Friday, September 14, 2018

Reading the Air - Part II - A film review

Of Love and Law made a big hit when it appeared at festivals in Tokyo and Hong Kong as well as this year’s Gay Film Festival in San Francisco. So much so that it prompted Frameline, San Francisco’s gay film festival organization now in its 42nd year, to buy it and make it available to audiences more broadly – I got to see it last night at the Roxie. It is now opening in Japan for regular distribution. With English subtitles, no less. At least two good reviews are available, here  and here.

Co-director Hikaru Toda displays the sensitivity she showed in Love Hotel, which she also co-directed in 2014, creating a fly-on-the-wall look into the intimate lives of social outsiders, in a country known for being particularly unwelcoming to anyone conspicuously “not ordinary.” As one of the reviews I just cited noted, even if she had limited her focus to the lives of Of Love and Law’s two protagonists Masafumi Yoshida and Kazayuki Minami, she would have had plenty to work with. They are a generous and affectionate gay couple who share both their personal and professional lives as lawyers in Osaka committed to defending the rights of others like themselves. But the similarity is not in the fact that they are gay, but at one level of abstraction up. They share the feature of being “different.”

Toda extends her account of Japanese “outsiders” to four of Fumi and Kazu’s clients. The first of these is Rokudenashiko, an artist making “vagina art” because she thinks treating women’s genitals as obscene only furthers the submission of women to the “male gaze.” Why “obscene”? she asks society. Women don’t find depictions of their sex organs obscene; men do.

A second client is a teacher who refuses to stand and sing the national anthem at school functions. The third and fourth are two children who grew up without being able to get a passport or a driver’s license and were discriminated against in other ways because their mothers were not able to enter them in a family register (koseki), because they were born out of wedlock. Also featured in the film are Kazu’s mother, who works as an assistant in their law firm, and Kazuma, an orphaned teen whom Fumi and Kazu take into their home.

I lived in Japan a total of 24 years over a 36-year period and even today, 12 years since I moved back to the U.S. to retire, it still feels like home. And I’m struck with the fact that the issues taken up in this film are the very same issues I first encountered when I first went there to live in 1970. Some refer to it as the “we/they” phenomenon, others call it “insider/outsider.” In the world of Americans and other non-Japanese who settle in Japan for any length of time, it’s usually viewed as a question of nationality and the connotations of the word “gaijin” (literally “outside person”), the word for “foreigner.” What makes Of Love and Law so interesting is the fact that none of the protagonists of the film are foreign. They are simply different in some conspicuous way from the 98.5% of the population who identify as ethnically Japanese, and are shunned, ostracized, or otherwise discriminated by the majority population for not “blending in.”

Japanese are taught from early on to “read the air,” to sense the atmosphere at any given moment to make sure they are in tune with those around them. All societies put pressure on people to conform, but Japan has traditionally been cited as a place where conformity is pushed to extreme levels. Many will protest such a limited view of Japan is reductionist and out-of-date, and they will be right. But LGBT people can tell you there’s a long way to go before Japanese will be able to see themselves as people do in other modern nations, as part of a blend of folk who look for strength in diversity and for whom “multicultural” and “pluralist” are positive concepts.

Two Americans in last night’s audience at the Roxie are well-known gay activists, They have made connections with gay liberation organizations in Japan and they shared their experiences in the Q&A session after the showing. One of them mentioned that after he had addressed a Japanese university audience, the professor who had invited him contacted him to tell him a student of his had reported to him, “If these gay Americans can come out, I think I can too.”  Only the student didn’t come out as gay; he came out as ethnically Korean.

Anyone who works in the field of Intercultural Communication appreciates how difficult it can be to remove the cultural lens you grew up with and start seeing the world through a new and different cultural lens. If you are conditioned to making judgments about social and cultural morality in terms of individual rights, it’s hard to appreciate the perspective that the group outweighs the individual in importance, and notions of “good” and “bad” that are derived from that perspective. But if the group is your starting point, an outlier who misses out is simply a victim of some kind of bad luck. And conversely, if individual rights are your starting point, this Japanese stress on “reading the air” and putting others ahead of yourself can be viewed as mechanisms for holding back progress toward a more enlightened world view, hurdles in the path toward the goal of extending human rights as far as they can possibly be extended.

You can see, then, how conservatives in Japan can twist the work of these two Osaka lawyers, and for that matter gay liberation itself, as just another example of foreigner (outside) influence on the pure traditional practices of the people of the land of the Rising Sun.

