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7 May 2012

Contact Moments: The Politics of Intercultural Desire in Japanese Male-Queer Cultures

Focusing on a range of Japanese as well as English male-queer materials including magazines and websites, author Katsuhiko Suganuma examines the formation of masculine same-sex desire in postwar Japan, and in particular to one aspect of its relations with the West (Euro-America).

Contact Moments: The Politics of Intercultural Desire in Japanese Male-Queer Cultures
By Katsuhiko Suganuma
The Ninth Volume in the Queer Asia Series Published by the Hong Kong University Press, 2012 

I am having enormous pleasure reviewing the burgeoning Queer Asia series by Hong Kong University Press. As a non-academic reader, I find that one can often lack the keys to open doors to current scholarship in the hugely diverse field of Asian sexualities and genders. This series is going further and further in providing this missing access. Works so far published in the series have focussed on China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand (I’ve missed the eighth work published so far, Denise Tse-Shang Tang’s Conditional Spaces: Hong Kong Lesbian Desires and Everyday Life, but will chase it up and write about it soon).

Now, Hong Kong University Press has given Japanese (but in part American and Australian educated) scholar Katsuhiko Suganuma, Assistant Professor at the Center for International Education and Research at Oita University, space to turn our attention to Japan, and in particular to one aspect of its relations with the West, masculine same-sex desire.

Suganuma makes it clear on his first page that his recently published Contact Moments is not so much about Japan’s ‘queer cultures’ themselves but about their relations with the outside world and in particular with America. As he puts it: “This book looks at how binaries are used and employed in the context of contacts between queer cultures in Japan and the West (Euro-America)”, the binaries at issue being “concepts including ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘West’ and ‘non-West’, ‘man’ and ‘woman’, ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’.” Later, he sets himself to answer the questions: “What does cross-cultural contact do to Japan’s construction of gender and sexuality? How does the discourse of gender and sexuality mediate national politics in the context of globalisation? And how and in what ways does the binary opposition of local/global, Japan/West, and us/them, reconstitute itself through being deployed at the moment of queer cross-cultural contact?” In effect, how has the West affected Japan’s queer culture over the last seven decades?

Front cover of the inaugural issue of Barazoku (September 1971).Barazoku was the first and longest-running monthly magazine for gay men in Japan that began publication in July 1971 until 2004. Image source: Intersections

His analysis centres around key texts, organisations and individuals in an ascending chronological framework which is not, and is not intended to be, a history of gay Japan. I should say at the outset that these analyses are by their nature exemplars only, designed to illustrate the bigger picture he senses behind them. Suganuma draws conclusions from, and posits wider application by, these examples, but does not claim to be analysing developments seen across the whole of this historical period. He starts with the same-sex element of the ‘upsurge of discourses on gender and sexuality in early post-war Japan’, that is the nikutai bingaku (‘literature of the flesh’) which emerged as part of the post-war kasutori commercial sex culture, particularly in the hentai zasshi (‘perverse magazines’), which carried discussions of the sex provided to American conquerors by the commercial pan pan boys. He then moves on two to three decades to the seventies and examines Japan’s first commercial gay magazine, Barazoku (Rose Tribe), and the light it reflects on Japan’s gaijin (foreigner) complex, looking in particular at the magazine’s vivid images of Japanese men as small, effeminate and vulnerable children threatened by large, hairy and predatory Westerners. 

Chapter 4 of the book is a reflection upon Japan as it was seen in the nineties by a Caucasian American, John Whittier Treat, who wrote of his experiences teaching there in his memoir of 1999, Great Mirrors Shattered; Homosexuality, Orientalism, and Japan. Treat was an intelligent man who pondered on all the issues involved in the cross-cultural sexual transactions in which he indulged. Many have seen him as an unreconstructed Orientalist or even racist, but Suganuma is kinder and finds an irony in his work which he considers aimed at undermining the very stance of which Treat is accused.

Suganuma then moves on but remains in the nineties to examine the politics of what he describes as the ‘mask’ of western activism adopted by the Japanese LGBT activist group OCCUR, the Japan Association for the Lesbian & Gay Movement, which was founded in 1987. Finally, he addresses the web site Gay Japan News (GJN), established in 2007 by Mochizuki Hiroshi and his American male partner to bring to Japanese netizens LGBT news from around the world. 

