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).

Monday 12 August 2019

Keeping Cool in the Punishing Japanese Summer: Traditional and Modern Methods

July may have been the hottest month on record globally, but here in Japan while July was cool August is shaping up to be the hottest on record. It's been day after day of punishing 35℃+ days - with "feels like" heat index readings in the mid-forties - and sleepless 25℃+ nights. People have been really struggling: the Mainichi reported that at least 162 have died from heatstroke so far this summer with over 18,000 sent to hospital in just one week last week. One of the deaths included a worker at a Tokyo Olympic construction site heightening concerns for the athletes next year. Measures such as starting the marathon at 6:00am will not help a great deal when temperatures are already pushing 30℃ in Tokyo at that time.
One consequence of the heatwave has been a drop in productivity - the lateness of this latest blog post is proof of that! Indeed, research shows that heat does make people less productive. Despite the widespread use of air conditioners in Japan, controlling the temperature in the office doesn't actually help people get to work - and in the big cities at least, commuting means walking to and from the station and standing on a jam-packed commuter train. The Tokyo Metropolitan government did start  a campaign last year (2018) to push companies to offer more flexible working hours and also to encourage workers to take earlier trains to avoid over-crowding. The campaign is called Jisa-Biz (時差ビズ  written as 時差Biz) with jisa meaning time-difference (jisa-boke means "jet-lag" for example) and bizu just short for business.

The forerunner of the Jisa-Biz campaign was the Cool-Biz campaign which the Ministry of the Environment initiated in 2005. The idea was to reduce electricity usage by keeping air-conditioners at 28℃; to make this practical companies were encouraged to let employees wear cooler clothes to work, including short-sleeved Hawaiian and Okinawan (Kariyushi) shirts. The campaign transformed into the "Super Cool-Biz" campaign and became a regular feature on the calendar from May to October following the eletricity shortages caused by the triple disaster of 2011. Outside the office, some of the coolest clothing (in both senses of the word) are the traditional summer kimono - yukata - usually made of cotton and worn with sandals. These go perfectly with a hand-dyed tenugui (手ぬぐい) hand-towel made of traditional Japanese fabric that is thin but which absorbs large amounts of water and dries quickly. Larger and longer than handkerchiefs, some Japanese tie them around their neck or head to absorb sweat or even use them to wrap cold plastic bottles.

Keeping cool does not stop at clothes. There are a huge variety of ryōmi (涼味) "cool taste" snacks and drinks to ward off the heat - the picture shows jellies and salt and mineral sweets - not to mention the summer staples of water melon and kakigōri shaved ice. There are also fans of every size and shape: as well as the traditional non-bending uchiwa (pictured) and folding sensu/ōgi fans with summer motifs (like goldfish and dragonflies), there are hand-held electric fans, fans you wear around your neck, and even fans embedded in hats and jackets. Not to mention a "cooling" (rei-kyaku) vest!

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A final and rather unique Japanese custom to keep cool is known as uchimizu (打ち水)which involves throwing water onto hot pavements and roads to cool down the surrounding air. This custom, which is promoted as "wisdom from the Edo era," is traditionally carried out using a wooden ladle known as a hishaku (柄杓) and pail (teoke =手桶), though these days a hose pipe is probably more common (the bucket and ladle set is also used when visiting a grave). The traditional custom is backed up by scientific fact: as the water evaporates (jōhatsu=蒸発) it (temporarily) cools the surrounding air by 1.5℃ according to research by the Ministry of the Environment. Under the slogan Uchimizu Biyori ("Perfect Weather for Uchimizu"), the Tokyo Metropolitan Government holds a number of events during the summer months to promote this traditional custom, including one last Saturday in Odaiba (some pictures here). Whether you have the stamina to venture out to attend such an event is a different matter; personally, apart from dog-walking, I'm staying indoors as much as possible!