Is Queer Eye really helping spreading positivity in Japan?

By Martina Cavallaro

Queer Eye is an American reality show in which five gay experts on food and wine (Ted Allen), hair, makeup and personal grooming (Kyan Douglas), interior design (Thom Filicia), fashion (Carson Kressley), pop culture and social interaction (Jai Rodriguez) – formerly known as The Fab Five – help people who need to redefine their lives. The first season went on air in 2003 and it was called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, but the title was shortened to include more diverse characters. The show is a cult in America and more than ten years after its beginning, The Fab Five land in Japan for their first time. Queer Eye: We’re in Japan is available on Netflix since November 1st. 

How is an American show going to represent another culture’s insecurities? How Western positivity will affect Japanese audience? Such questions are legit and in this article VUJ will analyse the possibilities and the limits of an American show that tried to spread an idea of positivity quite new for Japan. When a show produced in the USA – where the self-appreciation discourse is at an advanced level – comes to Japan, the chances that the representation of the Asian country will be fetishized are high. Queer Eye: We’re in Japan is not groundbreaking, but it doesn’t even meet those bad expectations. 

The theme of the series is “Japanese Holidays” (which is the title of episode one), but instead of narrating the dreamy cherry blossoming version of Japan, the Fab Five take the chance to introduce to a wide American audience some problems affecting Japanese society that often remain unspoken, such as aging, being gay, being overweight or being unable to have sex with your partner. Each episode follows the same basic format: The Fab Five, together with model Kiko Mizuhara, get to know their client’s life, habits and needs through a video before meeting in person. After meeting, chatting and doing a quick inspection of their houses, they take the person out for shopping, to have their hair cut and meet inspiring people. When they get back home, the interiors are brand new, fashionable and refreshing, as a confirmation of the successful material renovation. After that, the protagonists are ready to face an important event with more confidence: an exhibition of personal illustration for Kae or a date with his boyfriend coming from Canada for Kan are examples of what happens in this Queer Eye edition.

Yoko’s story opens the season in episode one. She is a nurse in her 50s who doesn’t feel feminine and confident anymore. In a society where being young and kawaii equals beauty and even pop idols retire at thirty to leave room to younger rising stars, the women who feel like Yoko are not a few. They are underrepresented in Japanese pop culture and their discomfort remains silent. The Fab Five help her out with a new haircut, fashionable clothes and reorganizing a house that is far from the joy-sparking KonMari aesthetic. She finally understands that beauty is not defined by age and that she is still worthy and pleasant woman who loves to help the other.

Kan, a young gay men is the protagonist of episode two. He wants to find his confidence and courage to be the realest version of himself. He studied in Canada where he met the man he loves, but doesn’t feel as safe as he was during his experience abroad. He wishes the Fab Five will give him advices on how to stay strong outside Shinjuku Nichome, famous gay district of Tokyo. This time, the Fab Five seek the help of Buddhist monk and makeup artist Kodo Nishimura, who shares with Kan how he succeeded in embracing his homosexuality and how to use that positivity to spread the message of equality as a monk. Kan not only finds a new fashion style, but also his new confidence and pride to be gay. He welcomes his boyfriend with the drink he learned to make and takes him out for dinner with family. 

Episode three focuses on instilling body positivity to the young mangaka Kae, who is still facing trauma of being bullied for her different body shape. Kae has a great potential, but she doesn’t feel she deserves it. Who else could help and encourage the young woman if not an artist who experienced the same feelings on her skin? I’m talking about model, influencer and comedian Naomi Watanabe – very popular in Japan and outside. In the beginning of her career, her image was used in comedy to make fun of overweight people. She learned to use those comments as her strength: “I was able to do that because I used all that negativity from others as fuel for my own.” After a deep talk and a martial art practice, Kae understands that her confidence comes from her inside and she takes courage to succeed in her next step: holding an exhibition of her illustration works and share her art with an audience. This is not only a professional opportunity for Kae, but also a way to connect emotionally with her mother.

At a first glance, the show could appear as a pretentious narration of five American and British men who try to spread their Western idea of positivity to Japanese society. They are actually helped by mediators, who come from the same cultural backgrounds and speak the same language as their speakers (Kodo speaks English with Kan, because he understands it, but Naomi uses Japanese to get closer to Kae). Kiko Mizuhara is guiding them during the entire season, which helps the narration being less Western-centered than it could have been. Of course, the format of the show doesn’t allow the five positivity defenders to provide deep solutions to such complicated issues. The Fab Five might offer instant gratification and materialistic solutions to cope with personal insecurities. But I like to see it as a first step for Western media to represent Japan in a new way, with more awareness and respect of the local culture. We are in the middle of a process and this is only step one. For now, let’s take it for what it is: a pop show, able to portray a fragile side of Japanese society in a light and accessible language.

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私たちVoice Up Japanとして、日本における共同親権について、その現状を理解したい、なぜタブーなのかを知りたい、様々に論争が繰り広げられる本題に関して建設的な議論を構築したく執筆しました。ご意見などございましたら、ぜひ下のコメント欄にお書きください。