Is Okama Okay?
“it is through language that a person negotiates a sense of self within and across different sites at different points in time”&
I met Minori where else but at karaoke. Having always loved to sing, especially around others who enjoy the hobby just as much as I do, Japan was a great place for me to put to good use all those years of classical voice training. Another friend of mine, Hiroe, told me that she had invited some friends of hers to join our karaoke party, friends who she said “really want to meet you.” I was flattered, but I just assumed that these friends were eager to meet Hiroe’s crazy English teacher and quickly forgot all about the additional guests that night. That is, until Minori walked in. My first impression told me that Minori was a lesbian. With short, spiky hair, no make-up, jeans and a men’s shirt, my experience in the gay and lesbian community helped me identify possible allies. Of course, there is no guarantee that my judgments are always correct.
There was a large crowd that night; 12 of us piled in to a small karaoke box<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–> complete with orange, vinyl-covered booths, a table set with remote controls for the television and catalogs of songs to choose from, and a large television screen on which to read the song lyrics while we sang. A number of my co-workers from the eikaiwa<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–> were present and even though we were requested by our employer not to socialize with students, none of us took this stipulation very seriously. The Japanese students, also cognizant of this rule, likewise paid it very little heed; there was an excitement shared by both Japanese and gaijin alike about entering each others’ worlds, becoming a part of each others’ communities.
After a few songs, Minori looked at me across the table and said “Whole New World…you know it? Disney…Aladdin.”
“Yeah, of course I know it. Duet?” I replied.
“Yeah, but I get to be Aladdin, you can be Princess Jasmine.”
The crowd of teachers and students, on their way to becoming friends, got a kick out of this and before I knew it, the opening bars of the famous Disney duet began. We got plenty of laughs and a round of applause as I did my best diva impersonation; at 5’6”, with a shaved head and dark goatee, dressed in a black shirt, camouflage pants and black army boots, I’m sure it was amusing to hear me sing the part of the headstrong princess.
When the night had ended, many of us exchanged keitai<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–> numbers and wished each other ja ne<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–>as we headed for our train stations. A few days later, Hiroe sent me a text message asking if I would like to celebrate my birthday with her and Minori and a few other friends. After being in Japan for only four months, I was flattered that my new friends would be so thoughtful.
When I arrived at Minori’s apartment for my birthday celebration, our other guests excused themselves to buy food for our party at the supermarket across the street while I stayed behind and chatted with Minori. I’m not sure how it came about, but Minori and I began discussing our sexuality. There was nothing secretive or shocking about it, as Minori was open with all of the friends we were meeting with that night, but I hadn’t said anything about my own sexuality to anyone but Hiroe. A previous encounter with a student-turned-friend and her own tomodachi<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–> had left me feeling very embarrassed. In retrospect, enthusiastically being outed as gay to a van full of mothers with children should have been a moment of pride for me (proud that my new friend felt so comfortable around me to share this with others), but instead I was mortified as I sat in the back of a van being stared at by three small, smiling Japanese children, one of whom had taken to stroking my arm hair in fascination. This friend followed her announcement of my sexuality with “and he used to smoke marijuana when he was in college.” Never had I so wished for magical powers of invisibility, though by her tone, I could tell she was bragging. Was I a trophy friend?
Anyhow, Minori explained to me that Hiroe was eager to introduce us to each other because both Minori and I were “gay”. I then asked Minori what the word for “gay” was in Japanese.
“Gay,” she replied, straightforwardly.
“No, I mean in Japanese,” I clarified.
“Gay…G-E-I is ‘gay’ in Japanese. We use the English word. It’s like in the word geisha, but that gei means “art”. Though we also use R-E-Z-U or just ‘rezubian’ for women…sometimes ‘homo’…sometimes ‘queer’.”
“Well, if I wanted to use Japanese, what would I say to people?”
And with that, I would begin telling people “Okama desu<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–>.”
Fast forward two years and while talking with a group of mostly gay, male, Japanese friends I was asked what I say to Japanese people when I want to tell them that I’m gay.
“Okama desu,” I replied. I was met with a few giggles.
“Do you know what okama means?” asked Ryohei.
“Hai, okama no imi wa gei, deshou<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–>?” I asked.
“Umm, okama usually refers to a ‘queen.’”
I was confused to say the least. I had been telling people that I was okama for two years now. I felt a heat wave of embarrassment. “You mean ‘queen’ as in ‘He’s so fem, he’s such a queen’?”
“So I’ve been telling people that I’m a queen?”
“Well, we don’t usually say okama like that ‘cause it’s slang, you know. Maybe it’s kind of like saying ‘fag’. I think nihonjin<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–> prefer the English word ‘gay.’”
“When I hear okama I think of drag queens or crossdressers,” added Yutaka.
“Aren’t there any other Japanese words that aren’t English?”
“Doseiai, same sex love” replied Ryohei, “but it sounds so clinical…or medical.”
“Gay is best,” concluded Yoshihiro.
“Well that’s just great. I’ve spent the last twenty-four months telling people I’m a drag queen.”
This last comment was met with laughter. Then a female friend chimed in.
“Only my English-speaking friends know I’m a dyke,” explained Mika.
“What do you mean? Japanese people don’t know the word dyke, or you only tell gaijin that you’re rezu?” I asked, laughing at the intricacies of having to navigate the connotations of not one, but two linguistic systems.
“Well, I think some Japanese know the word dyke, but I mean that I don’t tell many people about it…about me. I think everyone who knows is very progressive. If my friends don’t speak English, I generally don’t tell them.”
<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–> (Norton, 2000, p. 5)
<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–> It is customary in Japan for people to gather in small, private rooms for karaoke rather than at a large bar or restaurant. Karaoke establishments often take-up an entire building, consisting of floor after floor of various-sized rooms for private parties and sing-alongs.
<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–> Eikawa – English conversation school.
<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–> Keitai – cellular phone.
<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–> Ja ne – see you later.
<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–> Tomodachi – friend(s)
<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–> In Japanese, there is no distinction between “r” and “l” sounds. As such, the Japanese pronunciation of lesbian is actually “re-zu-bi-an”.
<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–> Eh-tou – used in pauses or to hold place in conversation, translates to “ummm”.
<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–> Okama – translates to “honourable pot” (a pot that is used for cooking) but is popular slang for a man who behaves like a woman or wants to assume the identity of a woman.
<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–> Okama desu – I am “okama”.
<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–> Hai, okama no imi wa gei, deshou – Yeah, okama means gay, doesn’t it?
<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–> So desu – that’s right.
<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–> Nihonjin – Japanese person/people