Homophobia as Epistemic Justice in Japan

by Marie Yamamoto, October 14, 2021

While it is considered relatively safe for gay and bisexual individuals to live in compared to other East Asian countries, Japan still does not protect LGBTQ+ individuals from hate crimes on the national level, allow for same-sex marriages, recognize same-sex marriages performed abroad, or allow same-sex partners to adopt children or undergo IVF, among other refusals to recognize their human rights (“Japan”). Recently, there was an attempt to pass national legislation that would have at least granted LGBTQ+ people protection against discrimination on the basis of sexuality and gender. However, the legislation was watered down to instead “promote understanding” towards this group.  The legislation was ultimately tabled in the summer of 2021 (Holmes). 

Those who are in favor of maintaining this status quo insist that homosexuality is a Western ideal imported into Asia as a result of globalization (Wong). Those within the largely conservative National Diet have also allegedly argued that protecting gay and transgender individuals is too radical of a change and would hinder the country’s growth (Holmes). However, exploring the historical stances Japan has taken towards sexual fluidity reveals how deeply-entrenched colonialist ideas are within the Diet’s outward lack of compassion towards LGBTQ+ individuals. Homophobia within Japan is a result of epistemic injustice that arose as Japan faced pressure to conform to the West during the Meiji Era, and leaders within Japan should take steps to mend it from an epistemological perspective.

Colonization can have deep, long-lasting implications for the culture being colonized due to its ability to impose outside knowledge while undermining local knowledge. After all, colonization not only involves the exploitation of the resources and labor of the colonized but also involves the destruction and warping of the colonized culture to the point that it becomes “inferiorized, marginalized, and anonymized” so that the colonizer’s treatment is viewed as “beneficial and fair” (Collste). Often, this involves the addition of foreign epistemic frameworks into the colonized culture, which can destabilize old knowledge that has worked effectively in the past. In “Cultural Pluralism and Epistemic Injustice,” Goran Collste defines an epistemic framework as a means by which one within a given culture may “interpret, understand, and categorize [one’s] impressions and experiences so that they are manageable and possible to communicate and assess” (Collste). Quoting Rajeev Bhargava, he also emphasizes that any given epistemic framework relies on “‘historically generated, collectively sustained” lenses that inform both one’s individual identity and the culture’s collective identity (Collste).

From a religious standpoint, the introduction of the Judeo-Christian concept of shame surrounding sex—and homosexuality in general—fueled the suppression of the open expression of same-sex relationships. Neither Shintoism nor Japanese Buddhism—the two major religions in Japan up until the present day—decried homosexuality. In the Kojiki, the first written compilation of mythos considered sacred in Shinto practices, homosexuality is not decried; in fact, it is not even mentioned (Koichi). While male-female sexual activity is considered more corrupting to the soul, overall, Shintoism does not engrain ideas of shame into sex (Koichi). Likewise, among Buddhist monks sworn to celibacy, male-female sexual activity has been seen as innately defiling, whereas homosexual activity is not offensive enough to be considered punishable (Koichi). Shintoism and Buddhism’s more sex-positive ideas allowed Japan to found its ideologies regarding sex as separated from morality. Because their fundamental ideals regarding these topics contrasted so starkly, encroaching Western powers looked upon this aspect of Japanese culture with surprise and disgust. Outward expressions of sexuality and male-male relationships were decried in newspapers overseas, which ultimately led to Japan’s ruling elite deeming it as something meant to be left in the past (Koichi). In this sense, Japan’s swiftly-changing moral attitudes were not a result of Japan’s free will, rather they were a result of the constant, looming threat of a loss of respect from more powerful countries. The sudden change arose as Japan was “disrespected and considered as inferior” by Western powers, which instilled in them an “enduring sense of inferiority among the adherents of the old culture.” Homophobia followed (Collste). Shame towards these aspects of Japanese culture stemmed in part from how incompatible these local and imported epistemic frameworks were. With the looming fear of colonization, sexual freedom and fluidity were increasingly pushed out of Japan’s mainstream epistemic framework in order to harmonize with its oppressors (Collste).

Likewise, the medicalization of homosexuality is one such example of the addition of an epistemic framework that warped Japan’s local knowledge and led to the “othering” of gay individuals. In practice, same-sex relationships were normalized up until the beginning of the Meiji Era in the late 19th century. Sexuality was regarded as both fluid and something that was done as opposed to something that was an innate part of oneself. Men of all classes were able to engage in nanshoku and wakashudo culture, forms of love between men, and this did not prevent them from engaging in joshoku, or love between men and women (McLelland). Wim Lunsing further indicates that it was believed that “anybody could ‘slip’ (ochiiru) into pseudo-homosexuality for a variety of reasons” (Lunsing). The concept of a fixed sexual identity, therefore, did not exist within Japan’s epistemic framework regarding sexuality. Rather, it was perceived to be a result of one’s environment or a desire to experiment in one’s youth, or simply just love (Lunsing). 

