Friday 23 August 2019

LGBT Issues in Contemporary Japan: The "Ossan's Love" Boom

Today (August 23rd) saw the public release of the film spin-off of TV Asahi drama Ossan's Love (おっさんず・ラブ) which can be roughly translated as "middle-aged guy's/guys' love." Originally a one-off 2016 TV movie which was billed as a hen-ai (変愛) or "strange love" drama on the official site it morphed into a 2018 7-episode late-night "pure love comedy." Although ratings (shichōritsu =視聴率) were low at the time - around 4% - it became something of a cult hit, leading to the movie release (entitled Ossan's Love: Love or Dead). A media blitz and giant posters at stations featuring two of the main characters (pictured) - undoubtedly the first time a "same-sex love" (dōseiai =同性愛) couple had featured so prominently in public - made it something of a cultural phenomenon. Indeed, Ossan’s Love has become one of the top trending words on Twitter in Japan and apparently even topped Twitter’s trending words ranking worldwide consecutively for two weeks during its final two episodes! In June, the messaging app Line - which is like the Asian Whatsapp - released themed stickers which quickly became the most-bought sticker set in Asia.

Some English articles have categorised the series as a "gay drama" but many fans reject such simplistic labelling. It is also frequently lumped together with the much older "Boy's Love" or BL genre (previously called yaoi) of comics geared towards female readers featuring erotic relationships between men, though this is similarly rejected by fans who point out that a kiss scene is as physical as it gets in Ossan's Love. In fact, the word gay (ゲイ) - which usually refers only to male homosexuals in Japan - is never used in the show and it is never clear if the characters are homosexual (though there is one "coming out" scene where one character tells his father he likes men). Indeed, a central theme is one of moving beyond sexuality, reminiscent of the Foucauldian notion that sexuality - the classification of people into gay, straight, bisexual etc - is a relatively recent invention. The key message of the series is how wonderful it is to love someone - hito o suki ni naru koto (人を好きになること)- regardless of sex or age (the series also features a relationship between a young man and an older woman). Given this premise, it is rather surprising that there are no female-female relationships in the series; however, on second thoughts, maybe it is not so surprising given the invisibility of lesbian women in Japanese society (except in the form of male porn) - men tend to dominate Japanese LGBT movies.

Does the high public profile of Ossan's Love signal greater acceptance of homosexuality in Japan? Certainly, in the last few years, LGBT issues - and the term itself - have become more visible and mainstream. For example, although the annual Tokyo Rainbow Pride Parade has been running for some 25 years, it is only recently that crowds have swelled and big companies like Sony and Google have become sponsors. Many localities - including Shibuya and 22 others - now recognise same-sex relationships (the so-called "partnership system"). However, at the national level Japan still does not legally recognise same-sex marriage, though a bill was submitted this June, just two weeks after Taiwan became the first Asian nation to recognise it. The ruling LDP is unsurprisingly conservative on this issue, though the other day I saw a rainbow poster (pictured) from the Communist Party promoting gender equality. The party - covered in a previous post - has a pamphlet and an extremely detailed policy page and on their site (both in Japanese) with precise definitions, clear support for same-sex marriage, and proposals to protect the human rights of sexual minorities through anti-discrimination legislation.

The problem is that even among young people, there is little understanding of exactly what LGBT means. When I cover such issues in class - and I start off by focusing on LGB only - it is clear that most students don't know the difference between gender (how "masculinity" and "femininity" are constructed in a particular society) and sexuality (individual sexual preference). A big reason for this is that in Japan, sexuality is usually left unspecified (and unacknowledged): it is conflated with (and often subsumed under) gender. Here, the focus is on gender ambiguity (androgyny) rather than sexuality: transgression of gender boundaries (such as cross-dressing or josō=女装) rather then sexual preference. For example, Japanese words which are commonly translated into English as "gay", such as okama (おかま) and o-nē (オネー)  - literally elder sister - actually denote individuals who act/dress/speak in a feminine way though they may - or may not - be gay. These ideas are explored in more detail in a great chapter by James Valentine available here. But if that is too heavy for you, you can simply enjoy the Ossan's Love film - or binge watch the series on Netflix (with English subtitles).