Queer Nations and Trans-lations

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The following review of Akiko Shimizu’s “‘Imported’ Feminism and ‘Indigenous’ Queerness: From Backlash to Transphobic Feminism in Transnational Japanese Context,” an ICCTP-sponsored lecture and seminar held at the University of California, Berkeley, in January 2020, appears in the latest issue of Postmodern Culture.

Queer Nations and Trans-lations

by Daryl Maude

What does it mean to be trans in Japan, or in Japanese? How does it correspond with transness in North America or in English? Terms and identities travel and are translated, existing not in a relationship of one-to-one correspondence, but rather in an association with one another. To be gei or toransujendā in Japanese is not the same as to be “gay” or “transgender” in English; although the Japanese terms are loanwords from English, the meanings, identities, and practices that are organized under these terms are not exactly the same. This difference is central to Akiko Shimizu’s work in both English and Japanese. In a 2007 article, she discusses the double bind of “Japanese queers,” whose ability to identify themselves as members of a group is always influenced by the prominence of anglophone discourses of identity politics and rights-bearing minority subjects and by an awareness of the language around these concepts as imported from English. In asking themselves how they identify, Shimizu says, “In the case of ‘Japanese queers’, the questions will be: are we Japanese, are we Japanese-speakers, or are we more like the members of ‘the global queer community’, if it actually exists? Or perhaps, are we all of the above? Or none of them?” (503).

Shimizu, a scholar in the Department of Interdisciplinary Cultural Studies at the University of Tokyo, has long been interested in the problem of queer translations, both as a figure (the travelling of conceptual categories from different groups, expressed in different ways and in different registers) and as a practice (the translation of books, papers, lectures, articles, and tweets into Japanese, and also from Japanese into other languages). She is a translator of works by Sara Ahmed and Judith Butler into Japanese, and she has written about the various complex processes of identification, terminology, and naming of queerness and sexuality in Japanese. In addition, with her students, Shimizu organizes an annual public lecture series on queer studies.

Shimizu’s lecture and seminar at UC Berkeley in January 2020 received a warm reception from attendees. Her careful attention to the details of power and translation represents an important moment in Japanese trans and queer studies, and this importance was remarked on by those listening to the lecture and participating in the seminar. Describing her lecture as “a story” characterized by its “tedious repetitions,” Shimizu traced a genealogy of debates over gender, sexuality, and transness in Japan in the 21st century. She explained how the backlash against so-called “gender ideology” in Japan at the turn of the millennium led to the marriage equality debates of the 2010s and then to the wave of online transphobia that is happening today. Shimizu emphasized the role of translation in this system, which she claims is characterized by problems both “distinctly local and inherently transnational.” The idea of Japan as an actor in a network of discourse is not new, in itself, but Shimizu’s characterization of Japanese transphobia as both “distinctly local and inherently transnational” focuses on the movements of power between different languages and nations and dismisses any culturally essentialist explanation for the peculiarities of Japanese feminism(s). Her comment draws our attention to the texture of Japanese transphobia and Japanese feminism: their idiosyncrasies and histories. Paying attention to this texture yields interesting points of comparison: accounting for why transphobic feminism is so much more common in Britain than in the US, for example, Sophie Lewis notes the historical aspects of this failure of intersectionality. In a 2019 article in the New York Times, she links the prevalence of transphobic rhetoric in British feminism to its lack of engagement with the Black and indigenous feminisms that gave mainstream white American feminism the “pummeling” it sorely required, allowing American feminism to begin to take on a more intersectional position. Similarly, in Japan, Shimizu’s work shows us that mainstream Japanese feminism is ill-equipped to address transphobia due to the historical failures of Japanese feminism to account for intersectionality.

