Report: The First Annual Conference of JAQS

Kazuyoshi KAWASAKA
Graduate student, ICU

【The article below is the same as the article that appears in the 11
th issue of the CGS Newsletter.】

The first conference of the Japan Association for Queer Studies (JAQS), was held at Hiroshima Shudo University on November 8th and 9th, 2008. Despite the last minute notice of absence of one of the symposiasts, the conference was a success with many participants from diverse backgrounds. I was happy with the number of participants, the level of intellectual interaction that took place, as well as the exchange among scholars, students and activists. In this report, however, I would like to put aside the temptation and talk about the problems that were hard to see but surely existed at the conference.

During the symposium entitled "Is 'Japan' 'Queer'?," I found very interesting the arguments made by the symposiasts, Mia Nakamura (Tokyo University of the Arts, formerly known as Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music) and Hideaki Tazaki (Rikkyo University). Nakamura, who compared the ways transgender identities were problematized in the U.S. and Japan, argued that there were differences in embodiment and self-formation, and threw light on the possibility of "queerness" in Japan. Tazaki, on the other hand, based his argument on Jasbir K. Puar's Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Time to discuss "homonationalism" which derives from "homonormativity" in post-9-11 U.S.
Although, or pretty much because, the arguments made by Nakamura and Tazaki were highly intellectual, their presentations (ironically) reflected the problem of queer studies in Japan in general. In keeping with its title "Is 'Japan' 'Queer'?," which places both "Japan" and "queer" in quotation marks, this symposium was meant to facilitate the discussion of Japan from a queer perspective, as well as the discussion of queerness from the perspective of Japan. But the way both Nakamura and Tazaki focused upon the violent nature of the American norms showed that both symposiasts did not question the idea of a "different" Japan. By routing their arguments through the U.S., they seem to avoid any particular discussion of violence in and of Japan.
It is not true to say that these two particular scholars happen to have the same weakness or have made the same mistake coincidentally, but rather, the nature of queer studies that has flourished primarily within Western Europe and North America makes it very tempting for any student of queer studies to overlook things "foreign." At the same time, it is also true that many intellectuals and activists in Japan are tempted to see such a theoretical tendency to the West as naively xenomaniac. This ambivalence――one is the desire to keep "Japan" somewhere safe, the other the feeling of attachment to "Japan" from which, they believe, one must not depart――was explicit at this year's conference, which therefore seems to leave much for debate.
In what ways can "queer studies" be political in the Japanese context? There is no guarantee it will function as something that questions social norms the way it has done in Western Europe and North America, nor do we know whether it will bear fruit at all in Japan. This is precisely why our political concerns - how and where they are generated - must be examined.
Another thing I noticed at the conference was the lack of presentations on activism, and the few exceptions had smaller audiences. And I do see some link between this and what I have discussed above - a desire and attachment to "Japan" - which tells us even more about where we are heading, which frightens me. I understand that it was an academic conference, and that it was not advertised enough in advance, but still, I see it as one of the aspects of how queer studies is accepted in Japan. And we must really, deeply, and carefully think about this phenomenon.
Yes, the conference was successful, and I must admit that I am pleased with the outcome. But I left Hiroshima Shudo University in the more pessimistic than optimistic mode, thinking about where we are, where we are heading, and what is to come. What we need to do, I believe, is to question where we are.