This is a densely written volume in typical Queer Theory style, and if it has a fault it is that it is too introverted in the way it gives such wide space to discussions of Queer Theorists and their pronouncements. These tend to swamp the text and detract from what the writer is trying to say. One comes to wish that he (like many other academics of the genre) would have a little more courage in his own convictions and less in those of Foucault, Judith Butler or Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. The discipline of Queer Theory is so difficult to like that one finds oneself persevering only because the intrinsically fascinating subjects of which it treats make the mental masochism of reading its texts worth the pain.

Suganuma himself seems to wonder if it’s all worthwhile. Using a horrible ‘Orientalist’ cliché, Suganuma is too inscrutable to completely cut the ground from under his own feet here, and so at times seems to float on a mist of unknowing. In his conclusion he worries about Queer Theory’s faults: its deconstruction of categories without any useful replacement; its highly theoretical methodology; it’s a-historical analysis; its dissociation ‘from the everyday social and political conditions facing LGBT individuals’; its over-emphasis on surfaces rather than interior psychologies. Elsewhere he frets that Queer Theory has loosened too far the boundaries of what it addresses; can it be said to be studying anything concrete at all if everything is ‘queer’? Does the whole discipline of Queer Studies not suffer from overmuch concentration upon post-colonialism, which by battling the ‘Orientalism’ inherent in the Western perspective perpetuates its influence in the guise of the ‘other’ or ‘enemy’. Suganuma is not adamant about it, but I think he thinks so.

One could personally add to his list of Queer Theory downers the perpetual mangling of the language in the ever more elaborate neologisms its writers employ and in their often garbled syntax, which evaporates meaning as it seeks to impress. Suganuma is not entirely innocent here himself. The odd use of ‘interpellated’ or ‘interpellation’ might be excusable, but six times on one page (73)? I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary only to become less wise than before. 

Do these studies allow Suganuma to answer the questions he poses in his introductory first chapter? I would have to respond only ‘to some degree’, and it would seem that his answer to the question of whether foreign contact has affected Japanese queer culture is similarly ‘to some degree’. He does not, I think, believe that the binary of ‘local’ / ’foreign’ can be said to define Japanese culture. What, then, are his conclusions? Japanese ‘referencing of the West resulted in moments in which the Japanese subject became more conscious about personal identities and images.’ The binary was thus ‘generative and productive.’ This is not a very concrete conclusion, though it is an honest one. Maybe it is doubtful, he finally muses, if looking at Japanese culture through the prism of ‘the binary’ of its relationship with the West is a good idea at all. Can Japanese queer culture not stand alone? Suganuma seems to think so, but he is not categoric on the point. It is a conclusion, though, that I have found grows more and more compelling from a reading the whole Queer Asia series and it is one I have come personally to support. 


Reader's Comments

1. 2012-05-07 10:31  
I'm sure there's alot to be said about queer male culture generally but most of it, from my personal experience, seems to revolve around sex, idealised male body parts and clubs, cruising locations, etc., etc. Even the sales pitches of gay-friendly travel agencies are all skewed towards the promise of endless sexual bliss and lots of hot eye-candy. I've often pondered whether or not one can be a male who's comfortable with his gay orientation yet not be preoccupied or obsessed with sex or things sexual. I'm sure it's possible but I suspect that that'd probably be more the exception than the rule.
Comment edited on 2012-05-07 10:32:57
2. 2012-05-08 13:44  
Does anyone else on this forum object very strongly to the use of "Queer Asia", "Queen Studies" and "Queer Theories"? These are derogatory and insulting terms, and slanted to maintain the wrong ideas about the LGBT community.

I have written to HKUP politely demanding that they change these titles to others which, in this day and age, are more socially and politically correct. Failure to do so, and I will start to initiate action on the internet and at bookshops to draw media attention to HKUP's discrimination of or community.
3. 2012-05-08 13:55  
If any other member of fridae wishes to complain to HKUP, here is a sample email -


Dear Sirs

I write to express my strongest possible objection to the title of your series "Queer Asia". It is, in my view, an insult to the LGBT community to use the word "Queer" when it is acknowledged that there is nothing whatever "queer" about anyone who is not heterosexual.

I request that you immediately cease to use this highly derogatory term, as well as the other highly inflammatory terms "Queer Studies and Queer Theory". These spread a totally inaccurate and slanted picture of the present day LGBT community.

