Tokyo Rainbow Pride 2012. CREDIT: <a href="">Lauren Anderson</a> <a href="">(CC)</a>
Tokyo Rainbow Pride 2012. CREDIT: Lauren Anderson (CC)

Gender Identity in Japan

May 3, 2016

Sonja Pei-fen Dale teaches at Tokyo's Hitotsubashi University, where she specializes in LGBT gender issues and identities in Japan. In this fascinating conversation about gender and minorities in Japan today, she discusses the term "X-gender," how LGBT individuals are perceived, the social ideal of the traditional family, and much more.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart. I'm here at Carnegie Council, and I am speaking today with Sonja Dale. She is a Pacific Fellow here at Carnegie Council, but she is based in Tokyo at Hitotsubashi University. Her specialty is LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) gender issues and identities.

Sonja, who also goes by SPF Dale, welcome to the podcast today.

SONJA DALE: Thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure.

DEVIN STEWART: Sonja, tell us a little bit about your current research on gender identity in Japan.

SONJA DALE: My research so far has focused on a specific gender identity, or rather a specific term, which is a term called "X-gender." It is a term that is used to refer to non-binary gender identities in Japan. Through my work I have interviewed people who use this term to refer to themselves and who identify with this term. It means different things for different individuals, but generally it means that individuals don't identify with the socially recognized terms of woman or man or, in some cases, it also refers to rejecting the gender binary in society.

DEVIN STEWART: This is often called the "third gender" in other places?

SONJA DALE: Right. It's something that each culture has a different word for it. I think in the United States and in Anglophone countries right now the term used is "genderqueer," or even "bigender" as well.

DEVIN STEWART: How big do you think this is as a proportion of the Japanese population do you think?

SONJA DALE: I think it's really difficult to say. It's very difficult to say. My own research looks at this specific term and the people who use this specific term. I don't think I'm going to venture to guess how many people there might actually be in Japanese society who are X-gender. But there are certainly more and more people who use this term to refer to themselves and who use it as an identity label.

Within LGBT communities, it's also a term that is gaining increasing recognition. So it is really difficult to talk about transgender identities in Japan today without referring to people who identify as X-gender as well. It's certainly a term, I think, that has gained more recognition in the past five years in particular.

DEVIN STEWART: So you've been looking at changes over the past five years. Can you tell me what have you seen and what is causing those changes?

SONJA DALE: This is research that I started for my Ph.D. dissertation. When I first started my research, the term was sort of known to an extent. There were online groups of people who identified as X-gender, there were blogs by people who identified as X-gender, and there were a few community groups for individuals who identified as X-gender as well. But it wasn't really that well-known within the LGBT community. It wasn't a term that popped up in textbook definitions of LGBT individuals in Japan, for example.

But more recently there is a Wikipedia page for X-gender and there are more community groups for individuals who identify as X-gender. In topic discussions of LGBT identities, the term X-gender is one that comes up. It has also been brought up in media discussions of LGBT identities as well.

I think one of the big changes maybe is the Internet. A lot of the people who I spoke to who identify as X-gender actually found out about the term on the Internet. They hadn't really participated in LGBT community groups in the so-called offline world, but they had been communicating with people online. When trying to find out more about themselves, they Googled online, and they found out about this word, and they came to identify with it as well. I think that the Internet has really had a big influence in how this word has come to spread and also in the social recognition that it has come to have.

DEVIN STEWART: And you also have noticed that, because of the growing awareness of the word, the definition has also started to become more concrete; is that correct?

SONJA DALE: Yes, that's definitely so. I think perhaps that is what happens with any concept, or any word as well. When it becomes more well-known, it also becomes more concrete and more fixed in a way.

When I first started my research, I think individuals were more open to define the word X-gender and what it meant to be X-gender, what it meant to be neither female nor male. But recently it does seem like there is an understanding of the term X-gender that means sort of androgynous or chusei, which means between female and male. Some of the people that I originally spoke with don't really identify with the term anymore because of the changing impressions or changing meanings of it.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you also see changing views generally in Japanese society about gender?

SONJA DALE: Changing views about gender? I think in the past five years I don't think I've seen any big changes actually.

But, if I am just going to talk about how LGBT individuals are socially perceived, there does seem to be greater social acceptance, social recognition of people who are LGBT, in society. I teach gender and sexuality studies at a university in Japan, and my students certainly do seem very aware of these issues and very interested in these issues as well. I think firmly among young people there is a growing awareness and also an acceptance of LGBT individuals and issues in Japan.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you see that growing acceptance playing out in any way in politics or in policy?

SONJA DALE: When it comes to LGBT people? Just talking about maybe the lesbian and gay issues, recently in Japan same-sex partnership has become recognized in certain wards in Japan—not even in the whole city, but just in the wards—so that in the Shibuya and in the Setagaya wards in Tokyo same-sex partnership is now allowed. It is not exactly the same as same-sex marriage, you don't get the exact same rights and officially it is slightly different, but it is possible now to enter into a legal partnership with your partner who is the same sex. So there certainly is more awareness of that.

