Before I begin, I would like to make clear that this topic is vastly complex and I still have to conduct a lot of research and reading myself before being able to contribute a substantial statement (hence this article is only pt.1), so for today I will just try to scratch the surface a little bit and see what comes up. For now I will simply throw some popular appearances of transsexuality and cross-dressing in Japan at you.
Recently I had time and opportunity to watch quite a bit Japanese TV and it seems that no matter where I switched there was one character always hunting me: Matsuko Deluxe (マツコ・デラックス). Matsuko is a cross-dressing journalist and writer who had his (I think he still percieves himself as a man, even though he uses the feminine pronoun atashi for himself) breakthrough on TV around 2010. You can get a glimpse of him on youtube:
Unfortunately I couldn’t find any suitable videos with English subtitles, but you get the gist. The video was recorded in a talk show which aired about four years ago, so at that time Matsuko was still a novelty on the Japanese TV landscape, which is why the hosts’ questions are primarily directed at his person and cross-dressing. As far as I understand it, this stage persona is not only a statement to raise awareness on transsexuality and homosexuality (Matsuko himself is gay), but he sees his corpulent figure at the same time as a criticism of the general appearance of female show hosts on Japanese TV, who are reduced to cute looks while their character or wit is completely uncared-for. However, the entertaining thing about Matsuko is his straight-forwardness and directness which seems even more comical since he doesn’t even try to make his voice sound feminine while otherwise maintaining the appearance of a woman. He pretty much ignores all Japanese customs of reservation and therefore the audience loves him.
Haruna underwent sex change surgery in 1996 and since the end of the last century had increasing appearances in public media. Today she is a well known enterntainer and idol in Japan. She had appearances in several TV Dramas, movies, had fairly successful singles, most notably I・U・YO・NE～, appeared in commercials, on radio, etc. She was the first Japanese to win the “Miss International Queen” transsexual beauty pageant in 2009 and she also actively maintains an Ameba blog placatively titled “AI am a girl”.
A last example I would like to mention is the movie Girl’s Blood (Jap. title: 赤×ピンク aka x pinku). [Minimal amount of spoilers] I actually didn’t know anything about that movie when I first watched it and it started out with a lot of eye candy for a presumably heterosexual male viewership, serving the most popular Japanese male fantasies like Lolita and S&M Queen in combination with girl-fights (including mud-fights). But eventually the movie developed a surprisingly deep plot about female friendship and a woman trying to escape the grip of her violently abusive husband and falling in love with the main character who is strongly confused about his gender identity, being a man in a woman’s body. I was really surprised of the quick understanding and acceptance all the other characters in the film showed the main character. For a movie that at first sight seemed closer to soft-porn than to drama, this was actually a better handling of the topic than I have seen in most Hollywood productions.
Now, experimenting with transgender in performing arts is not a new phenomenon in Japan. Most notably there is Kabuki (歌舞伎) theatre where every single role is performed by men and on the other hand Takarazuka (宝塚) where every single role is performed by women, thus making cross-dressing unavoidable. This affinity to transgender on-stage is especially curious, since the division of gender seems to be extremely sharp in Japanese society and, as Jan mentioned earlier, is even deep-rooted in the Japanese language itself. But it is a completly different matter being confronted with it in everyday life. In my next article on this topic I will try to cover some more the perception of and attitude towards transgender in Japan in other areas than performing arts.