Dive into the Japanese LGBTQ+ Community with “Queer Japan”

Queer Japan

After five years of development and shooting, over 100 interviews, and a successful run on the global film festival circuit, Altered Innocence’s documentary Queer Japan will be available in the US and Canada via Theatrical-at-Home and Digital On Demand on December 11.

Queer Japan examines Japan’s contemporary LGBTQ+ culture, from pride parades to laid-back gay bars to community centers to underground kink parties. This documentary profiles queer individuals from across the spectrum who are living unconventional lives in a very conventional culture. Individuals like manga artist Gengoroh Tagame (My Brother’s Husband), who tours the world promoting his unashamedly erotic gay art, and his former publishing partner, HIV+ advocate Hiroshi Hasegawa, who was among one of the first people to contract HIV in the country. Individuals like councilwoman Aya Kamikawa, the first trans person elected to government in Japan.

Queer Japan focuses on four Japanese cities – Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Okinawa – and interviews not only renowned members of the Japanese LGBTQ+ community such as those mentioned in the above paragraph, but also average citizens – people who are office workers or teachers or dentists. We look in famous parties and events, and we look into people’s homes and offices. It is, to my relatively uneducated Western eyes, a fairly good snapshot of what it is like to be queer in Japan.

Queer Japan
Nogi Sumiko, Atsushi Matsuda, Hiroshi Hasegawa, Gengoroh Tagame, Akira the Hustler, and Tomato Hatakeno (Image: Justin Cook PR)

The queer experience is both universal and not. The saying “your experiences are not universal” is meant to remind everyone that your anecdote is not evidence, that not everyone has the same life, and that many have struggled more or less than you have. However, it is universal in the sense that these varied experiences happen all over the world. Getting bullied, struggling to come out, trying to identify how you should identify, these are things that happen to queer people in every country. I think what most surprised me about Queer Japan is how similar queer culture is in a country that has a very different culture than the United States. 

Shinjuku Ni-Chome, Tokyo’s gay district, is now bright and vibrant, glowing neon and filled with people, but a local bar owner recalls when it was dark and none of the queer spaces were street level, because you very much did not want to be seen going there; it could ruin your life. To a certain extent, this is still true – employment discrimination is a big thing in Japan, and a few of the people profiled in the documentary are not out at work for this reason. I think something important showcased in this documentary is that there has always been a community, and it’s starting to gain more acceptance.

The culture is different, but the attitude in the community is the same; it’s the idea that we’re all searching for something that’s inherently hard to describe but is a part of ourselves. There is a lot of emphasis on living your best life and being true to yourself, but there is also the sentiment that there is nothing wrong with not wanting to or not being able to come out. This documentary is very much about not only finding but also occasionally establishing a community; if there is nowhere for you to go, carve out a space yourself.

Unfortunately, the attitude against the community is also the same. There’s a focus on one particular politician who seems to have the belief that everyone has a gay phase as a youth but when you grow up, you have to become “normal”. Recognition of same-sex partnerships is largely at the city level, and even then offers very little legal protection. A petition was launched just a few months ago seeking an equality law at the national level, which was to be argued before the National Diet last month. 

Queer Japan
Tokyo Rainbow Pride 2016 (Image: Justin Cook PR)

While this is a documentary that explores the queer community in Japan, it is also about so much more than that, because the community is about more than just who people are attracted to. There are some very important topics discussed in this film, such as the importance of recognizing and destigmatizing sex work, HIV and STI education, the political fight for human rights, the evolution of language (and identities) in the community, and the ever-increasing corporatism in Pride events.

There is also a bit about racism in Japan, primarily against ethnically Korean Japanese citizens, and how racist demonstrations against these people led to the LGBTQ+ community organizing counter-demonstrations. It’s important to recognize that we are not alone in our fight for equality, and that we need to reach out to others who are suffering from the same oppression.

One thing I really have to mention is how much I loved the title credits sequence. The names of the individuals featured are splashed across Shinjuku Ni-Chome like neon signs, and I thought it was a lovely way of saying that the community isn’t hiding in the dark the way it used to have to. Really, the entire film is full of color and lights, and it’s such a good representation of a community that uses a rainbow as its symbol.

In short, Queer Japan is an educational, emotional look at a vibrant and unapologetic community. I teared up a couple of times listening to people’s stories, and I actually learned a bit about Japanese history. I highly recommend this documentary to anyone who is interested in LGBTQ+ or Japanese culture.

Queer Japan will be available December 11 via Theatrical-at-Home and Digital On Demand, including Apple TV, Prime Video, and Google Play.

*I was provided with a free screener of Queer Japan in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.*

Author: Jamie Sugah

Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.

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