Queer Eye Japan: Intriguing Insights in Netflix’s 2019 ‘Queer Eye: We’re In Japan’
By Melissa Francis
Being familiar with the usual format, I felt there was an extra layer to the Queer Eye Japan series that was worth exploring. Understandably, there have been mixed reactions to this, and in particular, Steven Wakabayashi makes a strong critique in his recent article here on Medium, in which he outlines some key points about how the show was approached. I highly recommend giving it a read for an alternative take on the issues presented.
The cast of Queer Eye, also known as the ‘Fab Five’, are a team of lifestyle experts comprised of; Jonathan Van Ness, Bobby Berk, Tan France, Antoni Porowski, and Karamo Brown.
With three series worth of fun-filled, emotional-rollercoaster episodes already under their belt, they’ve gained a significant following among a new generation of Netflix viewers. Each of the five members possesses a unique stance that helps shape their approach towards the participant in question. But this show is never just about giving someone a makeover. It always runs deeper than that, and it’s clear that the impact is designed to be long-lasting. The same is true with Queer Eye Japan.
Why film Queer Eye Japan?
Unlike previous seasons, Queer Eye: We’re in Japan contains just four episodes in total. But despite this limited duration, the stories still manage to pack a punch. According to the show’s introduction, the Fab Five were — supposedly — invited to Japan by a friend, prominent fashion model Kiko Mizuhara, because ‘Japan needed them’ to help people realise their own self-worth.
In a society where teamwork, group mentality and conforming to ideals are still largely the norm, it can be easy for some Japanese people to feel as though they’ve lost their sense of identity amid the pressure. Sometimes, seeing life through a new lens is all it takes to get a breath of fresh air.
The key question was; how would this series demonstrate Japan’s cultural and societal pressures in a way that would strive for mutual understanding and yet remain entertaining? I had visions of this becoming another undesirable cultural cliché. And, yes, parts of it were. Overall, though, I believe the entire concept landed pretty squarely on its feet, delivering a handful of memorable, and emotionally-driven stories.
Getting local Japanese talent involved
When done tactfully, including well-known personalities in almost anything can be an effective way to engage Japanese audiences. Western celebrities used to be a staple of Japanese television commercials — Arnold Schwarzenegger (affectionately referred to as ‘schwa-chan’ among Japanese fans), and Tommy Lee Jones to name a couple. But nowadays, Japanese celebrities seem to be preferred for their sense of familiarity. As with everything though, this can vary wildly depending on the brand and product in question.
Naomi Watanabe is known among Japanese people for her bubbly and exuberant personality as well as her approachable sense of humour. The fact is, she’s a successful plus-size model in a country that shuns obesity and that problematically equates slimness with attractiveness. Time and time again, Watanabe has proven through her own personal style and character that size doesn’t have to be a barrier to beauty. She was named one of the 25 most influential people on the internet by TIME last year. Kiko Mizuhara, on the other hand, is slim, but says she still finds herself being mocked for the way she dresses and her sometimes ‘childish’ fashion sense.
The central aim throughout the series, however, is to cultivate a positive attitude towards typical ideals of Japanese beauty and challenge the status quo in a way that feels both genuine and fitting with the local culture.
So what cultural points can be gleaned from Queer Eye Japan?
Episode One: ‘Japanese Holiday’ (Yoko)
Yoko Sakuma is an exceptional individual, giving up her own home to live at the hospice she runs to take care of the terminally ill. Her story on Queer Eye Japan is consistently packed full of tear-inducing and emotionally-charged moments as she talks about the death of her sister and how it inspired her to dedicate her time to helping others nearing the end of their lives.
Key cultural takeaways from Yoko’s episode of Queer Eye Japan:
- “Onna wo suteru” (女を捨てる) — this phrase is used by Yoko to describe how she feels like she’s given up on being a woman. It literally translates as ‘throwing away woman’ and is often used in a self-deprecating manner to suggest that someone is no longer perceived to be making an effort in terms of skincare, beauty, fashion, etc. — things which are seen to be the epitomes of presenting femininity within a local context.
- “Should we take our shoes off and hug her?” — Tan asks Kiko about this before meeting with Yoko. It’s common to remove shoes in Japan when entering someone’s home, places of religious or historical significance, and in some traditional style restaurants. Hugging isn’t usually a common occurence between strangers, but the Fab Five are encouraged to give Yoko a big hug to let her know they intend to help her out, and she seems receptive to it.
- Kusudama (くす玉) — the Fab Five (or the team working with them) open Yoko’s new ‘Kumachan House’ hospice by splitting open celebratory kusudama. These are decorative piñata-like balls that, when split open, reveal streams of colourful ribbon and confetti. We often see this being used when a new film opens in the Japanese Box Office, and in many other situations. It’s akin to cutting the ribbon in western cultures.
Episode Two: ‘Crazy in Love’ (Kan)
Twenty-four year old Kan was the only gay participant to appear in this series of Queer Eye Japan. Despite rising levels of awareness and discussion around sexuality and gender identities, however, the Japanese remain largely conservative in their approach towards this topic, notably in professional settings. Kan very much felt this cultural pressure, and as such had only come out to his closest friends and family, but not his colleagues at a large cosmetics corporation. He desperately wanted to express himself through his own personal style and brand, much like he had harboured whilst living overseas, and to welcome his British boyfriend to Japan after a long time.
