THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Understanding the queer heritage of Japanese Americans


Back in 2007, not long after I started writing my historical column “The Great Unknown and the Unknown Great”? in the Nichi Bei Times, I established an annual tradition of marking LGBT Pride Week with a column on the queer heritage of Japanese Americans. It is a tradition that I am happy to carry over to the Nichi Bei Weekly. Such discussion seems particularly relevant at the present time, when conservative and Christian movements have appealed to Asian Americans to support legal discrimination against gays and lesbians in the guise of “family values.”?

(Hak-Shing William Tam, an evangelical Christian, has expressed such virulent anti-gay bigotry that he has been transformed into a poster boy of sorts for the LGBT movement.) People of all backgrounds have a strong interest in learning about the vital, if often hidden, history of the queer members of the Japanese American family. Today’s column serves to update these columns and expand on their premises with new information I have found since their appearance.

In the first year’s column, I told stories of some of the few visible gay and lesbian Japanese Americans, and traced their work in struggles to win equal rights for different groups. The article’s central figure was Kiyoshi Kuromiya. In 1965, Kuromiya marched for civil rights for black Americans alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and was cruelly beaten by police in Alabama. That same year, he joined the tiny contingent of protesters at Independence Hall in Philadelphia who staged the very first march for LGBT rights. He remained active in organizing for the rights of gays and lesbians, and later people with AIDS, until his early death. The article also pointed out the outstanding presence of such gay men as George Takei, Tak Yamamoto and Stan Yogi in Japanese American redress movements, strongly suggesting just how much the larger community has relied on its legally most vulnerable members. It is good to report that Yogi, adding historian to his repertoire of skill and service, has co-authored (with Elaine Elinson) “Wherever There’s a Fight,”? the first multi-group, comprehensive study of civil rights in California. This excellent volume has just won a Gold Medal at the California Book Awards.

The second year’s column discussed the state of research on same-sex relations within early Japanese communities. It brought together original research by several scholars who have done duty as historical sleuths. Not only have authors such as Amy Sueyoshi and Nayan Shah uncovered same-sex attachments among Issei and Nisei, but they have reframed our understanding of the historical nature of sexuality ? for instance, how can we hope to trace or define the sexual orientation of Issei in immigrant communities dominated by bachelors, where men set up housekeeping and formed their closest emotional bonds with other men? Since that time, I have been pleased to discover the amazing work of lesbian artist/archivist Tina Takemoto. Last year, as part of a show at San Francisco’s LGBT Historical Society, “Lineage: Matchmaking in the Archive,”? she did a project on Jiro Onuma, an Issei bachelor who lived in San Francisco before being sent to camp at Topaz. Drawing on Onuma’s surviving papers, Takemoto dramatized his isolation and hardships in camp by creating the “Gentleman’s Gaman: A Gay Bachelor’s Japanese American Internment Camp Survival Kit.”?

In the third year’s column I discussed the turn of the Issei away from Japanese culture, with its long homoerotic tradition, and the growth of endemic community homophobia in the early 20th century. I was very proud that the piece drew the most favorable comment from readers of any of my columns to date. Still, not everyone agreed with my theory that the rise of anti-gay hostility was a product of the influence of Christianity, especially white Protestant missionaries, on the Nikkei. Instead, readers suggested that lack of tolerance for homosexuality reflected larger community taboos about sex ? one Nisei woman said that until she was married she had no idea where babies came from! ? plus the desire of Japanese Americans to prove their good citizenship by conforming to the moral codes of the dominant society. This meant distancing themselves from anything stigmatized and shaming transgressors, though without any violent hatred.

There is, to be sure, a good deal of truth in this. As gay legal scholar Kenji Yoshino has argued in powerful terms, a major part of prejudice against racial or sexual minorities results not from their existence itself as much as their visibility. (This is demonstrated in extreme form by the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell”? policy: the Army admits that sexual orientation has no impact on the ability of gays and lesbians, since they are not barred altogether, but they are allowed to serve only on the strict condition that they not reveal themselves and make others aware of them).

Certainly, many mid-twentieth century Nisei and Sansei viewed homosexuality as unspeakable, denied that there were any gay or lesbian Nikkei, and greeted all mention of the topic with embarrassed silence. Male homosexuality, because of its association with effeminacy, represented a special threat to Nikkei men anxious about their manhood. As Edward Iwata said some 30 years ago, tongue only partly in cheek, the main element in the “inexcusable ignorance”? of Japanese Americans about sexual minorities was fear. “There is only one thing that most Asian Americans fear more than speaking in public or finding bad skiing conditions, and that is homosexuality. It is the last taboo, it is tainted ground. If one is religious, homosexuality is a filthy sin. If one is a Nisei, it is verboten to discuss. If one is a Sansei, it is a netherworld full of lisping, limpwristed men.”

Furthermore, the discomfort became internalized. One small window on such attitudes can be found in Joanne Oppenheim’s recent book “Stanley Hayami, Nisei Son.”? This charming volume reprints the diary entries and letters of Stanley Hayami, a teenaged Nisei confined at the Heart Mountain, Wyo. camp. In his writings Hayami makes no mention of his attraction to any females or males, and his profile drawing of a muscular male nude represents the sole conceivable marker of any erotic interest. Yet, in his diary entry for June 27, 1943, he speaks of his moodiness and frequent wish to be alone, then adds, “I don’t tell this to anyone because they’ll figure that I’m a queer (Maybe I am).”? This awkward confession not only provides our only clue as to Hayami’s sexual identity, but suggests how thoroughly all deviance from community social norms was tarred with the brush of homosexuality.

All the same, the most overt opposition to gay and lesbian equality among Japanese Americans, as with other groups, has long come from those speaking in the name of Christianity. A vivid illustration is the actions of Allen Kato. In 1994, the Japanese American Citizens League’s (JACL) national board, by a 10-3 vote (plus three abstentions), approved resolutions in favor of full equality for gays and lesbians, and called the freedom to marry a constitutional right that should not be denied to any Americans regardless of sexual orientation. The JACL thereby became the first national civil rights organization apart from the American Civil Liberties Union to formally support equal rights to marriage for gays and lesbians.

Kato, the JACL legal counsel, publicly resigned his position over the issue. While he objected on procedural grounds to the board’s action, he stated that the center of his opposition was religious. “As a Christian, I believe the issue of same-sex marriage is a moral issue and not a civil rights issue. I believe homosexual marriage is morally wrong.”? While Kato pronounced himself in favor of laws to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination (what he called “prohibitory laws”?), he did not explain how he proposed to afford same-sex couples equal benefits with married couples. Instead, he insisted that recognition of civil marriage for gays and lesbians would violate his religious freedom.

Kato’s views remain widely shared within Japanese communities. In September 2008, when Proposition 8 was on the ballot in California, a national Asian American survey poll in September 2008 found a majority of ethnic Japanese voters in California intended to support the measure. Still, the widespread opposition to Proposition 8 by those under 45 across all racial groups strongly suggests that as the younger generation of Japanese Americans, both gay and straight, assumes community leadership, they will produce a more open and less fearful community.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,”? is an associate professor of history at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal. He can be reached via e-mail at

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