on ebullient and bawdy representations of sexuality from the Edo Period (1603-1868), a time when Victorian values and Christian guilt had not yet cast a shadow over Japan.

While older men coveted and fought over their young and effeminate male lovers, known as wakashu (the “third gender”), we see that older women were also drawn to their virile charms. The show informs us that, in principle, wakashu were active agents in heterosexual sex, but that older women were often initiators, due to their seniority. And who knew that a nun wrote a guide in the 17th century to the practice and etiquette of female masturbation for ladies-in-waiting who apparently got tired of waiting and availed themselves of strap-on and double-headed dildos? We also encounter androgynous onnagata (men — usually wakashu — who played female roles) in kabuki, who embodied an idealized femininity. All this, and more.

The show’s catalog is resplendent with numerous color prints and contains insightful texts by the curator of the show, Asato Ikeda, an assistant professor of art history at Fordham University in New York City, and Joshua Mostow, a professor of Japanese literature and art at the University of British Columbia. The essays and introductions help put the art into a context that renders the beautiful prints more accessible and explains much about gender and sexual relations in the Edo Period. As such, this catalog is a major contribution to sexual diversity studies, depicting the sexual diversity and fluid sexual norms that characterized Edo culture. This is a world far removed from the taboos that later emerged — a world that is today kept under wraps by prevailing national narratives. However, these narratives are increasingly being challenged by contemporary scholars such as Ikeda and Mostow.

Oddly, even though they were thanked in the preface for helping give the exhibition momentum, the Japan Foundation and Japanese Consulate apparently got cold feet when they finally grasped the nature of the show. Their support abruptly disappeared, marking a missed opportunity to shed their stuffy image

It’s also lamentable that the mainstream media have not paid more attention to the show. And though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — the most pro-LGBTQ leader in Canada’s history (low-bar warning) — danced in the nearby Toronto gay pride parade, he didn’t stop by. No offense to Toronto, but are there really so many other amazing cultural events that “A Third Gender” gets overlooked?

But hats off to the staid ROM for staging a show way beyond its family friendly comfort zone, giving Ikeda a free hand in selecting the exhibits and allocating more space than anticipated to show the works to best advantage. Also a nod to Air Canada’s inflight magazine for plugging “A Third Gender.” Online media has been abuzz about the show, which is proving to be more popular than the ROM could have imagined.

Ikeda credits Mostow for cluing her in to the ROM’s extensive Edo Period Japanese art collection and supplementing it with some erotica from his private collection. From the outset, Ikeda told me, the ROM was supportive and there were no obstacles. She anticipated there might be some controversy about child pornography and pedophilia, but says, “Visitors seem to like this show that deals with historical materials but also has contemporary resonance.”

Although the ROM caters to families and elderly visitors, she pitched her show at “relatively young visitors looking for new experiences.” A posted disclaimer about the sexually explicit nature of some of the prints apparently did not deter visitors.

Ikeda says that the reception from the LGBTQ community has been very positive.

“In fact, we had two workshops with Toronto’s LGBTQ community in January 2016,” Ikeda says. One of these was held specifically with transgender people and the other with members of Toronto’s gay and lesbian community.

“The participants included social workers, educators and political activists,” she adds. “(They) raised some issues I never thought about. For example, there was, a question about whether we should call wakashu or onnagata ‘he’ or ‘she’ and the question of who decides. Taking the feedback at the workshops seriously, I tweaked the text labels (of the exhibits) a bit, avoiding gendered pronouns as much as possible. The ROM also addressed an additional concern by designating washrooms next to the exhibition as ‘all-gender.’ “

She hopes the show can capitalize on its popularity and eventually travel to Japan.

“Many Japanese people in Toronto told me that they didn’t know about this aspect of Japanese history,” Ikeda says. “I think they are right. The role of wakashu and their relationships with men and women are not the kind of things we read in Japan’s history textbooks.”

Let’s hope that changes and gives momentum to a belated reawakening of diversity in Japan.

Last year, a hit exhibition of shunga (erotic art) in London was turned down by several leading Tokyo museums before finding a home at the Eisei Bunko Museum in Tokyo’s Mejiro neighborhood. It turned out to be enormously popular — local crowds seemed to revel in explicit depictions of their country’s more decadent traditions.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.