Language | BILINGUAL

Being your best self in spoken Japanese with the cast of 'Queer Eye'

by Daniel Morales

Contributing Writer

I finally got around to watching “Queer Eye: We’re in Japan!” The four episodes took me longer to watch than most shows because I found myself rewinding to 書き写す (kaki-utsusu, transcribe) the Japanese language in the show.

Netflix didn’t provide Japanese subtitles (Japanese subtitles over Japanese audio is a great study method), so transcription was a helpful technique to shake the rust off my listening skills and ensure I was catching every という (to iu, a connecting phrase loosely equivalent to “such a”), など (nado, et cetera) and すごく (sugoku, incredibly) that helped connect or modify phrases. The language used by participants was also a fascinating crash course in talking to others clearly and openly about who you are as a person, which isn’t always easy to do in any language, let alone a second one.

One interesting commonality between the participants, who couldn’t be more different from each other, was how they described the changes they went through during the show using the word 自分 (jibun, self/myself/me), which was incredibly prevalent. This isn’t a surprise given that, in Japanese, speakers rarely use pronouns to discuss themselves.

For example, Yoko, an older woman who runs a hospice out of her home, had allowed work to take over her life almost completely, so one of her goals during the show was 自分を取り戻す (jibun o torimodosu, reclaim myself).

She started the hospice out of a tribute to her sister who passed away alone in hospital from cancer. Yoko hadn’t been able to stop blaming herself. After talking with the guys, she is able to use this somewhat self-helpy 直訳 (chokuyaku, direct translation) from English: 私は自分のことを許します (Watashi wa jibun no koto o yurushimasu, I forgive myself). This is also a reminder that you should attach のこと (no koto) to pronouns or names when talking about someone’s person.

Kan, a young gay man dating a man from London, has let his wardrobe become drab and boring, and while trying on some more colorful options he notes how fitting they are: 普段の自分の服よりもっと自分らしい (Fudan no jibun no fuku yori motto jibun rashii, These clothes are more like me than my usual clothes).

Given the nature of Japanese society, it’s more challenging to live publicly as a member of the LGBTQ community, but after the show, he feels more confident and gives this advice: 自分の声を聞いて欲しい (Jibun no koe o kiite hoshii, I want you/them to listen to their voice).

Kae, a young manga artist, isn’t comfortable with her body at first: 自分のいいところってよく分からない (Jibun no ii tokoro-tte yoku wakaranai, I don’t really know what my body’s good points are), but by the end of a week she’s more self affirming: 自分を肯定できた気がします (Jibun o kōtei dekita ki ga shimasu, I feel like I’m able to affirm myself).

And finally Makoto, a young producer, has trouble affirming himself and communicating with his girlfriend: 自分を見て格好いいと思わない (Jibun o mite kakkoii to omowanai, When I look at myself I don’t think I’m cool).

Eventually, he realizes it’s not about being cool or not cool but rather knowing who you are and how to communicate that: 自分が何を思っているかちゃんと人に伝えたりとか、自分がどういう人間なのかというのを少しでも表現できるようになったら嬉しい (Jibun ga nani o omotte-iru ka chanto hito ni tsutaetari toka, jibun ga dō iu ningen na no ka to iu no o sukoshi demo hyōgen dekiru yō ni nattara ureshii, I’d be glad if I could become more able to communicate to people what I’m thinking and express who I am as a person).

Within a culture that can be stoic and quiet, the openness and pure physicality of the Fab 5 comes as a refreshing and needed reminder to these four individuals that even in Japan there are ways to 自分らしく生きる (jibun rashiku ikiru, live as your actual self), as Kan puts it.

As a non-Japanese person living in Japan, you walk a fine line following the rules defined by the culture and being excused from those rules. These “Queer Eye” episodes show you can sometimes use that existence (along with some of this language) to help others who may have trouble communicating. With great 外国人 (gaikokujin, foreign person) powers come great responsibilities: Use them wisely.