May 23, 2024

Tokyo, Japan – When Japanese book publisher Kadokawa announced last year it would publish a translation of Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, it ignited a culture-war skirmish of the kind rarely seen in Japan.

Trans rights activists organised a protest in front of Kadokawa’s Tokyo offices, while social media users accused the publisher of acts of bigotry – from platforming a “trans hater” to “inciting discrimination through public relations.”

Within days, Kadokawa announced it had cancelled the planned publication and apologised for causing concern.

“We planned to publish the translation, hoping it would help readers in Japan deepen their discussions about gender through what is happening in Europe and the United States,” the publisher said in a statement in December.

“But the title and sales copy ended up causing harm to people directly involved.”

Shrier, a former opinion columnist for the Wall Street Journal, decried the move as an example of mob-driven censorship.

“Kadokawa, my Japanese publisher, are very nice people. But by caving to an activist-led campaign against IRREVERSIBLE DAMAGE, they embolden the forces of censorship,” she wrote on X.

“America has much to learn from Japan, but we can teach them how to deal with censorious cry-bullies.”

When a rival publisher, Sankei Shimbun Publications, announced it would release the book instead, the firestorm raged on.

The publisher, which is known for its conservative editorial line, said it received an email threatening arson against bookstores that carried the title.

Refusing to cede to the activists’ demands, Sankei Shimbun published Shrier’s book earlier this month under the revised title Girls Who Want to Be Transgender: The Tragedy of a Fad Fueled by Social Networking, Schools, and Medicine.

The controversy around the book Irreversible Damage follows a script that has become familiar in the US and other Western countries, where factions on the left and right have been at odds over the line between protecting marginalised groups and upholding free speech.

But such culture war battles have until now been unusual in Japan, where companies are generally hesitant to get involved in politics or hot-button social issues, underscoring how national boundaries are increasingly blurred in the social media age.

“Some of the US’s obsession with culture wars and identity politics and representation is bleeding into Japan,” Roland Kelts, whose book Japanamerica explored the growing influence of Japanese culture in the US, told Al Jazeera.

“Japan has always had permissive attitudes toward gender and gender play. Now it’s rising to the surface of logic and meaning via a bilingual younger generation.”

“The mere existence of an East-West, Japan-US dialogue about sensitive contemporary matters is to me more important than the content of the dialogue or the platform for it,” Kelts added.

Japan has its own history of banning books and successful boycott campaigns.

From 1911 to 1945, the Tokko, dubbed the “Thought Police,” were tasked with suppressing political groups and ideologies that contravened the “national essence,” leading to the banning of literature such as Genzaburo Yoshino’s children’s novel How Do You Live?, which was considered subversive due to its anti-authoritarian messages.

More recently, books casting Japanese culture and history in an unsavoury light have struggled to land on bookstore shelves, including Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, which was pulled by its prospective publisher, Kashiwashobo, in 1999.

Kelts said there was “no decisive superiority” between US and Japanese publishers when it came to upholding libertarian principles, despite US society’s strong emphasis on free speech.

“Japanese publishers fear right-wing retaliation and violence; American publishers fear left-wing cancellation,” he said.

“In this blinkered era, cancellation is becoming a badge of honour, partly because the offended parties are so poorly educated,” he added.

“If you are cancelling a work of art or entertainment, you are giving it a platform in a media world suffocated by content, and if your whining is ill-informed, all the better for your antagonist. That alone is good publicity.”

Though Japan has a history of transgender people in the public eye, including Aya Kawakami and Tomoya Hosoda, elected officials in Tokyo and Saitama, respectively, the country is not widely considered a bastion of LGBTQ rights.

But legal and social mores have gradually shifted towards greater acceptance.

Supreme Court of Japan
The Supreme Court of Japan struck down a law mandating that transgender people undergo sterilisation surgery to have their gender legally recognised [Richard A Brooks/AFP]

In October, the Supreme Court of Japan struck down a law mandating that transgender people undergo sterilisation surgery to have their gender legally recognised.

Several lower courts have also ruled that the country’s ban on same-sex marriage is discriminatory, although the government has been reluctant to change the law.

Japan’s Diet, the lower house of parliament, is currently considering proposals for a revised law, including the possibility of compulsory hormone treatment, which has been advised against by the World Professional Association of Transgender Health (WPATH).

In a poll by the NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster, last year, only 9 percent of Japanese people thought the human rights of sexual minorities were being protected.

A Jiji Press poll that same year found that only 17 percent were against the passing of an LGBTQ rights bill.

Tokyo Rainbow Pride has also grown into one of Asia’s largest annual LGBTQ events, while the Kanayama Matsuri in Kawasaki, a popular festival where parishioners carry model penises on floats, has become a de facto celebration for Tokyo’s gay, drag and trans communities, attracting tens of thousands of visitors each year.

“Culturally, we don’t have any problem with accepting any kind of sexual orientation in Japan,” Yuko Kawanishi, a sociologist and researcher specialising in cross-cultural mental health issues and gender, told Al Jazeera.

“It’s because of our tendency to emphasise the collective – the nail that sticks out gets hammered down – that it’s a difficult country for anybody who is outside of the majority norm, not just members of the LGBTQ community.”

“Japanese are not historically confrontational,” Kawanishi added. “Most people still want to come to some kind of consensus.”

Jeffrey Hall, a lecturer in Japanese studies at Kanda University, said Kadokawa’s publication of Shrier’s book would have gone largely unnoticed if it had not been publicised on social media.

“[Kadokawa’s account] was posting strongly-worded endorsements of the book’s anti-transgender ideology,” Hall told Al Jazeera.

“It was through these posts that transgender rights activists became aware of the book and launched a protest campaign – an example of people exercising their right to free speech in a democratic society.”

Hall, whose research focuses on conservative activism in Japan, said he believed right-leaning publisher Sankei, as well as conservative commentators and influencers, had used the controversy to their advantage.

“The conservative activists involved in the importation of Western ‘culture war’ discourse are successfully making money with their own book sales and publication of articles attacking LGBTQ rights activists,” he said.

“With money to be made by igniting anger about this issue, do not expect it to go away soon.”

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