Kat Callahan

Why I'm Actually The Ultimate Conformist...

...I'm just really, really bad at it. Sssh, don't tell certain segments of radical feminism: I'm actually not interested in destroying the paradigm. I'm not interested in smashing it into pieces to the point where it is impossible to reassemble any kind of social order. There are even *gasp* parts of the current social order I like. It's sort of true what they say, I want to support a version of the paradigm, be it gender or otherwise.

It is just... well, what that paradigm might look like is what they get terribly, horribly wrong. Because what I want is to transform it, just as Judith Butler maintains is possible. Like me, she does not believe that dominant paradigms can be smashed to little pieces. But they can be made better.


What people are often shocked to hear about me is that all I have ever really wanted is to belong, to be accepted, to be part of the group. "But you've always marched to your own drum, you've always chosen to be different," they say. "You've never done things the easy way." It's like that quote from Pretty in Pink which I adore so much, "Andie, if you send out signals you don't want to belong, people are going to make sure that you don't." To which Andie (and I) responds, "Yeah, that's a nice theory."

BZZT. Wrong. It is not that I chose to be different; it is that my differences were not accepted. Differences I firmly believe I had no control over. I think I am speaking to a sympathetic audience here, so this probably doesn't need to be spelled out but, I did not choose to be transgender. My gender identity was not a choice I made. I can't change it, and deep down, I have to admit, I'm really glad that there's no legitimate mental/neurological "cure"—because sometimes I think I'd take it. And while I try not to think about it very much, there are times when I find that absolutely terrifying.

I've always sought validation, although I've been able to cope when it wasn't provided (which was most of the time). I turned inwards to novels and later to fandom subcultures for science fiction and anime/manga. I think a great many people believe that my isolation and exclusion came about as a result of my loner appearance or identification with fandom subcultures. That I was sending signals meaning I didn't want to belong to the dominant culture. This is exactly opposite. I looked for inclusion and acceptance elsewhere, because I could not find it in my everyday life.


Truth be told, I am the fake geek girl. There was a time when I was super into comics. I barely read them anymore. There was a time I was super into Star Trek and Star Wars. This isn't really the case now. And as for anime/manga... Well, I owe that medium and its (western) subculture a great debt because without it I would not have ended up in a place I consider my home and with which I identify strongly. But... I watch very little anime and read very little manga anymore. I am a fan of certain series and certain works, but that's no different than any approach to media. I do attend one anime convention each year where I work as an interpreter and give panels on Japanese immigration and history, but that feels different to me. I watch Sherlock, but I am not a Holmsian, I watch Dr. Who at times, but I am not a Whovian.

Part of this is just growing up and, "putting away childish things." Not that there's any wrong, at all, in remaining a fan for those folks who are actual fans. I'm not, and I wasn't. Because I wasn't there to be a fan, I was there to be with fans. To feel accepted and included. To feel as though my differences were, if not celebrated or valued, at least irrelevant to that acceptance and inclusion. And more to the point, I wasn't in constant danger. I've talked in other articles about how violent my childhood and adolescence were because of peers. Most groups which represented the dominant cultural paradigm were ones which were violently hostile to my inclusion. Exclusion was not just enforced by teasing or taunting, it was enforced by tripping, punching, kicking, etc. So subcultures were largely safe spaces (at least physically) in a way in which my daily life was not. (A reminder, transgender people have a 1 in 4 chance of being murdered in the United States versus the general population, are 50 percent more likely to be murdered than LG people, and that 265 trans people, that are reported, are murdered each year. That's five a week. At least we get weekends off?)


I'm a collectivist. I'm a statist. I'm a democratic socialist. I support public, standardised education, healthcare, and infrastructure because I believe in obligations to others and obligations to the group are just as important as individual rights. Both must be in balance. I'm a trade unionist. I believe in negotiation and consensus. I believe in validating language. I believe in discourse where everyone's viewpoints shift and benefit, not either/or debate. I spent my adolescence in Texas where these views are not popular. I believe I developed these views in response to the exclusion and overwhelming focus on libertarian individualism in a heavily Republican and class privileged area. The message I heard consistently throughout my teenage years was, "I've got mine, I will do anything to increase it and protect it, and fuck you." 30 miles away from my well kept, well funded, well stocked, well equipped, almost all white high school was a high school which was majority minority and/or low-income students and was none of these things. It bothered me even then. It disturbs me greatly now.