Shimizu’s “story” progressed historically: following Japan’s passing of the Basic Law for a Gender-Equal Society in 1999, conservative politicians complained of feminism’s detrimental effects on traditional gender roles. Shimizu explained that conservatives characterized feminist activities, including the promotion of this gender-neutral education, as manifesting “external pressures” (gaiatsu). Thus, even activities conducted by local grassroots feminist activists were seen as originating from Western sources and therefore were considered inappropriate and inauthentic: a naïve absorption of non-Japanese ideas that were not appropriate for Japan. These conservatives took hints from right wing discourse in the US (ironically, a form of external pressure in itself) and portrayed feminists and those who promoted gender-neutral education as denying gender altogether and wanting to do away with the concepts of “manliness” or “womanliness.” Conservatives were successful in portraying the most scandalous aspects of these ideas, and many feminists reacted by denying these claims. This attempt at damage control, Shimizu argued, missed an opportunity to embrace the destructive possibilities of feminist work. Instead of affirming the questions around binary notions of gender and arguing for a more equitable society for queer and trans people, mainstream feminist pandering to the fears of conservatives threw vulnerable people to the wayside.

Shimizu then spoke about marriage equality in Japan in the 2010s. In 2015, Shibuya Ward in Tokyo began to issue certificates recognizing same-sex partnership. This was followed by other wards, cities, and prefectures throughout Japan. While some rights can be gained from this recognition, they lack effectiveness on a national level. Central to this problem is the system of the koseki, or family register, which catalogues and organizes, among other things, the births, marriages, and deaths of all Japanese citizens. Shimizu noted that while the koseki is maintained at a local level, it is ultimately the responsibility of the national government; therefore, the government’s definition of marriage as exclusively heterosexual means that certificates of partnership recognition are mere “window dressing” (albeit politically expedient in a country that is soon to host the Olympics and needs to appear tolerant and open). Despite the important legacy of feminist activism against the strictures of the koseki system—its reinforcement of a patriarchal system that discriminates against unmarried parents and single mothers, and its imperial, colonial legacy after being used as a tool of control in colonial Korea—mainstream feminism seemed to lag behind even as awareness of LGBT rights grew in the 2010s. Due to their capitulation to political pressure during the debates over the “gender ideology” backlash in the early 2000s, Shimizu argued that mainstream feminism was unable to engage with LGBT groups in activism or to be properly intersectional.

In her account of recent online transphobia, Shimizu began by explaining that in 2017 and 2018, as the #MeToo movement gained popularity, accounts by women of sexual harassment they had encountered began to circulate on Japanese-language Twitter. Women on Twitter used the intellectual resources provided by #MeToo in order to fight against harassment and to form links with other women in similar positions. As part of this movement, some cis women began to raise concerns about trans women “invading” “their” sex-segregated spaces, such as toilets or public baths, and harassing them. Employing a common trope of trans women as “in essence” men who are invading women’s spaces, they encouraged cis women to be on their guard, in the role of perpetual scrutinizers. Sally Hines describes this role as “the surveillance and the regulation of the female body through the notion of female authenticity” (154). Transphobic tropes were taken up by some Japanese-language feminist Twitter users and circulated, resonating beyond social media by perpetuating a transphobic environment that affects policy and behavior and in turn endangers the lives and wellbeing of trans people.

While online transphobia in Japan seems sudden—lacking, for example, the pedigree of “feminist” transphobia in the English language Twitter-sphere or in British media—Shimizu suggested that it is actually the result of the transplantation of transphobic discourses from outside of Japan, particularly the UK and South Korea. Tweets and discourses were translated from English and Korean into Japanese and recirculated through Japanese feminist Twitter accounts. They increased significantly when, in 2018, Ochanomizu University, a women’s university in Tokyo, stated that it would begin to accept trans women as students beginning in April 2020. These applicants are still legally registered as men when they apply, due both to the fact that the age of majority in Japan is twenty, and to the legal pathologization of trans identities.1 Appeals to the anger and frustration of women, particularly with regards to sexual harassment and assault, as in the #MeToo campaign, have led to hostility toward the easily targeted: trans women. Shimizu pointed out that the hostility is exacerbated by the particularities of the Japanese feminist Twittersphere, in which many active accounts are not linked to people’s real names, and anonymity means an increase in hostility and trolling.

