An architect with Nikken Sekkei’s Activity Design lab, Sari Kaede, 28, came out as a transgender woman in 2017. For the past four years she has designed buildings and worked as a spokesperson for the LGBTQ community in Japan. She hopes to help other young people here who may be struggling with gender identification, and to that end she agreed to be the focus of a documentary about her life titled “You Decide.,” which opens June 19 in select cinemas.
1. Did you always want to be an architect? When I was 8 years old, I shared a room with my sister. I was very interested in the fliers for new condos and apartment buildings that were slipped into our mailbox, because I was hankering for a space of my own and wanted some ideas for my dream home.
The floor plans were fascinating by themselves, so I would copy these out in my sketchbook. My parents told me that drafting floor plans is actually part of a profession, and that people got paid to do it. I was astonished. I thought, “Wow, if only I could do this as a job!”
2. How did you come to be involved in the documentary? Steven Haynes, who appears in it, came to me and said, “I want to make a documentary about you.” The word “documentary” dazzled me. At the same time, however, I wasn’t sure what being in a documentary entailed.
3. Do you like watching documentaries? To be honest, I haven’t seen that many, and the ones I did watch seemed a tiny bit staged. In short, I didn’t know what to expect or how I would fare in it. But I went ahead.
4. You’d had a bit of experience in front of the camera as a model, did that help? Before the documentary, I had gotten a bit used to standing in front of the camera. With still photography, though, you can always tell when the shot is taken because you hear the shutter click. And then you can relax.
5. How is film different? With a movie, the camera can roll for three hours straight. Later, I would see footage with moments in which my guard was down or I looked tired. It took a while to get used to that.
6. The film’s English title is “You Decide.” Is that accurate? It describes how I feel in a nutshell. I get comments from people overseas saying, “Don’t you mean, ‘I Decide?’ What about your feelings and principles?” I get where they’re coming from but, from my perspective, I can’t change unless society is willing to change and accept me as a woman. I can’t do it all on my own, which is why “You Decide.” makes a lot more sense to me.
7. What do you think of the Japanese title, “Musuko no Mama de, Joshi ni Naru,” which translates as “Becoming a Girl While Remaining a Son”? The Japanese title is a little complicated. I can’t get behind the word joshi (girl). To me, it denotes a lack of independence on the part of the woman and the objectifying male gaze. However, I think the filmmakers wanted to go with that title because of my father. In the documentary, he insists that I will always be his son, no matter what my gender is.
8. How do you feel about that? I never intended to become a son, just as I never intended to become a girl. But I also understand that from the standpoint of my teachers and friends, I come off as a joshi. And, from my father’s perspective, I’m a musuko (son).
9. Are you happy with the film? Yes, because it doesn’t have that “OK, great, you came out and now we can all go home” happy ending. The struggle continues.
10. What about the words of your father? At the time, I think his attitude was the right one. He was struggling to accept the fact that his child is transgender, in front of the camera. I respect him for that.
11. Have things changed at all between you in the past four years? He has accepted that I’m working for a firm as a female employee. He’s now trying to update his memories of me, from a son to an individual.
12. Your English is great, how did you become so fluent? My parents enrolled me in ECC language school when I was 3, and I attended until the third grade of elementary school. I didn’t feel like studying at all, yet my pronunciation and conversational skills were excellent.
Then, in middle school I started learning English formally and everything changed. My classmates made fun of my pronunciation, which was good, and the teachers were uncomfortable that I could speak so well. I thought I’d better lay low and I deliberately sabotaged my tests and spoke in broken English.
13. When did English become fun again? That didn’t happen until university. A lot of my classes were in English, and I could feel the language coming back to me. So I backpacked my way across Southeast Asia and Europe.
14. Did you ever try studying abroad? I went to the Royal Academy of Arts for six months to study architecture and was enthralled by the concept of a patina. In England, aged architecture is viewed as a positive thing, while in Japan people prize the new and shiny.
15. Speaking of new things, green architecture is popular in Europe. How is it in Japan? Architecturally speaking, we have a long way to go. My overseas clients are interested in combining ecology and architecture. In Japan, it’s all about making buildings earthquake and typhoon resistant, and it’s all very regulated.
16. What is one of your favorite buildings in Tokyo? Definitely the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Ginza designed by Kisho Kurokawa. It’s a retro-futuristic building that opened in 1972, but is now slated for demolition. It’s just a marvel of design and functionality, and I don’t know why it hasn’t exploded on social media.
17. What’s a book that has influenced your life? At university, I read Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.” I was really struck by how Arendt framed the Holocaust, and how the individual Nazi officers weren’t intending to carry out a genocide. They were, in fact, cogs in a terrible machine. They were all just doing their jobs.
18. In your opinion, how does Japanese society deal with transgender people? There’s no outright violence or discrimination like in the United States. On the other hand, there are no rules that are sanctioned by law, to protect trans women and men. The U.S. has that. I admit to being a little envious.
19. Do you feel that there’s been more awareness of gender issues among the Japanese lately? Yes, that’s been happening since 2018. That was the year that the LGBTQ movement took off, though gradually. Last year, the pandemic spurred things on. Suddenly, people had to stay home. They couldn’t see their friends or go out. They were forced to live a different version of reality, and I think that gave people in mainstream society a taste of what it’s like to be in the minority.
20. Who are you reaching out to, when you’re speaking at the podium? Young people who are at the point in their lives when they’re questioning their gender and wondering what to do. Trans women in Japan are almost always in the entertainment business, or working in the night trade. I want to show them that it’s possible to be an ordinary person who just happens to be a trans woman. I did it, and so can others.
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