Into the early 1900s, Japanese scholars studied in the West. They took with them both the concept of homosexuality as a fixed identifier, as evinced by the creation of the words dōseiai and iseiai to embody the concept of homosexuality and heterosexuality respectively within the binary sexuality spectrum (McLelland). After World War II, they adopted the Western belief that homosexuality was a mental illness and therefore an abnormality to be studied (McLelland). Despite Japan’s long-standing cultural perspective and practices, the insertion of pseudoscientific ideals framed by Western empirical thinking into Japan’s concept of sexuality resulted in the deeming of homosexuality as inferior compared to heterosexuality (McLelland). It is more difficult to compare with cultural practices without such evidence, even though said evidence may be heavily influenced by the biases of the scholars (Mao). Since Western empiricism positions itself as absolute based on its emphasis on the need for scientific evidence, Japan’s historical lens regarding sexuality was largely discarded and replaced with one that was less suited to capture its nuances and normalcy.

As a result of the adoption of these Western ideals, gay people in Japan have a more difficult time being accepted by society, and their experiences are distorted and obscured. There lacks an adequate epistemic framework for them to make sense of their sexuality largely within the context of their own history, and there still exists a subtle prejudice against gay individuals in their lack of serious representation in mainstream media and the pressure to conform to traditional, heteronormative standards (Wong). 

It must be said that it is entirely possible to slowly mend this epistemic injustice. Especially within its cities, the Japanese public is largely supportive of LGBTQ+ rights, and there have been ongoing efforts by advocacy groups towards more legislation to protect LGBTQ+ people and addressing misconceptions regarding homosexuality (Holmes). Queer Japanese people should not only be given the opportunity and resources to reconnect with their rich culture on their own terms, but also the opportunity to productively voice their own needs and concerns. In “Reflective Encounters: Illustrating Comparative Rhetoric,” LuMing Mao suggests that groups with opposing viewpoints or cultures listen to each other with an open mind with the purpose of self-reflection and understanding. If conversations like these occur within this context, those with biases against gay people—especially those within the government—can differently understand their viewpoints regarding homosexuality with the intent of social progress. The means by which homophobic biases manifest in the everyday lives of gay people must be restricted in order for healing to occur.

It is inherently wrong to call homosexuality a Western concept; the truth is that Japan’s fear of occupation by the Western imperial powers applied immense pressure to conform to Western ideals, which included shame associated with gay relationships and sex in general. This distancing from Japan’s rich queer culture and customs has resulted in homosexuality being seen as a result of globalization as sexuality began to be defined by Western terminology. Moving forward, the Japanese public should be educated on Japanese queer history and more rights must be afforded to queer individuals. It is entirely possible for the public to reconnect with these roots in their history with an open mind and work towards justice for gay individuals.

Works Cited

Collste, Göran. “Cultural Pluralism and Epistemic Injustice.” Journal of Nationalism, Memory & Language Politics, vol.13, no.2, 2019, pp.152–163. ResearchGate, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/335431712_Cultural_Pluralism_and_Epistemic_Injustice.

Holmes, Juwan J. “Japanese Politicians Refuse to Pass LGBTQ Rights Bill as Olympics Approach.” LGBTQ Nation, 25 May 2021, http://www.lgbtqnation.com/2021/05/japanese-politicians-refuse-pass-lgbtq-rights-bill-olympics-approach/.

“Japan.” Out Leadership, 21 Mar. 2019, outleadership.com/countries/japan/.

Koichi. “The Gay of the Samurai.” Tofugu, 30 Sept. 2015, http://www.tofugu.com/japan/gay-samurai/. 

Lunsing, Wim. “Discourses and Practices of Homosexuality in Japan: Recent Contributions to the Literature.” Social Science Japan Journal, vol. 4, no. 2, 2001, pp. 269–73. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30209329.

Mao, LuMing. “Reflective Encounters: Illustrating Comparative Rhetoric.” Style, vol. 37, no. 4, Penn State University Press, 2003, pp. 401–24. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/style.37.4.401.

McLelland, Mark J. “Japan’s Queer Cultures.” The Routledge Handbook of Japanese Culture and Society, edited by Theodore and Victoria Bestor, Routledge, 2011, p. 140–149. University of Wollongong Australia Digital Commons, ro.uow.edu.au/artspapers/265.

Wong, Brian. “Column: Homophobia Is Not an Asian Value.” Time, 17 Dec. 2020,  time.com/5918808/homophobia-homosexuality-lgbt-asian-values/.

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