From denizens to citizens…? Negotiations of belonging by Female-to-Male transpeople in contemporary Japan

PhD defended at: 

University of Melbourne

Author: 

Shu Min YUEN

Defended: 

2015

In the last twenty years, transgender people have acquired increased visibility in mainstream Japanese society following the introduction of the medical concept of Gender Identity Disorder and the decriminalization of sex reassignment surgery in 1996. From 2004, with the enactment of the “Exceptional Treatment Law for persons with Gender Identity Disorder”, transpeople who have completed sex reassignment surgeries were able to modify their gender in the family register, the instrument par excellence that defines Japanese citizenship. Yet, despite the increasing visibility of transgender issues in society in general, understandings of Female-to-Male (FTM) transpeople continue to remain hazy among the Japanese public, especially when representations of gender variance in the mass media continue to be dominated by male-assigned gender/sexual variants who play up their gender in-betweenness for comic effect. In academia, Japanese publications on the nation’s trans history tend to focus largely on male-assigned gender-variance, while the majority of English-language academic literature on non-normative gender and sexuality in Japan also gravitates towards studies on the gay community and Male-to-Female (MTF) transpeople. This dissertation therefore attempts, for the first time in Western scholarship, to make a direct intervention into the severe lack of representations of Japanese FTM subjects by constructing an archive of Japanese FTM history and culture from the mid-1990s up until the present day.

I adopt a multi-method approach in my construction of what I call the “FTM archive”, combining medico-legal discourse analysis with textual analysis of FTM-related television dramas and zines, as well as analysis based on ethnographic fieldwork in the FTM scene that involved participant observation and interviews with cultural producers and participants. This “FTM archive” not only serves as a record of FTM lives; it also, as a research method, seeks to uncover the processes of negotiations that FTM transpeople are constantly engaged in, with both the state and commercial markets, and with these institutions’ regulation of their gendered personhood, in their attempt to claim inclusion as (trans) gender subjects in Japanese society.

My research findings reveal that while there is a strong desire among many of my FTM informants to be socially recognized and accepted as “normal” men, many of them also continue to participate regularly in social events organized by, and predominantly for FTM transpeople, to gain a sense of community and belonging to a collective sociality. I argue that this claiming of dual citizenship—a double occupation of “FTM” and “man”, two identity positions that appear to be at odds with each other—demands a (re)conceptualization of trans inclusion that transcends the current language of rights, recognition and equality. This dual position not only troubles the dichotomy of assimilation versus resistance that is commonly found in current citizenship discourse, but can also suggest a new and more ethical way of thinking about transgender citizenship that does not only focus on claiming universal rights, but also remains sensitive to differences (Monro and Warren 2004, 358).

In tandem with the political commitment of transgender studies to correct the social injustices and violence that transpeople face (Stryker 2006; Valentine 2007), this dissertation is as much an archiving project, as it is an attempt to critically analyze the (normalizing) discourses of gender and sexuality in contemporary Japan. In doing so, I hope to open a new window into Japanese history by putting back into Japan’s trajectory of postwar modernity the figure of the FTM subject, who has been rendered invisible in dominant narratives of Japanese history. It is only then, I believe, that we can fully engage Japan in the conversation of trans/queer studies with its other Asian and “Western” interlocutors.

ICAS is an initiative of the
International Insitute for Asian Studies