Post-doctoral Fellow, Department of Japanese Studies, National University of Singapore
Cultural citizenship, broadly defined, is a dual process of subject “self-making and being made” (Ong 1996, 737), whereby groups negotiate recognition and inclusion into national life via an articulation of their rights to a culture (Yue 2012, 19). In conventional political theory, citizenship has generally been conceptualized as sociopolitical membership, and associated with rights and responsibilities. More recently, scholars have critiqued such traditional understandings of citizenship (Lister 1997; Stychin 2001) and sought to expand the concept beyond notions of civil, political, and social rights by taking into consideration dimensions of sexuality, culture, and consumption (Richardson and Monro 2012, 61; see also Isin and Turner 2002). Under such new conceptualizations of citizenship, citizenship becomes multidimensional and a form of negotiation between the self and the state (rather than a status granted by the state) that is realized through active participation in the public sphere. As Engin Isin and Bryan Turner point out, the notion of citizenship as a “social process” implies that “members of a polity [will] always [need to] struggle to shape its fate” (2002, 4).
Within these recent (re)articulations of citizenship, cultural citizenship in particular has gained currency in studies of minority populations. Some notable theorizations of cultural citizenship include the works of Renato Rosaldo (1994, 1999), who sees cultural citizenship as an exercising of “the right to be different (in terms of race, ethnicity, or native language)” (1994, 57) while still being fully incorporated into the wider society and those of Aihwa Ong (1996), who perceives cultural citizenship as a negotiation process between the (minority) individual and the state apparatuses in the quest for inclusion. For Ong, cultural citizenship is the “cultural practices and beliefs produced out of negotiating the often ambivalent and contested relations with the state and its hegemonic forms that establish the criteria of belonging within a national population and territory” (1996, 738). As Toby Miller notes, “[f]or the Left and for cultural studies, cultural citizenship concerns the maintenance, development, and exchange of culture lineage—a celebration of difference, which is also a critique of the status quo” (2007, 179).
In the field of gender and sexuality studies, the concept of cultural citizenship has also been used to shed light on the lived experiences of gender/sexual nonconforming people, especially in societies where queerness is still not an accepted norm. As Audrey Yue and Jun Zubillaga-Pow (2012) demonstrate in their edited volume on queer Singapore, in a country where homosexuality is not legally and socially recognized, the framework of cultural citizenship allows us to see how gay and lesbian people are nevertheless able to claim inclusion in the nation-state as gay and lesbian people in various aspects of their everyday lives. More significantly, Yue and Zubillaga-Pow’s edited volume addresses a key critique of current theorizations of cultural citizenship as observed by Toby Miller, which is a lack of consideration of the political economy and the media that resulted in a liberal, utopian, and technical view of culture that has come to be placed “at the center of politics and sociopolitical analysis” (Miller 2007, 179). As Miller argues, there is a need to take “adequate account of popular culture,” and to “rearticulate culture to the economy and capitalize the ‘p’ in politics, not a misleading, antimaterialist sphere of ideation” (ibid.).
For Miller (2007), television is a starting point for redirecting attention to political economy and popular culture in articulations of culture and cultural citizenship in the United States. In the context of contemporary Japan, another place to focus that attention is on celebrity. More specifically, by focusing on transgender celebrities, we can observe negotiations of belonging and inclusion by a group of gender minorities in present-day Japan through their engagement/participation in the cultural sphere, which inevitably is tied to the economy. Through the case of Secret Guyz, a female-to-male (FTM) transgender idol group, one can see how popular culture is a site of civic engagement that enables both the group and their (trans-identified) fans to make claims to rights that have been denied to them in Japanese society. Chief among these are the right to transgender expression and the right to self-realization as a specific group of gendered people (Richardson 2000, 119–22).