Japanese society has issues. It has cracks. There are paradigms and privileges. Patriarchy is still present. It has a very different idea of how one becomes a contributing member of society (which I will get into a bit more further down). It is by no means a perfect place. Yet what I have found here, and which I was glad to hear LeChatmorte back up, is a society which, in many fundamental ways, shares my values. I've lived in four different prefectures (like states or provinces) and my experiences with public services have been that they are all pretty much alike. A child in Fukuoka (including children of expatriates) receives the same standard of public education as a child in rural Hokkaido, or Tokyo, etc. Facilities are not as well maintained as my schools were, but they are far better maintained than many schools I visited in South Dallas or Vine City in Atlanta. And all are maintained at the same level. My pension and my healthcare follow me around no matter where I work, no matter if I lose my job, and I get the same quality care (and high quality of care it is!) at any public hospital (and many private hospitals) into which I walk. Japanese public transportation is safe, reliable, clean, efficient, and comfortable. The income gap is much, much smaller than in the United States and most Japanese consider themselves "middle class" regardless of income level. The right to collective bargaining is enshrined in the Japanese constitution. I do pay a lot of taxes in Japan. I don't earn very much at all. And we are running a lot of deficits, but Japanese debt is... well... largely owed to ourselves (and I include myself because I've "invested" in the promise of the pension service and healthcare system). I think there are solutions to this, and one of those is a minor and carefully controlled increase in immigration (but that is another article I am working on, so I won't go into details here).


And those are just the political values I share. Political values shared by the majority of the parties and politicians in Japan. Politically speaking, I am not a member of the minority. I'm a member of the majority. I want to see some gradual tweaks. Easing here, restriction there. That sort of thing. But let's address the two elephants in the room: my lack of "Japanese" appearance/origin and my trans status. These seem to be what give most people conceptual issues when it comes to my strong identification with Japan.


Honestly, when it comes to being transgender in Japan, the faceless, uncaring entity that is the Japanese bureaucracy is an advantage. In Japan, documentation is the key to anything. As long as you have the right form, and that form is filled out correctly, the folks processing that form do not inject personal thoughts, opinions, views, or values. When I discussed my gender identity as a possible issue with both immigration and the Japanese nationality section (these aren't exactly the same thing, as they are in the United States) the response I got was, "If your documents match, we do not care." And they really, honestly, don't. Privacy is very important in Japan, and why you filled out a form is not important, only that you filled it out correctly and that everything matches. If the minority parties ever do form a coalition and pass same-sex marriage (even the ultra nationalists support same-sex marriage, if you can believe that!), as an example, you will never have a clerk refuse to issue marriage certificates as has happened in the United States. Most Japanese would consider that an absolute appalling lack of professionalism and an abuse of public trust, even if they personally disagreed with same-sex marriage. I already know how to change my gender marker, it's the legal name change which currently has me chasing down proper procedure, as I wanted to do them at the same time (although I can do them independently).

There is one caveat which is a good example of a restriction which I think needs to be tweaked: currently only single people without children can change their gender marker in Japan. You are allowed to form a nuclear family after a marker change, but if you have one already, there is no procedure in place to allow your marker to change unless you divorce your partner. And if you have children, that still doesn't apply. The justification for these exclusions makes sense from the paperwork perspective. Same-sex marriage does not exist in Japan, so while Japan will recognise your new gender, they will not do so while you've created a de facto same-sex marriage. That would violate the no same-sex marriage provision. There's no form for that. Likewise, even if you divorce, your child's documentation has two places for parents, mother and father, but if there are two mothers or two fathers, well... there's no form for that either. A clerk has no authority to withhold something you are owed if you have the right paperwork, but nor do they have the authority to help you if the forms don't exist or can't match, even if they are sympathetic. My conjecture is that if same-sex marriage is passed, the forms will be created automatically.


I'm in a current state where I am gender ambiguous, but usually perceived as female assuming I have even a few small "feminine" gender markers on my person. I also have a high voice compared to most men, although a bit low for a woman. I have nearly no facial hair, and what I do have is less than my western cis coworkers. I have curves. While I sometimes think I would be read as a man more often in the US than in Japan, it is because the stereotypes in Japan of western women also work to my advantage. I sometimes think that the Japanese image is that we are all amazons. My height doesn't work against me really, nor does my slightly more prominent jawline. I'm probably not attractive by Japanese beauty standards, but, uh... so what? And whatever personal suspicions or opinions any Japanese person might have, if I've been introduced as a woman, I'm addressed as a woman. And that's pretty much that. Likewise, Japan goes by the documents, there's no real quibbling over transitioning on either side. This can be difficult if someone already looks like one gender but has documentation which says otherwise. In my case, everyone recognises my feminine appearance even when I wear a dress shirt and tie. I'm not fooling anyone, but it doesn't really matter. There's a dress code, and I am adhering to it. Good enough. In Japan, it's all about obeying the rules. I like rules. They help me know where I stand. And rules also protect me, because if I am bound by them, so are others.

Oh yeah, and there's nearly no crime here. I feel considerably less discriminated against, less hated, and less likely to be hurt. I am not sure I can stress the value in that alone.


