LOS ANGELES – After four seasons of helping an assortment of real-life Americans transform themselves for the better, Netflix’s “Queer Eye” makeover mavens have taken a slight detour — across the Pacific to Japan.
As “Queer Eye: We’re in Japan!” proclaims, the group, known to viewers as the Fab Five, has set up shop in Tokyo to help four everyday individuals struggling with relationships, sexuality and self-care.
The special season, which debuted Nov. 1, shows the five stars, who are experts on grooming, fashion, design, culture and food and wine, on a journey through the streets of Tokyo where they also help their subjects, or “heroes” in “Queer Eye” parlance, gain the confidence to take their life into their own hands as they deal with challenges in the Japanese metropolis.
The mini-series also features model and actress Kiko Mizuhara as their cultural tour guide, while plus-size comedian Naomi Watanabe — arguably most famous for her Beyonce impressions — makes a surprise appearance in one episode to discuss how she found confidence around her own body image.
Talking over the phone from New York, Antoni Porowski and Jonathan Van Ness, the show’s food and wine and grooming experts, respectively, discuss their overseas experience and the universality of the “Queer Eye” message.
“We were very excited when our parents at Netflix decided to take us to Japan. There are stories that need to be told from all over the world,” Porowski says about the four episodes which also star Bobby Berk (the design expert), Karamo Brown (the culture expert), and Tan France (the fashion expert).
“Everybody deserves love. Everyone deserves to feel like they’re important and deserving of telling their story,” Porowski adds.
“I think what was so interesting is that, universally, we all just want to feel connection, to ourselves and to our loved ones around us, and we want to feel we’re being loved,” Van Ness says. “I think there’s just so much more that unites us, no matter where you are in the world.”
While their message knows no borders, the “Queer Eye” quintet still made an extra effort to be conscientious and respectful of Japanese societal and cultural nuances.
Porowski credits his castmates for being especially sensitive to their heroes’ life situations.
“Something that I really like about what they do, and what I try to model, is that we’re all very curious and we ask a lot of questions. It’s not coming in thinking that we have the best advice right off the bat,” he says. “I could see Jonathan, for example, asking what are (the heroes) interested in? What do they want to look like? What do they aspire to? It’s really taking their lead. It’s really meeting people where they’re at. I think that’s the formula that we try to take on wherever we’re working.”
“Going to a new country where I don’t speak their language and am not as familiar with the ins and outs of the culture, I just approached it a little bit more as a student than what I normally would. I think I wanted to go in and learn a lot more,” Van Ness says.
“I think as long as we were getting to know our heroes and getting to learn what was going on in their lives, then if there was anything that we could help or share that could benefit their lives that made sense, then we did that.”
Traditionally, Japanese society has emphasized conformity and prioritized the group over the individual. “Queer Eye” encourages heroes to freely express and love themselves.
Van Ness doesn’t think that’s too much to ask of people, regardless of their nationality. Japan, he believes, is not the only country where people feel pressure to conform to societal norms.
“I think that there’s also so much sadness and suffering in the U.S. because of an emphasis on conformity, whether it’s people feeling like they’re not man enough or woman enough or successful enough or this or that or whatever,” Van Ness says.
Both stars admit it was slightly more challenging in Japan, though, to get their heroes to open up emotionally and talk about their troubles than their U.S. counterparts.
“I felt like whatever your feeling of insecurity is, whether it’s your sexuality, your job, who you love, where you live, all of that, it’s just a little bit more difficult in Japanese society for you to feel comfortable expressing what your insecurities are and to be vulnerable,” Van Ness says.
“Some of the heroes were reticent in expressing their feelings at the beginning of the week, and then by the end of the week, they were very clear on what they learned during the week,” says Porowski. “They were very good at expressing their gratitude, which for me always pulls at my heartstrings.”
“Japanese culture does struggle with celebrating one’s uniqueness and celebrating self-love,” Van Ness adds. “But I think it’s coming more into the vernacular, not because of ‘Queer Eye,’ but because there are people like Naomi (Watanabe) who are creating a whole new way of demonstrating self-love and self-acceptance in Japan.”
One place in particular where Japan’s LGBTQ community can let loose and celebrate itself is Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ni-chome neighborhood, which the “Queer Eye” gang explores in one episode. Van Ness was surprised to see that the thriving area is on a par with well-known U.S. gay quarters such as West Hollywood and San Francisco’s Castro.
And awareness of the need to recognize gay rights in Japan appears to be on the rise. In 2015, Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward became the first municipality in the country to recognize same-sex partnerships. Since then, 25 cities and municipalities, and one entire prefecture, Ibaraki, have followed suit.
Recently, former education minister Hakubun Shimomura of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party made headlines when he suggested in a speech adding same-sex marriage to a potential list of constitutional amendments.
But Porowski and Van Ness believe both Japan and the U.S. still have a long way to go in terms of gay acceptance.
“I think homophobia exists in both places, it’s just a matter of how it’s manifested,” says Porowski, pointing to the example of one of the Tokyo heroes, who described how people would stare at him and his boyfriend with looks of disapproval as they were walking through the streets. “Whereas in the U.S., I think more often … you hear of people yelling certain words or slurs.”
“There are people in the United States that get bullied to death for being gay, queer, bisexual, lesbian, and all of it, every single day. I think that we have a lot of growing animus towards LGBTQ people in the U.S., so I don’t think that we’re any better off than anywhere else,” Van Ness says. “Although Japan does need to legalize same-sex marriage, like yesterday.”