Managed by Stardust Promotion, Secret Guyz is a three-member boys’ group that debuted in 2012. As of January 2017, they have released six singles under Stardust Records and have garnered a substantial fan base comprised mainly of Japanese women in their twenties and thirties. In addition to making regular appearances on internet live-streaming programs, they have also appeared in numerous variety shows and television dramas on mainstream television—an unprecedented achievement in the nation’s FTM history. Short of making their debut as major artists, they currently perform at shopping malls and live houses around Tokyo. Their music style is predominantly catchy, upbeat Japanese pop, and their visual presentation, although highly resembling the characteristic androgynous look of mainstream Japanese boy bands, varies according to the themes of their songs (gothic fashion, superhero costumes, and so on). The members of the group—Yukichi, Yoshihara Shūto, and Ikeda Taiki—are all in their early thirties and openly transgender. They belong to the “Special Mission Unit,” which is one of the many units/categories that artists affiliated with Stardust Promotion are put into, but one that was specially created by the president as part of the company’s efforts at “creating shared value” to “raise the social statuses of sexual minorities” in Japan.
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. While the decriminalization of sex reassignment surgery and the promulgation of the exceptional treatment law do signal and enable some form of legal and social recognition of transpeople in Japan, such inclusion can be seen as at best partial and superficial. The law excludes those who cannot, or refuse—whether temporarily or permanently—to undergo bodily modifications to become “properly” male or female, which leaves nonsurgical gender transformations at the margins. Even for those who are able to change their registered gender in the family register, the quest for social inclusion and civic belonging does not end at the moment of receiving legal recognition. Research on the Japanese FTM community shows that while there is a strong desire among FTM transpeople to be socially recognized and accepted as “normal” men, many of them continue to regularly participate in events (such as get-togethers, club nights, and drinking parties) organized by, and predominantly for, FTM transpeople, which gives them a sense of community and belonging (Yuen 2015).
Within this context, the FTM idol group Secret Guyz can be seen as mediating the cultural sphere in and through which its FTM members and fans can enact cultural citizenship. That is, the idols and fans, who have been made invisible in mainstream discourses of gender and transgender, are civically engaged as FTM people and claim their rights and belonging in society. The members’ trans backgrounds feature prominently in the marketing of the group. They are labeled “A FtM unit from Japan” on Stardust Production’s official webpage, call themselves “rainbow idols” on their official blog, and often introduce themselves as “trans hero[e]s” at their promotional events. The mission of the group, as they claim it, is to spread knowledge about and increase recognition of FTM people in society. Speaking about the group’s debut performance in an interview with the FTM magazine Laph, Yoshihara Shūto, the leader of the group, recalls that they were only able to perform cover versions of a handful of pop songs, because they did not have any songs of their own yet. However, once they started explaining their trans statuses, audiences became “hooked” (Akito 2015a, 7). Indeed, in the emcee section of their performances, they always include explanations of their trans background or recollections of episodes from their everyday lives as transpeople, although these “pedagogical” aspects are always conveyed in a light-hearted and playful manner. As member of the group Ikeda, Taiki highlights that the stage is where he finds the greatest liberty to be who he is (ibid., 11).
The members’ confidence in living as FTM both on- and off-stage quickly made them role models for young FTM people. Some express their desires to “become famous” (yūmei ni naritai) like the trio, while others attempt to get a role as backup dancers for the group. A survey of eighty self-identified women, conducted by Laph in 2015, reveals that being a “fan of FTM idols/artists” was the third most selected answer to the question, “What is your closest connection to FTM people?” (It was close behind the option “FTM friends/acquaintances.”) “Stage/live events” also came in third for the question, “Where did you first meet FTM people?” (Akito 2015b, 46). Seen in this light, Secret Guyz and its performances not only enable its members to spread knowledge about and promote the acceptance of FTM people among the wider community, but they also enable them to claim the right to self-expression and self-realization (Richardson 2000, 119–22) as a specific group of gendered people—that is, transpeople or FTM people.
The site of idol worship is also a site of consumption. In addition to record sales, the revenue that is generated by the trio comes from merchandise and mini-concert ticket sales. To further boost record sales, akin to the marketing strategies of mainstream idol groups (see Idol; Culture Industry), a “bonus” is attached to every CD purchased. While some may argue that consumption and participation in the capitalist market can end up depoliticizing queer identities (Taylor 2008, 542–43; Richardson 1998, 87), in the context of present-day Japan (and, in fact, in many parts of Asia), where nonconforming genders and sexualities remain very much in the undercurrents of society, consumption can function as an important channel through which queer autonomy can be negotiated and achieved.
