Navigating Between the Gender Binary in Japan

Ranking as 114th on the global gender equality rankings chart, Japan still has a long way to go in empowering women – a movement that is slowly gaining traction. It is no surprise the LGBTQ community is also facing neglect for the lack of rights and continuing issues of stigmatization.

An asexual and non-binary myself, I have felt these two realities weigh down on my life as persistent burdens. Like many other women and queer people, these issues are encountered almost always, if not daily. What makes living so tough for women and members of the LGBTQ community? The answer lies in Japan’s culture of homogeneity.

Japan has long been described as a homogenous society for its distinctiveness in multiple aspects. In terms of its national identity, it is mainly composed of a single race and has only one chief language as well, which is not spoken as commonly in other places. It is very much the opposite of America, where various ethnic groups and languages converge to form the “melting pot” as it is known for.

But the homogeneity goes down deeper; permeating and shaping perceptions of gender and sexuality. Unlike other major languages, Japanese is tightly connected to gender so it is easy to assume one’s gender by the way they speak. Although Spanish and German do have their own linguistic differences according to gender, much can be learnt about one’s identity by just the personal pronoun “I.”

For example, “I” can be spoken in at least 4 different ways: watashi (formal/female), ore (male), atashi (female), boku (male), and washi (male). While watashi is used as a polite term, it is mostly for women, while ore is always for men and imparts an air of toughness or masculinity. This is why I feel awkward when I use watashi as it does not really align with my identity, which also goes for boku as well, which is a pronoun that is typically associated with young boys.

Besides the language, sexuality is another issue bound by homogeneity. Heterosexuality is pervasive in Japan, especially in the media where straight people dominate the platform. Films and TV series endlessly feature straight couples and frequently depict caricatures of queer (if any) characters. As a result, the media is one of the largest reasons for Japan’s treatment of queer people as taboo.

So today, as I act and speak in feminine fashion when I go outside, it makes me feel uncomfortable to be surrounded in such a rigid environment. At the same time, it is difficult to explain to people how it is like to be neither completely feminine nor masculine. There is simply no widespread awareness of such people and knowledge that they actually exist.

With no major public figures who represent people like myself, I constantly hope a new wind of acceptance will come into Japan. Perhaps the time when I no longer get bombarded with you-will-get-marrieds and do-you-have-a-boyfriends will come soon. Perhaps a gay man can finally get married to his lover soon. Perhaps a schoolgirl will no longer have to wear a skirt for her uniform soon.

But how much longer will it take?