I think there is a way out of this dilemma, but before I get to it, let me address what I take to be an additional complexity to this story of cultural difference. If it were simply a case of measuring social “progress” on the basis of progressive and conservative values to characterize what’s going on, Japanese being the more “traditional” culture, and therefore more conservative, and the U.S. being the more open, and therefore progressive culture, we might simply allow things to run their course and time to bring conservatives around to more progressive thought. The problem with that is that, as many are quick to point out, in some ways Japan is a less inhibited, less “conservative” place than the United States, as many a mother with small children has noticed when sitting in a train next to a man reading pornographic manga. Or when you read of the large number of teenage girls looking for sugar-daddies to help them get access to the latest fashions. Or bored housewives travelling abroad for sex tourism. Or the ever-growing number of young people living together without getting married. In Japan, the line isn’t so much between progressive and conservative as it is between public and private. While American gays from born-again backgrounds have to contend with guilt and shame, in Japan the proponents of a rigid group-centered religion called Nihonism couldn’t care less what any individual might do in the privacy of his or her own home.   To use the example often cited when this group-centered ethic is applied to the English, do whatever turns you on. Just don’t do it in the road and scare the horses.

Most Americans see progress in gay liberation as an additive, accumulative process. First one comes out to oneself, then to one’s closest friends, then to an ever-widening circle of friends and acquaintances. At some point one begins to identify with a gay community and eventually makes gay liberation a cause. In the larger society, one seeks freedom from discrimination in the workplace and freedom to live wherever and with whomever one chooses. More recently, the struggle was extended from simple decriminalization and tolerance of homosexuality to approval, eventually to approval of gay partnerships. The final step, for most LGBT people, has been recognition of same-sex marriage rights. It is easy to assume that progression is universal, and to want to measure progress in other countries according to this scale.

At the start of Of Love and Law, the filmmakers attempt to speak with attendees at a gay festival in Osaka. People are willing to speak with them, but a large number don’t want to be filmed. In an age in which same-sex marriage is legal in some twenty-two countries around the world and in parts of several additional countries, and opinion polls show that in many places more than 80% of people polled favor gay marriage (Belgium – 82%;  Denmark – 86%; Netherlands – 86%; Iceland – 87%; Sweden – 88%) this suggests that Japan still has a long way to go.  

Or does it? Is it possible gays are not pressing for marriage because many of them are quite content to abide by the Japanese practice of living one way privately and another way publicly? One also needs to take into account the fact that for the past five years in a row fewer and fewer Japanese marry every year and the number of weddings in Japan in 2017 was the lowest since World War II.

What Of Love and Law makes clear is that the larger context for liberation is a complex picture. People may not want their picture taken at gay events, but several wards in the city of Tokyo are now allowing gay couples to marry. Rokudenashiko, the artist who is creating all those in-your-face “pussy images” went to court on an obscenity charge fully expecting to lose, only to be found innocent. But only because her vagina toys were not realistic. If she had shown photos of vaginas, the judge would have found her guilty. The “illegitimate” children won the right, thanks to their gay lawyers, to be registered in a family register and the law that once excluded them has been brought up-to-date.

It’s a complex world. And instead of complex, you might say messy.

When I celebrate these victories, I do so looking through my gay American lens. I am ideologically committed to what we in the West call “Enlightenment Values,” including individual rights and struggle against racism, sexism and homophobia, so I cannot pretend to neutrality whenever this cultural conflict raises its head and calls for attention. Watching two gay Japanese lawyers fight for the rights of Japanese, both gay and straight, to be different, I can’t help but see the struggle as parallel to our American struggle against religious authoritarianism. I have to remind myself that’s not necessarily what’s going on, but rather a struggle against an overly authoritarian, paternalistic version of Nihonism.  But whatever the cause of alienation, religious guilt and shame or the inability to conform to the standard practices of the majority, what we have in common is the need to understand – and make others understand – it’s a big world, and no one speaks for the whole of it.

In the Japanese case, as Of Love and Law makes plain, LGBT people, and others outside the norm in Japan are not becoming more American, more foreign, when they struggle for individual rights; they are simply moving from a more rigid model of what it means to be Japanese to a more open, flexible, all-embracing model.

In the end, while it is useful to dig around for cultural similarities and differences in order to better understand what is going on on the other side of the world, when all is said and done, it’s being able to peer into the daily lives of others and watch to see what makes them laugh and cry that brings us together. Academic theory has its place. But so does the invasive eye of the camera. The former may satisfy the intellect. But a picture is worth a thousand words. And a moving picture, creatively framed, a much larger number than that.

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