Japan has in recent years become a much more progressive place in which LGBTQ+ rights continue to advance though hopes that hosting the Olympics would finally provoke a shift in the political reality ultimately came to nothing with anti-discrimination and national equal marriage legislation still pending. Released in 2019, Graham Kolbeins’ comprehensive documentary Queer Japan (クィア・ジャパン) as its name suggests explores the lives of ordinary people across the spectrum of the LGBTQ+ community yet cannot perhaps avoid falling victim to, as one interviewee points out, a certain degree of exoticisation even while demonstrating the diversity present with the community itself.
Nevertheless, Kolbeins is keen to stress the warmth and solidarity found with the various subcultures he explores such as that surrounding Department H, a costume fetish ball at which all are welcome from gay furries and puppy play enthusiasts to avantgarde artists such as a young woman whose multi-person rubber pig giving birth is notable inclusion. As the club’s hostess, drag queen Margarette, points out the fetish scene often transcends ideas of gender, the club providing a totally safe, inclusive, and relaxed place where anyone can come to be themselves and find acceptance.
That has not always been true when it comes to other aspects of the community as evidenced by the controversy surrounding lesbian bar Gold Finger which came under fire some years ago for refusing admittance to transwomen under its longstanding women only policy. Interviewed here Chika Ogawa outlines her original reluctance to admit transmen who had previously been frequent customers prior to transition but eventually reconsidered to team up with another group to host an evening geared towards transmen and masculine women as a place where the community can come together.
As explained by activist Fumino Sugiyama, it is legally possible to change one’s gender in Japan though the conditions are somewhat draconian and require the surgical removal of reproductive organs which some have viewed as a breach of fundamental human rights. The change in the law was largely due to Japan’s first transgender lawmaker Aya Kamikawa who outlines how difficult her life had been unable to change her gender on her family register creating problems when trying to rent an apartment, access healthcare, or gain employment. She admits that the law passed was very strict, but laments the limits of what is possible under the current LDP administration and its ultraconservative outlook as evidenced by gaffe-prone politician Mio Sugita’s characterisation of the LGBTQ+ community as “unproductive” and therefore not deserving of social benefits.
Pioneer of gay manga and G-Men co-creator Hiroshi Hasegawa remarks that the oppression faced by the community in Japan is often less direct than it might be elsewhere operating largely through societal shaming and a conformist social culture. Kolbeins discovers this to be true on visiting other cities such as Naha, Okinawa, where a cheerful dentist reveals that he only embraced his love of dancing at the age of 33 and spoke to no one for two years after receiving a bad reaction to coming out during university. Nevertheless, in the face of this indirect oppression the community has developed a sense of comprehensive, intersectional solidarity often coming out to counterprotest racist prejudice against ethnically Korean citizens and discovering that the anti-racist straight community often comes to Pride to support them in return. Bearing out this spirit of intersectionality, Queer Japan is fully subtitled in Japanese throughout while a deaf LGBTQ+ activist highlights the importance of proper sign language interpretation which is familiar with the community.
Even so, Japan’s LGBTQ+ community is subject to the same concerns as many others from around the world one Pride goer criticising the increasing commercialisation of the event, sympathetic that some degree of sponsorship is necessary to hold a celebration on this scale but also that you need to be accountable. Meanwhile a young trans person objects to the celebratory atmosphere insisting that all they want is to feel safe using the bathroom, love can wait. There is clearly work to do, but also much already accomplished one vox popper enthusiastically listing all of his various fetishes with thinly concealed glee while making a serious point about normalising condom usage. Featuring internationally well-known figures such as gay erotic manga pioneer Gengoroh Tagame alongside activists and ordinary members of the LGBTQ+ community, Kolbeins’ handsomely lensed doc showcases the diversity of queer life in Japan while never losing sight of the battles still to be won.
Original trailer (English subtitles)