As this NBC article suggests, LGBTQ+ advocacy isn’t black and white. This is especially the case in Japan where people tend to keep this information private — an approach that is generally accepted as the norm and as one way of not ‘inconveniencing’ others. Unfortunately though, it’s still the case that some representatives in Japanese media don’t treat minority groups with the level of respect they deserve. Slowly but surely, this shows signs of changing, but for now there’s still work to do.
Key cultural takeaways from Kan’s episode of Queer Eye Japan:
- The younger generation’s mindset — Kan notes that younger generations in Japan tend to be more open to conversations around sexuality and gender. This is mirrored globally, too, but it’s an important point to bear in mind in terms of developing brand marketing campaigns that revolve around these topics.
- Kikoku shijo (帰国子女) — this isn’t explicitly mentioned, but Kan is an example of a kikoku shijo (literally ‘returnee child’), a young person who has spent time overseas (in his case Vancouver and London) and subsequently returned to Japan. Being abroad for a certain amount of time usually enables them to have a different perspective, and as a result this can sometimes create a feeling of inner conflict when adjusting back to life in Japan.
- “Nanakorobi yaoki” (七転び八起き) — Antoni uses this phrase to describe the approach he wants Kan to try and live by. It means ‘always rising after a fall’, but if we translate this directly, it’s actually ‘tumble seven times, rise up eight’. This encapsulates the Japanese spirit of continuously trying even in the face of multiple failures.
Episode Three: ‘The Ideal Woman’ (Kae)
Aspiring manga and visual artist Kae still lives at home with her family in Yokohama, sharing a cluttered bedroom with her older sister. Critically, she lacks a sense of self-esteem and turned down a job offer that might have catapulted her illustration career full steam ahead. Her perceived failure in this regard led to deep-set feelings of regret and frustration.
This time, the Fab Five’s mission was to help Kae feel confident enough to showcase her work at a gallery exhibition, and endow her with a more independent streak. This episode particularly drives home the idea of femininity in Japan — that being an ‘ideal’ woman means being slim, cute, and wearing make-up (oh yes…and high-heels). Cue Naomi Watanabe, who dishes out her heartfelt advice to Kae based on her own personal experiences.
Key cultural take-aways from Kae’s episode of Queer Eye Japan:
- “Ganbarimasu!” (頑張ります！) — There can be such an emphasis on succeeding in Japan that it often results in feelings of inadequacy. But if anything, the term ‘ganbarimasu’ (I’ll do my best), which Kae uses when asked to draw an honest self-portrait, is fundamentally Japanese. The phrase isn’t rooted in expected success, but supports the notion that if someone has given their all to a project or goal, then that’s admirable.
- Tough love — Families in Japan don’t tend to hug, kiss or openly display affection towards one another. In fact, it’s not common for people to say ‘I love you’ in a traditional sense (aishiteiru) directly. Therefore, affection between partners, siblings, or parents and children is more often shown through actions instead. This episode, however, encourages Kae and her mother to remind each other that they are loved. It’s outside the cultural norm, but they seem to embrace it as it helps to break down the emotional barriers they had put up.
Episode Four: ‘Bringing Sexy Back’ (Makoto)
Forty-something Radio Director Makoto has been married to his wife Yasuko (who, incidentally, works at a Maid Cafe) for seven years. Over time, however, he’s ended up stuck in a rut with a messy, dirty home environment, poor health habits and a lack of enthusiasm in sparking romantic — or in fact, any — moments with his wife. As with all the other episodes, this one highlights a widespread issue in Japan; an overinflated sense of complacency, banality, and security in everyday life. Makoto specifically makes a point to mention that they are in a sexless marriage, that they haven’t been on a date together in years and are essentially living together as ‘friends’.
Key cultural take-aways from Makoto’s episode of Queer Eye Japan:
- Sexless marriages — With an estimated half of marriages in Japan being sexless, it’s something that isn’t openly spoken about as it’s considered to be a private issue. People don’t go to therapy as is more common in places like the US. The Fab Five recognise that it takes courage for these Japanese couples to talk about their fears and frustrations and to break out of what ends up being monotonous daily routine. Karamo helps Makoto and Yasuko to communicate their thoughts and desires more fluidly.
- Studio wedding photo shoots — Getting married is an expensive event for pretty much anybody, but in Japan the expense can be just too much for some couples to afford. Something that has caught on is staged wedding photo shoots, in which couples hire wedding outfits and have their photos taken in a studio if they’re not having a ceremony. Makoto and Yasuko had a rather rushed and seemingly uneventful marriage seven years previously, with a photo shoot to commemorate it. Among Chinese couples, though, the photo shoot trend extends further towards what South China Morning Post has dubbed ‘the Downton Abbey effect’ and can cost a fortune.
- Crying in private — This is still very much considered to be a taboo in Japan. On the whole, Japanese people tend to stifle tears in public spaces. Japan Airlines even recently announced their baby seat map service for passengers to actively avoid screaming babies on their flight. It’s clear that Makoto feels a great deal of shame about crying in front of Tan, and then Karamo later — but especially in front of Yasuko. Putting on a brave front is easier said than done.
What does the series teach us about cross-cultural understanding?
While it remains debatable what Queer Eye Japan has really achieved in terms of how it presented Japanese culture, it certainly made a strong impact. If something like this can lead to a discussion about how the media can present cross-cultural understanding in a more positive and constructive light, then it has a function in that sense. We think it’s a great example of how to get people talking about what can be learned between cultures.