Netflix’s Queer Eye: We’re in Japan features the “Fab Five” taking their talents and styles to Tokyo to appeal more directly to Japanese audiences. The Fab Five are five gay men who focus on a total makeover, providing assistance with fashion (Tan France), grooming (Jonathan Van Ness), culture (Karamo Brown), design (Bobby Berk), and food and wine (Antoni Porowski). The show originated in the United States with American subjects, but has been broadcast worldwide and dubbed into several different languages, including Japanese. Since its inception, the show has been embraced by American viewers; however, the subjects and cultural issues that the Fab Five address in the U.S. are not always applicable in other countries. So how did Queer Eye adapt itself to accurately portray life in Japan?
To help Japanese viewers immerse themselves in the show, all the main figures speak in Japanese. Viewers never see or hear the translation process, and the Fab Five only reveal their use of a translator in the credits after the first episode. One man, Kan, even speaks fluent English and is shown conversing with his English boyfriend via Skype in English; however, he only speaks to the Fab Five in Japanese. While this could reflect a desire to express himself accurately in his native tongue rather than only partially in his learned language of English, it also indicates the show’s desire to connect at a linguistic level with a Japanese audience.
Another way in which Netflix altered the format of the show to draw in Japanese viewers was by leveraging the star power of a Japanese celebrity, in this instance, Kiko Mizuhara. Kiko embodies one of the many caricatures in Japanese television: the cute girl who dresses youthfully, exudes energy, and whose role in a show is ultimately minimal. Kiko’s role in the show is limited to cut away shots of her and the Fab Five dancing and walking in the streets where she introduces them to various areas of Tokyo and explains unfamiliar concepts in Japanese culture. While Kiko’s presence may seem strange and superfluous to Queer Eye’s Western audience, her character is familiar in Japan.
One episode turns particularly Japanese in post-production. The Fab Five join a woman as she learns Judo — Japanese martial arts — for the first time. Several post-production effects are added to this segment, including sound effects, a shift in background music, and even light effects (including visualization of the Japanese “power spot” — think the beginnings of a Dragon Ball Z power up). The same episode includes a manga illustration of the Fab Five as a transition image, other post-production effects, and Japanese music as the credits roll.
Larger themes explored through the stories of the makeover recipients represent ongoing expectations in Japanese society, and are seemingly chosen to highlight and normalize openly communicating about issues that are pervasive in modern Japanese society.
In the first episode, a 57 year-old hospice nurse named Yoko explores the idea of expected selflessness in Japan and how she has “given up on being a woman” so that she can devote her energy to being a nurse. In Japan, selflessness is expected of those without traditional roles — such as parent or spouse — and demands these individuals devote their lives to serving others. This was exemplified in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku, Japan. Older workers without dependent family members famously volunteered to enter the Daiichi Nuclear Plant in Fukushima after the meltdown despite certain exposure to lethal levels of radiation. This level of selflessness appears noble; however, there is overwhelming pressure in Japanese society to put the well-being of the country above one’s self. Pervasive ideas of collectivism in East Asian culture often characterize individualistic behavior as self-centered and shameful, in direct contrast to the celebration of individualism in the West.
Kan, a young gay man working in the cosmetics industry, was frequently called “okama,” a derogatory term used for effeminate gay men. Kan felt rejected by Japanese society for being gay and further alienated during his study abroad experience. In England, Kan found users of gay dating apps frequently specify “No Asians” in their profiles, reflecting broader trends in Western societies of desexualizing and ostracizing Asian men as desirable partners. While Japan has become slightly more accepting of homosexuality in recent years, Japanese politicians have argued that homosexuality is a “hobby that is adding to the declining birthrate.” Many Japanese still feel uncomfortable with openly gay people and prefer that homosexuality stay within the confines of the home.
Episode 3 introduces Kae, a young female manga illustrator, who was bullied throughout her school years. Kae’s distinct lack of confidence lies in issues common in Japanese society, including negative body image, derogatory self-talk, and a fear of making mistakes. Kae’s perceptions of body image reflect Japanese expectations; while she would not be considered overweight by Western standards, she is deemed chubby and thus unattractive. Negative self-talk is frequent in Japanese culture as speaking about yourself in a complimentary way — including discussing accomplishments — is considered self-centered. This enforced modesty reinforces the common fear of making mistakes, and Japanese will avoid situations in which they are not fully confident in their skills to avoid the embarrassment of making an error. Kae embodies this fear as she turned down an opportunity to interview at a prestigious manga publisher for fear of failure. Underlying these issues of self-esteem is Kae’s mother, Kiyoko, who rarely, if ever, has told Kae she loves her. Verbally expressing love is a foreign concept to most Japanese people and parents are more comfortable expressing their love through actions, like packing elaborate bentos for their children. While Kiyoko may be considered strict and severe from the Fab Five’s Western perspectives, her behavior is typical of a Japanese parent who expresses affection in ways unrecognizable to Western viewers.
In the final episode we meet Makoto, an older radio DJ in a sexless marriage. Many couples avoid discussing marital issues and marriage counselling is not common in Japan, as most couples are ashamed to talk about their vulnerabilities and shortcomings. The more utilitarian nature of marriages in Japanese society — a rushed arrangement skimping in passionate romance — is extremely common as couples marry to ease societal pressure and not to act on romantic or intimate feelings for their partner. Queer Eye’s goal to talk about the lack of intimacy in his marriage is thus incredibly rare, and this episode acknowledges common marital problems without being overbearing in its Western approach to solving them.
Sprinkled throughout, Western audiences will find further touchpoints with recognizable features of Japanese culture through the heroes: Yoko loves cosplay; Kae is a manga illustrator; Makoto learns how to arrange flowers in the traditional Japanese Nageire style. But you’ll also find evidence of how Western culture has seeped into Japan. While the solutions presented by the Fab Five in Queer Eye: We’re in Japan! feel forced and more befitting a Western audience, showing people struggling with common social issues in Japan is an important first step to normalizing them in a society that represses vulnerability.
Queer Eye: We’re in Japan! is available on Netflix but may be subject to geographic restrictions.
Emi Suzuki is a media professional who splits her time between Brooklyn and Nara, Japan. For more of her work, visit her website.