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NHK tries to clear up LGBT misconceptions

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

Last month, publisher Iwanami Shoten was criticized for its definition of “LGBT” in the newest edition of Kojien, which is considered to be the most authoritative dictionary of the Japanese language. The complaint was specifically about the meaning of the acronym’s “T” portion, which stands for “transgender.” Kojien lumped “transgender” in with “lesbian,” “gay” and “bisexual” as describing persons “whose sexual orientations are different from the majority.”

In fact, transgender describes a person whose gender identity differs from the one they were assigned at birth. Iwanami Shoten admitted the mistake and last week corrected the entry, but media reports have tended to point out that the inaccuracy reflected misconceptions that are widespread in Japanese society.

The four-part weekly NHK drama, “Joshiteki Seikatsu” (“Life as a Girl”),  which ended Jan. 26, was designed to help clear up such misconceptions. Based on a novel by Tsukasa Sakaki, the story centers on a young transgender woman named Miki Ogawa (Jun Shison), who works for an apparel maker in Kobe. Miki’s colleagues and boss know she is a transgender woman and while they may have been surprised when they first found out, they accept her for who she is. Miki doesn’t hide her trans identity, and on those occasions when people ask her if she’s a man, she puts up with it but is clearly annoyed.

A Jan. 17 Asahi Shimbun article focused on two recent TV drama series, “Joshiteki” and a Fuji TV show called “Tonari no Kazoku wa Aoku Mieru,”  in which LGBT characters are portrayed in a more diverse way. Japanese TV dramas have featured LGBT characters as far back as the late 1960s, but they tended to be included either for comic relief or as tragic figures. As the producer of the Fuji series told Asahi, neither partner of the same-sex couple on the show is “feminine” in the received sense of the word, and one is out about his homosexuality while the other is not. What the producer wanted to show was that everyone has their own way of addressing their “nature.”

But the same-sex couple in “Tonari” are not the protagonists. Miki is very much the center of “Joshiteki” and the director has come up with a clever device to reveal her thoughts: Hashtags that appear on the screen indicating how she is sizing up another person. As someone whose identity is wrapped up in appearances — Miki is very serious about her fashion choices — she takes others’ appearance at face value and judges accordingly. She is no different from anyone else in that she has prejudices that are difficult to shake, so while she resents it when people initially see her as a curiosity, she understands where they’re coming from and just hopes they can get to somewhere else.

Asahi says that the mission of “Joshiteki” is to “show the main character’s everyday life” and not necessarily to “explain” sexual identity or orientation. However, the writing is didactic. In the first episode, Tadaomi Goto (Keita Machida), a former classmate of Miki’s, is stranded in Kobe and looks her up, hoping for a place to spend the night. Back in their coastal hometown, Goto knew her from a distance as Mikio, another boy at his high school, so he is shocked to see the transformation.

Goto is essentially the viewer’s proxy, and Miki in no uncertain terms schools him in the particulars of life as a transgender woman, at least as it pertains to her. Miki wants to transition physically but hasn’t gotten to that point yet, and as far as orientation goes she is interested in women (“which, I guess, makes me a lesbian”).

It’s later revealed that her former roommate, another transgender woman (Satsuki Nishihara, who is also listed in the credits as the series’ “transgender coach”), left Miki for a man. These seeming contradictions never fail to baffle Goto, whose exaggerated male clumsiness provides the show with its comic element, but they have a purpose, which is to show, as Miki herself says, that life is “complicated.”

The Asahi article describes this aspect of the show as a breakthrough for Japanese TV. It mentions a recent Fuji TV variety show starring the comedy duo Tunnels that revived a notorious character from more than  20 years ago — a stereotyped gay man who hasn’t come out. The network formally apologized, but the onee-kei tarento — ultrafeminine male TV personality — remains a fixture on variety shows. A professor of gender studies tells Asahi that this model has represented the LGBT spectrum on TV for so long that viewers “are only comfortable with people who act that way, thus reinforcing the stereotype.”

Japanese TV has always strived to uncomplicate matters, to make them easy to understand and digest. Another LGBT scholar told the newspaper that producers use onee-kei celebrity because people watch TV “to forget about their everyday lives.” They don’t want complexity, but she insists it’s the media’s job to promote understanding. In that regard, NHK is doing what it should do, but in dramatic terms “Joshiteki” is almost as two-dimensional as those problematic variety shows. LGBT characters have been incorporated into foreign TV series for decades, and if they promote understanding it’s because all the characters should be complex, not just the LGBT ones. Although the difficulties of adjusting to being a transgender woman in late middle age is the basic plot impetus of the Amazon series “Transparent,” those difficulties are integrated into a larger story about a middle-class California Jewish family in which everyone is going through an identity crisis. Miki’s is the only three-dimensional personality on display in “Joshiteki.”

NHK will have another chance to address LGBT issues in March, when it airs a three-episode adaptation of Gengoroh Tagame’s manga “My Brother’s Husband,” about a Japanese man’s relationship with his late gay twin’s Canadian husband. Given that Tagame is a strong advocate of same-sex marriage, which is not legal in Japan, it will be interesting to see how the public broadcaster handles the story.