Academic journal article Humanities Research

Necktie Nightmare: Narrating Gender in Contemporary Japan

Academic journal article Humanities Research

Necktie Nightmare: Narrating Gender in Contemporary Japan

Article excerpt


...the thing I hated most of all was the necktie.

When I wore a necktie, there was just no doubt that I was a man.

The image was of a salaryman! The mainstay of the house! The symbol of manhood!2

These are the words of Nômachi Mineko in the autobiographical account of her transition from male to female.3 The book (adapted from a blog) appeared in late 2006 under the title O-kama dakedo OL yattemasu I'm Queer But I'm An Office Lady).4 The book's publication coincided with a range of mainstream representations of trans-gendered Uves - in television dramas, documentaries, memoirs and autobiographies. The year 2006 was roughly 10 years after the prohibition of gender-reassignment surgery was lifted in Japan and this decade saw greater visibility of gender-variant individuals in the mainstream media.5 Most descriptions of trans-gendered lives in Japan had, until then, placed them firmly in the entertainment industry. Nômachi's book is unusual in presenting a performance of femininity that takes place in the least glamorous site of contemporary life - the office - in one of the least glamorous occupations: clerical work.6 By portraying a trans-gendered life in a mainstream workplace rather than contained in the entertainment industry, Nômachi provided a challenge to existing ways of representing gender variance. The tone is conversational and the text is complemented by cute, comical illustrations. With text and illustrations, there are often several parallel narratives in progress on any one page.

One might expect that the most difficult part of gendered transitioning would be the process of learning to 'pass' in the new gender. Brooke Kroeger has defined passing as happening when people 'effectively present themselves as other than who they understand themselves to be'.7 This definition (embedded in her introduction) sidesteps the essentialism of her book title, Passing: When people can't be who they are. Nevertheless, in my analysis of Nômachi's text, I would like to posit an even more complex understanding of passing. On the evidence of this text, for someone who feels a gap between their sexed body and their gendered identity, passing is not a simple, unidirectional process of moving from one gender to the other. Rather, there is a series of stages of passing. First, there is the feeling of passing when one's body does not match one's psychic identity.8 For Nômachi, this was manifest in a hatred of the necktie, the business suit and business shoes, as seen in the epigraph to this essay. There is then a further period of passing as one assumes a new gendered identity and tries to conceal the gap between the new identity and the body. Finally, there is an element of passing involved in performing - or not - the expected rituals of heterosexual romance. As we shall see, however, passing is about narrative, discourse and shared memory as much as it is about the modification and presentation of the body.

Situating passing

Much of the scholarly literature on passing has focused on anglophone texts, particularly those from the United States. Nella Larsen's 1929 novel Passing has been subjected to several waves of scholarly interest, with recent critics focusing on the mutual imbrication of raced, classed and gendered identities and sexual orientations in the novel. The forms of passing found in such texts as this are intimately bound up with the particular dynamics of the relationships between the descendants of white colonisers, the descendants of slaves, indigenous people and newer immigrant groups in the United States.9 These forms of passing are also based on the logic that racialised difference can be identified through visual cues. Skin is the privileged signifier for racialised difference in the anglophone world. Similarly, it is assumed that sexed difference can be identified through visual cues, with genitalia the main focus for identifying male and female. …

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