This “story” that Shimizu told in her lecture was a genealogy of mainstream Japanese feminism in the last twenty years. Crucially we can also read it as a call for solidarity and a warning against the temptation to jettison members of our communities who are further or furthest from legally inscribed norms, as well as an illustration of the consequences of doing so. In the seminar she gave after her lecture, attended by scholars including Grace Lavery and Judith Butler, Shimizu made connections between the attempt to surveil trans women and prevent them from using women’s spaces (such as public toilets or baths), and the attempt to surveil other marginalized populations in Japan, such as Zainichi (resident) Koreans, or Hisabetsu Burakumin (hereditary members of groups associated with stigmatized forms of labor such as leather work). In both cases, the koseki is again crucial. It provides not only a system through which the government exerts centralized control over marriage and legal gender markers, but also a fantasy about the knowability of deviation: an authority through which to ascertain the “truth” about populations that are deemed potentially undetectable and whose ability to pass as Yamato Japanese, as members of a “normal” class, or as women, is seen as threatening.2 It is important to maintain specificity within movements of solidarity, and to acknowledge that Zainichi struggles, Hisabetsu Burakumin struggles, and the struggles of trans women are not mere copies of one another; at the same time, the struggles these groups face can, and do, overlap. Shimizu’s highlighting of these parallels is useful for thinking about the ways in which, as with other minority groups with the ability to pass, trans people are seen as insidious and invading because the possibility that they might go unnoticed is seen as threatening.

Emphasizing the travelling nature of discourses on transphobia, and the way they are translated into new contexts, Shimizu’s work calls attention to the local textures of feminism and trans activism, and to the multiple actors within these contested and transnational ideological domains, even as she considers the pull of a homogenizing discourse of universal rights and equality that centers Euro-American experiences. She notes that there are not happy endings to the story she told, rather that it is characterized by “tedious repetitions.” Her work is crucial in giving us the texture of these ongoing repetitions in the Japanese context: the failures of mainstream feminism and the capitulations to conservative fearmongering, the lack of intersectional analysis, and the subsequent transphobia. When asked if there is any way to get around the problem of these “tedious repetitions”—what, in other words, is to be done?—Shimizu suggested that the tediousness could be overcome by breaking from this past and recognizing the pluralities and complications of history. This does not collapse into a triumphalist “it gets better” account of a history but rather, I would suggest, works with the tedium of repetition, and its attendant feelings of exasperation, disbelief, incredulity, boredom, and so on, to produce a new translation of its own, one that is provisional and multiple, and that communicates the need to talk and work together. We might also ask, beyond transphobia, what other forces and feelings might be in play in Japanese trans circles—trans love, trans joy, trans community building, or trans activism, for example—and how these forces also exist within patterns of translation. The struggles to undo the force of normativity and enable us all to live better lives continues, in multiple languages and across multiple borders.

Daryl Maude is a PhD candidate in Japanese literature and critical theory at the University of California, Berkeley. He works on futurity and intimacy in modern Japanese and Okinawan literature, and is interested in queer, feminist, and postcolonial theory. His translation of Shinjo Ikuo’s “Male Sexuality in the Colony: On Toyokawa Zen’ichi’s ‘Searchlight’” appeared in Beyond Imperial Aesthetics: Theories of Art and Politics in East Asia, edited by Mayumo Inoue and Steve Choe, Hong Kong University Press, 2019.


1. In order to change one’s gender marker on legal documents, a person must be over the age of twenty, obtain a medical diagnosis of gender identity disorder, and undergo sterilization. They also cannot be married and cannot have children who are underage (See Reid et al.).

2. Until the mid-1970s, the koseki was open for anyone to view, providing an easy way for people to discriminate against neighbors and potential marriage partners, by parsing whether they fell into undesirable categories. Access is now restricted, and only certain officials or lawyers can legally view it.