Transgender in Japan, pt.1

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.

Another famous transsexual figure, who also was mentioned shortly in the video because she, like Matsuko, was born in 1973, is Haruna Ai (はるな愛)

Japanese Idol Haruna Ai

Haruna Ai
She uses this photo also as her profile picture for her Ameba blog, but to get better resolution I followed the link to Keiji’s blog, where you can read more about Haruna (in Japanese)

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.

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4 thoughts on “Transgender in Japan, pt.1

  1. (I guess I’ll keep the tone and write in English)

    Thanks a lot! As you may know this is a quite interesting topic for me. I don’t know if O-chan told you but I worked as an international project coordinator of a LGBTQI-project some years back. And even though I spend years on and with the topic and read masses of research, the view of Asian cultures on transsexuality is as fascinating as it is unresearched.
    When it comes to transsexuality you have the wide variety of gender-sync crossdressers over gender-fluids to gender-unsync transsexuals. The one extreme are mostly men who identify as men but dress as women (that journalist seems to be quite near that), the other are people who undergo sexual change surgeries. But most transsexuals are actually in the middle of that. Most aren’t exactly sure about their gender. Those who lean towards gender-sync are mostly extroverted people, those who are more gender-unsync are mostly shy. But even of those who are sure they have the wrong body only 1 in 10 undergoes sexual surgery.
    So there is a wide variety. Are Japanese people aware of that variety? What popular images are there? Which are more, which are less accepted?

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  2. I have been seeing Matsuko on advertisements and talk shows, and I have been wondering how she is percieved by Japan. Is she transgender? If so, is she publicly accepted as such? Or is it really just a cross-dressing act for a television personality? Does the public still (mistakenly) confuse homosexuality, transgenderism, and cross-dressing?

    I noticed you used “transsexual/transgender” and “cross-dressing” as if they mean the same thing.
    As you go forward with your research please consider the difference between sexual orientation, transgender (the feeling that you are the wrong gender), and cross-dressing. Sexual orientation is the gender that you are attracted to. Being transgender is experiencing your gender identity as different from the gender you were assigned at birth (this feeling is called gender dysphoria). A transgender person does not have to have surgery to be transgender. Cross-dressing simply means to wear clothes of the opposite gender (a man wears women clothes, a woman wears men clothes), and is not the same as being transgender.

    I identify as a woman, and I was born a woman. If i go out dressed like a man, then I am “cross-dressing.” I do not have to be transgender to cross-dress.

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    • Thanks for your elaborate comment! As far as I understand it, Matsuko is just a stage persona, the person behind the stage persona is male and percieves himself as a man, thus he is cross-dressing. You’re right, I should differentiate more carefully between cross-dressing and transgender, but I still wanted to mention Matsuko, just because he was the reason I stumbled across the whole transgender topic in Japan in the first place. I hope I’ll find soon time and inspiration to write a follow-up article and make things clearer.

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