Kanazawa, Japan – The recent Tokyo Olympics offered hopes of Japan adopting more nuanced and inclusive views of LGBTQ lifestyles and challenges. As an example, 2018 saw the first-ever openly gay character in an asadora (Japanese TV morning drama). The overtly stereotyped role, however, only represented minor progress for Japan and its media.
This is according to Timo Thelen, an associate professor at Japan’s Kanazawa University. Thelen critiqued and contextualized the show in his study recently published in the journal, Japanese Studies.
Hanbun, Aoi (Half Blue Sky in English) was a typical asadora (6-month serial morning drama), centered on a love story and with ample doses of breezy humor, melodrama, and gendered roles. It was notable, however, in its casting of a gay character, a man named Bokute, in a top supporting role. Moreover, the drama was shown on public broadcaster NHK.
Yet while the show did portray LGBTQ issues in a mostly positive light, the gay character may have been a product of stereotypes, nostalgia, and opportunism.
“The Bokute character shows that LGBTQ issues reached the heart of a typically conservative form of Japanese media,” Thelen says. “But, regrettably, this effeminate, fashion-loving, dramatic character also epitomized pre-existing stereotypes of gay people. The show also seems to have created an ‘imperfect’ world to accommodate him.”
Thelen’s study attributes the inclusion of the character to two main factors: the show’s narrative and setting, and Japan’s sociopolitical context.
Regarding the narrative, the heroine of Hanbun, Aoi, whom Bokute befriends and counsels, struggles with a hearing disability as she strives to become a manga artist. Against this backdrop, the notions of struggling with imperfections and failure are recurring themes, as is the creativeness and eccentricity behind anime artistry. This apparently flawed world seems convenient for a stereotypically colorful gay man.
The show is also set in the late 1990s, evoking nostalgia, a key element in asadora. At that time, Japan was undergoing a “gay boom” in which gay men were popular role players in media that primarily targeted women. Such men were seen as flamboyant, fun, and capable of understanding women better than heterosexual men could. This pigeon-holing of homosexuality ignored the difficulties of coming out and functioning in an otherwise conservative society.
A further issue underpinning Hanbun, Aoi was Japan’s increasing 21st-century awareness of needing to be an “LGBTQ-friendly” Olympic host. In this environment, from the mid-2010s, LGBTQ characters began appearing more often in fiction and in mainstream media. Moreover, the government enacted an anti-discrimination law based on the Olympic Charter. Thelen, however, argues that much of this was only at surface level.
“Japanese society continues to be heteronormative. LGBTQ people and themes may be shown more often, but the gender ideology remains conservative,” he says. “A gay man in an asadora is emblematic of the times, but it barely touched on the true daily challenges of LGBTQ people. It was a missed opportunity to enlighten the public and challenge the status quo.”
Title: Between 1990s’ Nostalgia and ‘LGBT-friendly’ Tokyo Olympics: Representations of LGBTQ People in NHK’s Morning Drama Series
Journal: Japanese Studies
Authors: Timo Thelen