by Thomas Baudinette (PhD Candidate, Monash University)
Like many gay* male subcultures around the world, Japan’s is highly stratified by class, body type, age and gendered identity. This is particularly true of Shinjuku Ni-chōme, a district in central Tokyo with a small area of 400m2 which estimates suggest contains approximately 300 gay bars (Suganuma, 2011). Ni-chōme, as it is commonly known, contains a variety of businesses catering to gay men including bars, pornography shops, saunas, brothels (known euphemistically as “host clubs”) and massage parlours. The district is also the source of most Japanese gay male media, including gay magazines, pornographic videos and online dating agencies. These media play an important role in rendering gay male desire as a commodity (Moriyama, 2012: 160), reducing gay men’s identities to patterns of consumer behaviour. These identities have become codified into a sub-cultural system of knowledge known as Typing (taipu), which refers to the alignment of one’s subjectivity to a stereotypical identity category based upon ideas of an idealised body type and modes of consumption (Moriyama, 2012: 170). Types are intimately linked to specific norms of consumption, with each Type expected to participate within certain “scenes” in Ni-chōme (McLelland, 2000). My study aims to investigate both how media presents certain Types as being “normatively” desirable and how consumption of media has affected young Japanese gay men’s conceptualisations of their gay identities and desires.
Whilst conducting fieldwork in Ni-chōme and discursive analyses of various gay media (including Badi magazine, Japan’s most popular gay magazine), it has become apparent that “youth” (wakasa) represents an important trope which is drawn upon in Japan’s gay media to construct a Type known as the ikanimo-kei (literally, “the obviously gay Type”). Ikanimo-kei refers to an identity based in patterns of material consumption of certain brands of clothing (such as fashion labels Abercrombie and Fitch and Calvin Klein) and activities such as visiting large gay night clubs marking men as being “obviously” gay (Moriyama, 2012: 170). The ikanimo-kei is an identity category which is fiercely linked to normative images of youth and heteronormative masculinity, including highly gym-trained bodies, constant late night partying and a carefree attitude to gay relationships which prioritises casual sex and an apolitical attitude). An advertisement for a Japanese “hook-up app” similar to Grindr, called 9 Monsters, which contains models who are highly representative of the ikanimo-kei ideal is presented below. Japanese gay media, in particular the highly popular magazine Badi and the Japanese gay pornographic industry, have promoted the ikanimo-kei as being highly desirable, and it is for this reason that “youth” and “masculinity” have become markers of being “obviously gay.”
The images of youth presented in Japanese gay media are naturally highly idealised and draw upon stereotypes of young male youth culture which circulate throughout the global gay community. During my fieldwork, I became increasingly interested in how Japanese gay men of all age groups negotiate the fetishisation of youth and the promotion of the ikanimo-kei as the ideal, most desirable Type. Whilst at a large circuit party in Ni-chōme, one gay man in his 40s explained to me that he was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with visiting Ni-chōme due to the fact that the district was becoming increasingly youth-orientated. He explained to me that young gay men in their 20s used their youth as a “weapon” (buki), dominating the district. He believed that young gay men, or at least those who subscribed to the ikanimo-kei identity, militantly and deliberately discriminated against older men and that they had a facile relationship with Ni-chōme, failing to recognise the district’s importance as a “queer space” and safe haven from heteronormative society (cf. Sunagawa 1998). Many men in their 30s and 40s with whom I spoke felt similarly, and were afraid that the influx of young gay men to Ni-chōme for the purposes of wild partying would bring attention to the district from authorities and potentially lead to the dissolution of Ni-chōme. Indeed, this threat is all too real, as the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has sporadically used the raucous partying which occurs in Ni-chōme as an excuse to crack down on the district in ways which do not occur to “straight” red light districts such as Kabukicho to the north of Ni-chōme. Ultimately, gay men in their 30s and 40s expressed their concern that they no longer felt “attractive” due to the production of a normative desirability founded in the youth of the ikanimo-kei.
Of course not all young gay men ascribe to the ikanimo-kei ideal, and indeed many young men in their 20s with whom I spoke expressed their concern that the images of youth presented in Japan’s gay media were incredibly damaging. For example, young gay men who chose not to participate in parties, who were involved in political activism and who were unable or unwilling to build up highly muscular ikanimo-kei bodies also stated that they have experienced discrimination as “undesirable.” Furthermore, the images of youth depicted in Japan’s gay media are inherently classed, privileging a middle-class lifestyle of leisure and a high disposable income. Japan has been in recession for the past 20 years, and life is precarious for young men and women, with many lacking full time employment and access to steady income (Driscoll, 2007). Thus, for some men, the lifestyle promoted in Ni-chōme is economically unfeasible and these men too feel great anxiety about their future lives, and worry that they will be unable to attract partners with whom to share their lives. Even those men who self-identified as ikanimo-kei occasionally expressed to me their concerns that as they age they would be unable to maintain their lifestyles and would be trapped in limbo as men younger than them came to increasingly dominate the scene in Ni-chōme. Needless to say, I also met many young men who saw no problem with the system of Typing and its valorisation of the ikanimo-kei, with many arguing that they didn’t ascribe much importance to gay identity and were merely visiting Ni-chōme for a good time.
Much work still needs to be done to understand the complicated nexus between class, gender and youth in the context of Japan’s gay male sub-culture. However, it is clear that although a hegemonic discourse of youth which is tied to the promotion of a normatively desirable identity is in evidence within Japan’s gay media, young and older men alike actively resist and subvert this discourse. Through my PhD project I hope to continue to elucidate these issues and to determine how Japanese gay men negotiate the complicated system of Typing in order to construct their various identities.
*In Japan, the politics of same-sex labelling are varied and complex. The term “gay” (localised as gei) is typically understood to refer exclusively to same-sex attracted men, and is only very rarely applied to same-sex attracted women (who are usually called rezubian). As such, all references to “gay media” in this post refer to media created for consumption by same-sex attracted men.
Driscoll, Mark. “Debt and Denunciation in Post-Bubble Japan: On the Two Freeters.” Cultural Critique 65 (2007): 164-187.
McLelland, Mark (2000). Male homosexuality in modern Japan: Cultural myths and social realities. London & New York: Routledge.
Moriyama, Noritaka (2012). “Gei comyuniti” no shakaigaku (Sociology of the Japanese “gay community”). Tokyo: Keisō Shobō.
Suganuma, K. (2011). Ways of speaking about queer space in Tokyo: Disorientated knowledge and counter-public space. Japanese Studies, 31(3), 345-358.
Sunagawa, H. (1998). Sekushuaritii no saiteigi ni mukete (Towards the redefinition of sexuality). Unpublished MA thesis, University of Tokyo, Tokyo