In the case of Secret Guyz, arguably the first and only Japanese FTM idol group that has gained relative success in the mainstream entertainment industry, the celebration of difference and the claiming of a separate culture and identity as FTM people are both effectively enabled by participation/consumption in the commercial market. As their leader Yoshihara points out, “[The entertainment industry] is a world that does not discriminate against you just because you are FTM. On the contrary, you get comments like ‘Aren’t you guys interesting!’” (Akito 2015a, 7). Recalling Miller’s (2007) argument on the importance of the economy and popular culture in conceptualizations of cultural citizenship, the case of Secret Guyz illustrates that claims for recognition, inclusion, and representation of differences are as dependent on consumption and/in/through the media as they are on conventional political movements. Together with recent developments in Japanese LGBTQ advocacy, it might not be long before the members of Secret Guyz achieve their dream of holding a concert at the Ryōgoku Sumo Hall in Tokyo, a national landmark and the home of sumo wrestling, which has traditionally banned women from stepping into the ring.
In this entry, Female-to-Male (FTM) transpeople refers to individuals who are assigned female gender at birth but who identify as and/or live as men (or have the desire to do so, with or without hormonal therapy and surgery). ↑
Other celebrities and idol groups managed by Stardust Promotion, one of the top talent management agencies in Japan, include Kitagawa Keiko, Tokiwa Takako, and Momoiro Clover Z. Prior to Secret Guyz, there was another FTM group called GTM (Girls to Men) that debuted in 2010, but they disbanded a year later after releasing one single. ↑
In 2013, Secret Guyz hosted a weekly variety program Ebisu Kechappy with two other boy groups (also managed by Stardust Promotion) on the commercial television channel Tokyo MX. Between December 2014 and March 2015, they starred in a thirteen-episode, six-minute drama Yowai otoko (Weak Men), which was broadcast on the satellite television channel BS11 (Nippon BS Broadcasting Corporation). From 2015 to 2016, they hosted a fortnightly live radio/talk show on the internet television broadcaster Wallop. They have also appeared in various variety shows, music programs, and documentaries on the commercial television stations NTV (Nippon Television Network Corporation), Fuji TV (Fuji Television Network), and TV Asahi, as well as the national broadcaster, NHK (Nippon Broadcasting Corporation). See their official webpage, http://www.secretguyz.jp, for an archive of their media appearances. ↑
The male idol “look” as epitomized by members of Johnny’s boy bands—arguably the main players in the Japanese boy-band market—is typically meticulously styled, brown-tinted hair, neatly shaped eyebrows, and a well-groomed and slim body. For more on male grooming/beauty in Japan, see Miller (2006) and Dasgupta (2010). ↑
The “Special Mission Unit” currently has five members, including Secret Guyz and their manager. ↑
Sex reassignment surgery had not been performed for almost thirty years in Japan following the “Blue Boy Incident” in 1969. For more on the history of sex reassignment surgeries (or sex change surgeries, as they were previously known) in Japan, see McLelland (2005), Ishida (2011), and Nihon seishin shinkei gakkai (Japan Society of Psychiatry and Neurology; 2006). ↑
The family register in present-day Japan functions as a civil registration system that records information such as the births, deaths, marriages, divorces, adoptions, and dissolutions of adoption of individuals in the family for up to two generations. In the case of transpeople (and arguably gender/sexual nonnormative people in general), due to the discord between their gender presentation and their registered gender in the family register—which in turn determines how their gender is recorded in other official documents—many of them face difficulties in various aspects of their everyday lives, such as when entering a lease contract or applying for school or a job. For more on the family register, see David Chapman and Karl Krogness (2014). ↑
They also used other terms, such as onabe (professional cross-dressed male hosts) and danso (male cross-dressing), which they perceived were more familiar to their audiences, to describe themselves, especially in the early days of their debut. See Cross-Dressing. ↑
Some other (older) FTM people, however, are more critical of the group. They question if the popularity of such “FTM idols” has made “FTM” a brand and a tool for promotion, which, in their view, can have dire consequences. This nevertheless testifies to the success of the group. ↑
For every CD purchased at events for the release of new Secret Guyz’s singles, fans get an opportunity to go on stage and shake the hands of the trio. The purchase of two CDs allows them to take a group photo, and with the purchase of three CDs, they get an individual shot with their favorite member. For a detailed discussion of idol groups in Japan using such bonus systems to boost record sales, see Galbraith and Karlin (2012, 20–23). ↑
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