Let me add that this has nothing to do with the content of the series - merely the derogatory titles which the authors and you as the publisher use.

I look forward to hearing from you with your confirmation that the Series title will be changed.

Thank you and kind regards
4. 2012-05-08 14:01  
Thanks very much for the HKUP contact details and template, fountainhall, I'll be writing in as well.
5. 2012-05-09 10:59  
Fountainhall, I think you misunderstand the usage of terms Queer Asia, Queen Studies, and Queer Theories. The terms come from of post-structuralist critical theory and women's studies. They aren't intended to be derogatory in the least. I suppose it's queer that bugs you, but there is some irony in the usage. Alas, all the academic jargon is an exercise in obscurantism, thus leading to Collett's difficulty "as a non-academic reader..." As jargon filled as the monographs are, they provide important research on gay and lesbian communities in Asia. I say, go HKUP.
6. 2012-05-09 16:46  
Well, Wikipedia states that the word, "queer", has, over the years, become "..the umbrella term for sexual minorities that are not heterosexual, heternormative, or gender-binary". The original meaning of the word, of course, alluded to the strange, peculiar, freakish, etc., nature of behaviour, objects, things and people. So, kaikodu, if one uses the original definition of "queer" to describe oneself, one would indeed be describing oneself as strange, peculiar or freakish, correct? If that is so, then it logically follows, therefore, that, as a homosexual, if one were to accept being described as "queer", one would actually be acknowledging that one is indeed strange, peculiar or freakish, wouldn't one? As a homosexual comfortable with my sexuality and sexual preferences, I can't seem to think of myself as strange, peculiar or freakish and I am puzzled as to why you, kaikodu, would think that of yourself since you've seemed to have so readily embraced the adjective, "queer", as an appropriate description of yourself.
7. 2012-05-10 11:46  
While I readily acknowledge the objections of heemale and fountainhall, I have to join with kaikoku in noting the origin of the terms "queer", and the irony involved. Perhaps I can add that we could look back across the history of activism amongst the LGBT communities of the world and also note the tactic of embracing and "re-owning" terms that have been used to abuse us.

Targeting HKUP for using a term that is accepted across academia and utilised by activists from our communities isn't likely to get the immediate outcome you are looking for. Reaching the right ears with your objections might prompt a fresh discussion on how we name ourselves and keep our (lack of) rights current in public debate.
8. 2012-05-11 01:46  
I think the very issue here isn't to answer the author's questions, but to appreciate the interplay of different elements that could define a culture, foreign contact aside. Without reading the series whatsoever, it would be pretty evident that foreign contact would have exerted an influence over Japanese queer culture, or for that matter many others. The nature of the author's investigation is clearly a self-fulfilling one, in examining history not in its entirety, which the author admitted himself. By that account I think it would be forgivable to include the drone of Queer theory given the investigative nature of the analysis - though I haven't read it. Given the reticent approach to homosexuality in Asia (and globalisation of course) I would think that queer culture wouldn't be able to stand alone without influence of some sort. The conclusion is perhaps what bugs me. If Suganuma could not draw a concrete conclusion I highly doubt that would be something we don't already know, which in essence would make it quite a pointless read other than the - as Nigel put it - mental masochism of reading the discipline of Queer Theory.
9. 2012-05-11 02:06  
Linguistic reappropriation and subjectivity aside, I do not ever think I would acknowledge the objections of heemale (what a name!) or fountainhall. I do not think the avoidance of "politically correct" terms would release anyone from the discrimination that he/she already faces. If I were black I am and will be black, regardless the social prejudice that others put upon that term, for example. I will be acknowledged black and similarly you could call me queer. I would be beyond that.