With regards to transgender individuals, there have been no big changes in the past 10-15 years. But recently schools are now obliged to take into consideration the needs of transgender people. So there does seem to be a movement towards doing more. Not that much has been done yet, but there is a movement towards doing more, I think, right now in this moment in time.

DEVIN STEWART: In the United States one of the biggest issues these days is the use of public bathrooms and toilets. Is there such a contentious issue in Japan right now?

SONJA DALE: That is not a contentious issue right now. But just very recently—actually I think it was earlier this year—there was a case of a transgender woman who was not allowed to use the female toilets at her workplace. The reason was that her female colleagues said that they did not feel comfortable using the same toilet as her. She actually brought this case to court, and I believe she won the case, because officially she has also changed her legal gender so she is officially a woman and she should be treated as one.

But, other than that one case that made the news, the issue of transgender people and toilets is not one that has generated that much controversy in Japan.

It is something that I also ask the people that I speak with about very often: What issues do they face when they go to the toilet? Have they ever had any problems in the toilets? According to most of my transgender informants, as well as my transgender friends and acquaintances, it doesn't seem to be that big of a problem, or at least most of them have not experienced any problems or have not experienced violence when going to the toilet.

I think that it's definitely a different issue here. I'm not quite sure what the reasons might be.

DEVIN STEWART: Are there other contentious issues regarding gender in Japan right now?

SONJA DALE: Not so much with regards to LGBT issues. I think one of the big issues perhaps is the social ideal of the heteronormative, heterosexual family—one man, one woman, and children. Because of this social ideal, it is also not possible for two married individuals to have a separate last name. A lot of women are not able to retain their maiden name or their last name when they get married and they have to change to their husband's name. This is problematic for a lot of women because it means that, for example, if they work in academia, they might lose their previous publication records.

Also it just is maintaining this patriarchal system where a woman has to enter into a man's family when she gets married.

DEVIN STEWART: Is the current system under scrutiny right now by the general public? Do you see some pressure for things to change?

SONJA DALE: That was actually just brought to court. I think this was late last year. A number of women who are married and who oppose the system actually brought their case to the court. The High Court rejected it. They said that the current system, the current one-last-family-name system, should be kept in place because it helps people know that the couples who are married are a family unit.

It also should be noted that there were two female judges on the case and both of them thought that the current system should be overturned. But most of the male judges decided to uphold the system.

This issue was discussed quite a bit in the media at the time, but it did not seem to generate that much public discussion. It sort of died down after that as well.

It has been an issue, I think, that a lot of feminist groups have been really working on and trying to change for a long time. Perhaps the fact that the case was brought to court is significant in that sense. But it is definitely a problem that still persists. Hopefully, it will change in the near future. We will see.

DEVIN STEWART: Your research also looks at minority groups in Japan as well as race. Do you want to talk a little bit about what you've found in those areas?

SONJA DALE: In class I teach a group of students, a mix of Japanese and also non-Japanese students as well as from other countries, and we talk a lot about what it means to be Japanese, who is considered Japanese in Japan.

I think a very interesting thing here is that the Japanese government actually does not have any data about the different ethnic backgrounds of the individuals who live in Japan. So when looking at the Japanese population and demographics, there only exists information about the different nationalities of people who live in Japan. Right now in Japan, 1.5 percent of the population is considered to be non-Japanese. A lot of people mistake this to mean that only 1.5 percent of the population does not have an ethnic Japanese background. But this is also very misleading because there are lots of Japanese citizens who have different ethnic backgrounds.

In this sense, Japan is actually a little bit more diverse than people often believe it to be. So I think it's important to look beneath the surface of Japanese society in many ways. Beneath the data that we have, there is often a lot of diversity that is actually being hidden away.

I think that is really one of the aims of my research and also of my teaching, to look beneath the surface and to look at the different people, the different experiences, that exist in society.

DEVIN STEWART: Sonja, that's great advice for people trying to understand what's going on in Japan these days, looking beneath the surface and challenging conventional wisdom.

As a final note, do you have any last pieces of advice for people looking at Japan?

SONJA DALE: I would say if you are looking at Japan, first of all, definitely come to Japan. I think there is a lot of exoticizing, a lot of Orientalizing happening in discussions of Japanese culture, especially when it comes to gender and sexuality. So I think experiencing Japan is definitely very important.

If you want to do research about Japan, please come here and try to speak with as many different people as you can. I'm sure that you will find that there is no one shared opinion, that lots of people have different opinions and different experiences in different ways.

Just experience Japan as much as you can, I think, is the one piece of advice I would like to give.

DEVIN STEWART: That is great advice. I certainly agree, Sonja. Thank you so much for your time and for your great insights.

SONJA DALE: Thank you.

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