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Sunday, Feb. 23, 2003

MEDIA MIX

You can be yourself, but not be understood


Identity has as much to do with socialization as it does with the circumstances surrounding one's birth. But since gender is considered an absolute, it has become the test of a society's willingness to allow its members to identify themselves. Except for hermaphrodites, humans are either male or female, but the traits associated with masculinity and femininity are shaped by society.

In 1998, the Saitama Medical University began offering diagnosis of and treatment for gender-identity disorders (GID). The treatment included sex-change surgery, which had previously been unavailable in Japan, but also counseling and hormone therapy. Since then about 20 individuals have undergone operations.

The two-pronged approach of counseling and medical treatment demonstrates an understanding that people who suffer from GID can be affected as much by social pressure as they are by physical discomfort. Many people who go through counseling decide not to have the surgery. In other words, the plumbing isn't always the problem. Sometimes, it's what's above the neck, not below the waist, that counts.

As simple as this idea sounds, it is difficult for many people to accept, especially those in positions of authority. Two years ago, six transgender people applied to various family courts in Japan to have their gender designations changed legally. In Japan, one's gender is entered on the koseki (family register), and in order to change anything on that sacred document, one has to receive permission from a judge.

So far, the requests have been refused. According to one judge, the koseki explains the situation at birth, an event that cannot be changed. However, judges in the past have allowed people to change their names, which are also given at birth, thus implying that the koseki is somehow linked to chromosomes.

Actually, it's more complicated than that. One of the purposes of the koseki is to establish relationships within a family (tsuzuki-gara). The gender designation isn't "male" or "female," but rather "first son," "second daughter," etc. So changing the gender designation may also involve changing the individual's legal position within the family -- a "second daughter" could conceivably become a "first son" -- with all the legal responsibilities and (dis)advantages that come with it. (In fact, "male" and "female" are used as designations on some koseki, but they indicate that the child was born out of wedlock.)

To transgender persons such legal niceties matter less than the fact that the koseki is used for issuing other documents. Some local governments have allowed gender designations to be changed on resident cards, but it's the federal government that issues passports and medical insurance certificates, and whatever it says on the koseki is what it says on those documents. Several years ago, show-business personality Karuse Maki was busted for drugs and placed in a men's jail, even though she had undergone a male-to-female sex-change operation abroad in the '70s.

But society will have to change before the bureaucracy does; and if the media is any indication, society still has a long way to go.

Gender-benders can be found on Japanese television, but they're treated as jokes or flamboyant individuals. For a while, "Mr. Ladies" (female-to-male) and "new halfs" (male-to-female) were common on variety specials, but interest died down as the freak factor faded. Open homosexuality is still mostly a no-no, as it is for people in show business in the United States, thus reinforcing the idea that gay people either prefer keeping their sexual orientation hidden or are ashamed of the fact.

Even those few TV personalities, almost all men, who flaunt their cross-gender tendencies are treated as people who merely like to show off. The commentator twins Osugi and Piiko, who prefer being called obasan (middle-aged women), are denied any sexual orientation whatsoever. (Long ago, they admitted to being gay, but claimed they were celibate.) The bespectacled effeminate tarento known as Sakamoto-chan is constantly baited about his sexual preferences on comedy shows.

Actually, Sakamoto-chan has mostly disappeared, probably because he had no sales point other than his limp-wristed whininess, which people tired of. The same thing can't be said of Toru Yamazaki, a 33-year-old cartoonist-turned-tarento who wears his feminine predilections proudly.

Because Yamazaki has a large fan base -- mostly women -- and is articulate, polite and intelligent, he is generally spared the kind of cracks that Sakamoto-chan had to endure. Nevertheless, interlocutors try to pin him down as a man with the usual male appetites, and to his credit he resists. During an interview on NHK's "Studio Park" to promote a drama series in which Yamazaki plays a bar "mama," the female announcer kept saying how unusual it was to meet a "man" who is so "nice." Yamazaki was too polite to correct her assessment, but it was clear from his conversation that he doesn't identify with men at all.

He doesn't have to be a woman physiologically because, in his mind, he already is one. There is no disorder to be treated or overcome. This is apparent to anyone who sees him on television, so the media's general refusal to acknowledge it seems reactionary.

Yamazaki's honesty begs the question: How absolute is gender? Some GID sufferers undergo surgery because they believe it's the only way society will accept them for what they are. But such an idea implies that gender is a switch with only two settings, when it's more like a set of volume controls. Some men are more feminine than some women, while some women are more masculine than some men. Why is that considered so weird?



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