National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Sexual identity isn't as simple as it once was

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

All societies are repressive — some brutally, others benignly, more or less. No society allows us to fully express our true selves. Some societies squash our true selves. Even those that don’t will at least keep them in check to some degree. Society could hardly function otherwise.

Liberation is a great theme of the past 50 years. Whatever can be free should be free — so goes the prevailing thinking, and most of the postwar, postindustrial democracies have made enormous strides in that direction. Others, Japan among them, have stridden less rapidly.

That civilization requires a compromise between absolutely unfettered individuality and absolutely rigid conformity is generally acknowledged. Some behavior is acceptable, some not. So far we can all agree. Then comes the hard question: What behavior? If general precepts were all, humanity would be one harmonious, happy family. We founder on the rock of specifics.

A hallmark of modern liberal thinking is the notion that whatever does no harm is OK. That’s the principle underlying, for example, the worldwide surge of acceptance of same-sex coupling, either in the form of marriage (legal as of now in 17 countries and 37 U.S. states) or of a sub-marital “partnership” arrangement.

Japan’s absence from the list of countries advancing in that direction is surprising, given an anciently rooted tolerance (and even, among warriors, encouragement) of homosexuality. But Japan jettisoned most of its past in the late 19th century, when emulating and catching up to the West was what drove it. The native trait it retained, paradoxically, was its conservative instinct. Change comes late, in revolutionary surges, then stops dead. The Christian sexual prudery that once straitjacketed the Christian West still largely straitjackets non-Christian Japan — official Japan, anyway. “Cool Japan” — the Japan of manga, anime and cosplay — is way ahead. Here is another paradox, given official Japan’s fervent promotion of cool Japan as a cultural export. Still, somebody — so officialdom must think — must defend “values” and “standards.” But what values, what standards?

Last October, bioethicist Peter Singer published an article that appeared in this newspaper under the headline “Should adult sibling incest be against the law?” Incest is probably the oldest taboo there is, so deeply rooted that to question it seems almost willfully defiant, provocation for provocation’s sake. The article discusses the case of a German man who served several years in prison for having, and refusing to stop having, a sexual relationship with his sister. And yet in numerous countries — including Japan, paradoxically enough — consensual adult incest is not a crime and, after all, why should it be, if only harmful acts are criminal? One answer is that resulting children may be genetically disadvantaged; in the German case, however, children were not an issue — the man had had a vasectomy.

Yes, but, you might say, for the sake of argument — if we allow sibling incest, why not consensual father-daughter incest, if the daughter is of age? Or mother-son? Or, for that matter, father-son and mother-daughter? How “free” do we want to be?

Same-sex partnership has been widely discussed lately in light of a landmark legislative proposal by Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward to recognize it as “equivalent to marriage.” Very late in the day — 26 years after Denmark first recognized gay partnership, 14 years after Holland legalized gay marriage — Japan takes its first baby step, a municipal assembly leading the way in the face of traditionalist fears that the family as we know it is doomed.

Some tides are unstoppable. A measure of how mainstream once-taboo discussion of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersexed (LGBTQI) community has become is the honest and forthright coverage of it by the weekly Josei Jishin, a magazine best known for celebrity gossip and recipes. Its article begins with a pointed question and an exclamatory answer: “Is LGBT a disease? No!”

Research by Dentsu Innovative Institute shows that Japan’s LGBTQI population is proportionally equivalent to the West’s — 5.2 percent, roughly 1 in 20 — and, yet, when Japanese are asked if they are personally acquainted with people in the LGBTQI community, only 8 percent say they are — as against 63 percent of Spaniards and 58 percent of Americans. This suggests deep closets and thick veils. Sixty-eight percent of Japanese in the LGTBQI community claim to have endured bullying; 65 percent say they have considered suicide.

It’s hard to “come out” in Japan. Some people never do, negatively because they fear discrimination, or positively because they see no need to — one teenage college student tells Josei Jishin that social network sites have made coming out superfluous; you get all the companionship and moral support you need online.

Some of that support would come from people like Ryoko Kobayashi, who could have used some herself when her 22-year-old daughter took her aside one day and said, “Mom, I’m a boy.” Mom had long known, of course, that the girl was strange, for a girl. She’d grown up hating dolls, she played with boys, was seemingly at war with everything feminine in herself; but as a parent you make allowances, make excuses — “Well, she’s a tomboy, so what?” The parental generation grew up thinking — “knowing” — that there were two genders, male and female, period; if you weren’t one you were the other. We today know it’s not nearly that simple.

By the time Kobayashi’s daughter had had her sex-change operation and become her son, mom had grown — slowly, not painlessly — into acceptance and broadmindedness. She launched a nonprofit organization and a website ( to help others learn what experience had taught her: how complex a thing identity is, and that, quite literally, it takes all kinds to make a world.

Or at least, many kinds. On page 7 of the Sept. 20, 2014, evening edition of the Asahi Shimbun are photos of people you’d swear were girls, and even after you learn they’re not, the only real giveaway is a bald, gray-bearded man in a high school girls’ sailor uniform — who is not a pervert, just having fun, like the others. The accompanying article describes a monthly cross-dressing event called Propaganda, held in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. Its 2007 debut drew 50 people; more recently, it draws 400. Participants speak of getting in touch with “the other me.”

Nor is Propaganda the only event of its kind. Cross-dressing festivals have spread to college campuses and high schools.

The Asahi reminds us how very far back this sort of thing goes — at least to roughly the fourth century A.D. and Japan’s prototypical mythological hero, Yamato Takeru, who dressed as a woman to fool his enemies and felt no embarrassment in doing so. He, too, was exploring his “other me” — although he probably wouldn’t have put it that way.

Michael Hoffman blogs at