Why is Homosexuality Absent from Japanese Television?

Society Culture

British theatre fans were pleasantly surprised by the recent news of a new television drama series in the works. The British television channel ITV announced that Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi will play an old, gay couple in a new sitcom series. I found this news wonderful and very interesting.

Differences with Britain and the United States

Ian McKellen is one of the most respected actors in the English speaking world. He is known to many film fans as the wizard Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings series. In 1988, against the background of anti-homosexual policies of the British government of the time, he publicly announced that he was gay. Since then he has been active in supporting the gay rights movement and other minority groups.

Derek Jacobi may be known in Japan from Cadfael, a television series of historical murder mysteries where he played the leading character. He, too, is among the most respected British actors of his generation. Soon after civil partnerships were introduced in the United Kingdom, he married his same-sex partner.

These two great actors are going to play an older, same-sex couple. The initial rumoured title of the sitcom was the slightly cheeky “Vicious Old Queens,” but it seems ITV has settled for the more succinct “Vicious.” The actors were fellow student thespians at university and, as Ian McKellen himself has attested, were both “madly in love” with each other at the time, although neither of them did anything about it. After all these years they will play a bickering, vicious-mouthed, aging gay couple. There is no doubt in my mind that it will be a real treat to watch.

No Equivalents on Japanese Television

I racked my brains trying to think of something similar on Japanese television, but I could not think of a good example. The situation is just too different. So few Japanese actors are openly gay, and you hardly ever see gay characters in normal, everyday situations on Japanese television dramas. You could be blasé about this and say that this is merely a reflection of the different social norms in different countries. But if television never portrays homosexuality in everyday situations, then it will never have any impact on this aspect of society.

The sitcom Modern Family has been quite a hit in the United States. The show has received Emmy Awards for three years in a row for portraying the diverse characteristics of the modern American family. One of the families is a male gay couple, Mitchell and Cameron. Cameron is a very ordinary-looking, chubby guy you might see anywhere in the United States. I am somewhat sorry to say that he is not beautiful either, as some might expect of a typical gay character.

Actor Eric Stonestreet, who plays Cameron, said in his Emmy acceptance speech for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series this past September, “We get the awesome opportunity to play these two characters on TV and show America and the world what a loving couple we can be, just like everybody else, and it's an honor to do that.” Stonestreet often says that he is “openly straight,” and that this does not stop him from playing a gay man.

Television Reflects Society

For a long time, films and plays in both the United States and Britain dealing with homosexuality were mostly tragedies. This may have something to do with the fact that homosexuality was illegal in Britain until 1967, and later on there was the AIDS crisis. But since the late 1990s, when HIV became more controllable (at least in the developed world), nontragic gay characters started appearing in drama and comedy.

Perhaps it was the NBC sitcom Will & Grace that started this trend. The Will in the title role was a gay lawyer. Since then, from the former massive hit Sex and the City to the current massive hit Glee, it seems more unnatural nowadays for homosexual characters to be absent from shows.

And in early May this year, US vice president Joe Biden explicitly expressed his support for gay marriage on national television and said, “I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has done so far.” This is light-years away from a country where the governor of the capital gets away almost scot-free with publicly stating that he considers homosexual people to “be lacking in some ways you would expect. It probably has something to do with genetics.”

Television dramas are probably a mirror of the society they portray. On the other hand, it is not impossible for great dramas to change the society that they are part of.

I, too, am “openly straight” and not really in any kind of position to preach about how Japanese television ought to be portraying homosexuality. But the fact remains that Japanese dramas hardly ever have realistic homosexual characters in everyday situations, and that is drastically different from the situation in the United States and Britain.

(Originally written in Japanese on November 5, 2012. Translated into English by the author.)

Britain culture Kato Society entertainment Yuko television homosexuality