Targeting the HKUP for using that term would just be downright - I'm sorry - stupid. Foresttiger is right, it isn't likely to get the immediate outcome they're looking for. If the "normative" community were so adamant in "discriminating our community", as fountainhall put it, even politically correct terms like I don't know, LGBT (?) would eventually find itself laden with discrimination and deviant connotations. That is otherwise known as a vicious cycle.
10. 2012-05-11 10:41  
Funny, but I had always thought that being black, yellow, brown or white is an ethnic fact which is very different from superimposing, whether rightly or wrongly, an adjective such as "queer" on oneself. The fact that one is homosexual is not the same thing as calling oneself queer, just as the fact that I am ethnically Chinese does not mean that I must accept the derogatory term, "Chink", simply because it is widely used among some racist circles. It really surprises me how some homosexuals can actually accept "queer" as an appropriate description of themselves because it's the same thing as accepting that one is a "nigger" if one is ethnically African or a "chink" if one is ethnically Chinese. So, for me, yes, "queer" remains as derogatory as terms like "nigger" and "chink".
11. 2012-05-11 10:57  
Queer Theory, however, is a term for a specific form and scope of research used by academics themselves who practice queer theory and who at the same time self-identify as queer, i.ed. non-heterosexual.

In other words, it includes no one who does not self-identify as such. So there is absolutely nothing wrong with that expression.

The usage of "queer" to identify all non-heterosexual activities in society over all (as in e.g. "queer Asia"), on the other hand, can and should be problematised, because by definition (of "Asia" or "Singapore" or even Prince Edward Neighbourhood in Hong Kong") it includes many more people than those who necessarily and willingly espouse the acceptability of the use of the monicker.

12. 2012-05-11 18:42  
Heemale, you seem to like using a medical term, 'homosexual'. Surely, you've noticed that the majority no longer use this rather clinical term. So you don't like 'queer'; how is it insulting to you if others use it? They don't get upset with you for using homosexual. Never mind that I remember many people in the 90s wanting to avoid that word altogether for its clinical and journalistic associations (e.g. "John Brown, an alleged/known homosexual, was arrested today...") 'Gay' has problems, too, because, while it originally had a positive meaning, in common slang it is derogatory. In fact, almost every word I know of bothers someone.

The original intention of most academics who used 'queer' in the 80s and 90s, along with academics who introduced terms like 'African American', was that by introducing a new term, it was possible to both raise awareness and to change the meaning of the idea. So in African American Studies and among black activists, you had a) the introduction of a new term for discourse, African Americans, and b) the campaign to ban the use of nigger. If a non-black used nigger in any context, they were confronted.

To see how well that worked one should see how these terms are used in the United States today. It was only a pejorative 40 years ago, but now many young blacks use nigger when referring to other blacks; however, it either is still a taboo or used as a word of hate among non-blacks in the United States. (Of course, 'black' is still the most common word used, although many liberal non-black Americans will use 'African American' today.)

Gay activists in the US thought that instead of attacking the use of the word 'gay', it would be better to embrace terms in order to 'declaw' it. Gay activists also embraced the word 'queer' in the 80s, as in the famous "we're here, we're queer, get used to it" chant from protests. It should be pointed out that the use of 'queer' for "strange" or "unnatural" had fallen into relative disuse in North American Englishes. So the term was deemed as perfect for redefining and re-employing.

One interesting thing is that getting upset about a word and writing an angry e-mail/letter doesn't seem to work. Most businesses and organizations only respond to boycotts, and unless you are proposing to rally gay members of Fridae (an exercise as practical as herding cats, I think) to boycott Fridae, your angry letters are most likely to just get tacked up on an editor's wall for laughs.

So what's so queer about being queer? The term raises the question itself. Many gays use a wide variety of terms to use, "she's such a queen," "I'm just a big mo," etc., and it's really up to you which you prefer. But to write angry letters to websites and call it offensive to use "queer," especially when so many self-identified groups of 'alleged homosexuals' do?

"I don't care what you call me, just as long as you don't call me late for dinner." From a song
13. 2012-05-11 23:33  
Then we agree to disagree, daophos. We each make our own choices. Let it be.
14. 2012-05-19 01:13  
Agreeing to disagree means not writing angry letters about usage. Be sure you remember that.
15. 2012-05-29 11:13  
With respect, agreeing to disagree does not mean, as daophos seems to suggests, "writing angry letters about usage". It means having a discussion in which both sides submit their views with their own feelings and passions - and only thereafter not writing angry letters when one has agreed to disagree.

Re my letter, of course I knew it would have zero effect! Which publisher is going to pulp and reprint a whose series of books just because one or a few people complained about a word in the series title? That would be utterly ridiculous! But i as an individual gay man have every right to express my feelings, which I did. As to my letter getting tacked on to a wall for laughs, I'd be surprised if that's what happened, More likely, the editor just dropped it in the trash can, with the comment, ""Just another queer!"

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