For a more queer-friendly Japanese America

This past May, a friend who volunteers for a Japanese-language bilingual program at a San Francisco public school faced harassment by another Japanese language teacher in the faculty lounge for being a lesbian. My friend Keiko had a rainbow pin on her backpack signifying lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pride and a Japanese co-worker of hers asked her with disgust and derision where she got the pin and if she wanted to be mistaken for one of “those” people. When Keiko filed a complaint requesting a public apology and diversity training for the school, fellow teachers as well as the administration refused to support her. Keiko would later have to approach the district office to be taken seriously.

For Keiko, it was a hurtful day followed by exhausting weeks of frustrating and degrading conversations. Keiko, close to 60, had waited long and traveled far to find a safe queer space in the U.S. She had lived almost her entire life closeted in Japan. When she retired from her job as an elementary school teacher, she sold all of her belongings, including her home and moved to the Castro District of San Francisco. Now, she lives in a tiny apartment where all of her belongings are stacked on top of each other behind a curtained make-shift partition. Each night she rolls out a thin mattress on the remaining empty floor space to sleep.

Like so many queer migrants from Japan, Keiko endures conditions that many of us would loathe to tolerate. Living in shared or extremely small spaces and communicating their most intimate emotions or desires in an adopted language, queer Japanese immigrants live a life even more strenuous than the typical Shin-Issei, Japanese nationals who have made the U.S. their home after 1945. Though the U.S. is far from perfect in promoting LGBT equality and well-being, for immigrants such as Keiko, queer life here somehow seems better than what remains in Japan.

How shameful that queer Shin-Issei then have to face discrimination for their sexuality from fellow Japanese more than 5,000 miles away from the home from which they felt forced to flee. Indeed, Keiko’s run-in with homophobia from other Japanese is not an isolated incident. Disapproval of same-sex sexualities exists pervasively within our community, sometimes in loud declarations, but usually in silent looks. Whispers at the JA community center and family gatherings, private phone conversations and mean-spirited gossip, and finally outbursts of “faggot” among the youth, shapes why I can no longer call “home” the Buddhist temple where I found hope, the festivals where I found community, and the family where I found love.

While I live a relatively unconflicted life now within my chosen queer Asian American family, my mother who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s remains more affected by societal norms. She vocalizes her dislike of my hair cut-too-short and the shirts from the boys department that I wear. Despite my academic career built on teaching and doing research on queers of color, she often reminds me that I am straying from my “real focus” on race, rather than sexuality. While her Shin-Issei friends tell her about their own daughters’ long-term boyfriends and husbands, my mother no doubt shares nothing about my romantic life. She has no strict moral objection to same-sex sexuality since she is not Christian. Instead, an environment disapproving of queers disables her from engaging in the most important parts of my life — my queer research, my queer activism and my queer intimacies.

Homophobia as well as transphobia brings grief to all — queer Japanese in America such as myself and Keiko, as well as the larger Nikkei community, including my mother. I write this editorial as a reminder to all of us to remain committed to the ideals that Japanese America has come to signify. Over a century of Japanese American history reveals how Japanese in America have built bridges across multiple marginalized communities in the fight to end discrimination. In 1903, Japanese farm laborers in Oxnard, Calif. teamed up with Mexicans to form one of the earliest multiracial labor unions in their struggle against depressed wages. During the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Nikkei such as Yuri Kochiyama and Richard Aoki participated in revolutionary movements for racial equality with African Americans. In the wake of 9/11 Japanese American activists have spoke out against policies that have discriminated against Arabs and Muslims in America. Additionally, the JACL’s [Japanese American Citizens League] mission statement vows to advocate for rights not just of Japanese Americans, but “all others who are victimized by injustice and bigotry.” Since the 1990s the organization has actively supported LGBT causes. More recently, I attended Pine Methodist’s teriyaki bento fundraiser and discovered that one of America’s earliest Japanese American churches has now become the only proactively queer-friendly Asian American Christian church in America. No doubt, Japanese American internment and incarceration has come to define a political ideology committed to social justice.

Yet, if ideals of equality and a more civil society seem less compelling in forging a more queer-friendly Japanese America, then do it for the Nikkei seniors, including Keiko. Embrace and support the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folks among us for the sake of the parents of all Nikkei queers — so that those growing older such as my mom can worry less about the future of their adult children such as myself.

Amy Sueyoshi is an associate professor at San Francisco State University jointly appointed in Race and Resistance Studies and Sexuality Studies.

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