So what about the fact that I don't "look Japanese." That's never going to change, or if it does, not until I am very old. This means that whatever "Japaneseness" I have will have to be verbally explained. Politely, reasonably, and in a way which does not induce conflict. This simply doesn't bother me. It never has. Common questions I get asked (and my answers) are:

"Where are you from?" "Well, if you mean originally, I'm from Texas, but if you mean my registered domicile, that's in Kyoto." This actually isn't as surprising as some expats have made it out to be, I speak with a clear Kansai accent and word choice. This actually makes sense as an answer even if I know well and good that they're after Texas as an answer. It prevents the next question being, "Why do you speak like you are from Kansai?" Note, I never say I'm from America or the United States unless specifically directed to do so in a professional setting. I just don't. It's not intentional. I don't think about it. It's just the natural answer to the question. Feel free to psycho-analyse that all you want.


"How long have you been in Japan?" The answer is whatever it happens to be in years or months. This doesn't annoy me, but I can imagine it would and does annoy my students who pass as white. I had two blond haired, blue eyed twins once in a class—they were part Yamato/Jomon and Japanese citizens. I currently have a student who is red haired, pale, with freckles. They have much more reason to be put off by the question.

"You speak Japanese very well!" This one means you don't, or that they don't think you do. The best response to this is to just continue the conversation in complex Japanese. Or say something deflecting and self-depreciating like, "Oh that's not really true." It won't come up again. This is very different from being given a complex explanation of why you speak Japanese well. Such an explanation, with details, is sincere. I usually don't have this happen as much as other people, because my Japanese is so regional and specific that it would seem odd. My phrasing quirks can't be learned in textbooks.


"Wow, you can use chopsticks well!" or "Can you use chopsticks?" I've been using chopsticks since childhood. I can even use them effectively in both hands, something most Japanese can't do. The longer I stay in Japan, the less and less common this one becomes. I think you're pretty well expected to be able to use them after your first year. So since I've already answered how long I've been in Japan... It's kind of assumed.

"When are you going home?" This is the one that does annoy me. Now note, I choose to interpret "When are you going back to America/Texas" to mean, "When are you next visiting?" because to be honest, I really don't know what the implication is, usually. And to that question I usually answer, "Well, I visit every February." The reason why the initial question annoys me is because generally the fact that I'm never leaving Japan (save for some major, major crisis, and the Tohoku quake wasn't enough, so...) is already known. So it's less my annoyance at the implication that my stay is temporary, but more that I wasn't listened to previously. So I do have to answer, "I am home. I'm not interested in going back to stay." Which usually leads to a discussion of why, a discussion of citizenship, and a discussion of my place in Japanese society. I've never had a situation where I've been made to feel as though my explanation was unacceptable or unreasonable. I've had a great many positive and supportive reactions. The most awkward of which is when I've been thanked for "choosing" Japan. I never know how to respond to that!


I find it incredibly frustrating, not to mention inaccurate, when veteran or newbie expats alike call these questions, and the explanations they are asked to provide, examples of exclusion, xenophobia, or racism. Is it profiling? Sure. Does it have the history of say, what African-Americans deal with in the United States? Absolutely not. No way. Not even close. Do not pass go, do not collect 20,000円. I have actually heard this said (mostly from cis straight white dudes from UK, US, AUS, CAN, NZ, etc) or other such similar claims. Non-Yamato/Jomon people make up 2% of the Japanese population, and a limited number of these are Japanese citizens. Japan simply has no overarching concept of large scale immigration. It does not have any cultural value of the "melting pot," and if it did, it wouldn't be Japan. But what Japan does have is an understanding and history of individual immigrants.

Immigration isn't easy. Assimilation is even harder. Getting Japanese citizenship is fairly easy. There's a 99% approval rating. Compared to the US, it's a cakewalk. But there is other work to be done, other burdens to be carried. And setting the stage in interactions for your "Japaneseness" is just part of what immigrants to Japan have to go through to find acceptance. In contradiction to the claims of many, it is in these explanations in which one finds individual acceptance. Some may argue that you shouldn't need to explain or qualify, but then I argue that those people are placing how Japan fits them over how they fit Japan instead of trying to strike a balance. And that's already violating a fundamental cultural value, a value that I personally consider, very, very important.


In Japan, I have differences. I am asked to explain these differences. But these differences are not ones which lead to exclusion. They are not sources of fear. They are not met with hatred or bigotry (in my experiences). They are met at times with bemusement or confusion. They often lead to lots of questions, some of which would seem highly inappropriate in a western context. But they do not change that when my forms are right or my paperwork is correct, my social services are always provided, if I had children, they would be educated without regards to their own differences, I am not harassed by the police, nor accosted by peers. I do not have trouble making Japanese friends. I am not often the subject of jokes or slurs, and when it has happened, other Japanese in earshot have gone out of their way to apologise for the rude behavior of others. I find it easy to follow the social codes which I know exist, and to accept correction when I err in those that I don't. I try hard to learn and use the language.

In as much as my unchangeable differences allow, I conform.

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