Asexuality in Japan: a conversation with harris-hijiri

This interview is part of our international voices series.  If you’d be interested in contributing, check out our call for submissions and interviews.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with harris-hijiri.  harris-hijiri is a native of Japan, and has been involved in asexual activism for about 14 years.  She has been a member of AVEN since 2007, and you can also find her on tumblr.  Although she was involved in managing several Japanese-language asexual communities from 2005 to 2008, she stepped down from an administrative role for a variety of reasons (some of which we discuss below).  She has also participated in a number of Japanese LGBT communities, and is currently active in Toyohashi City.

This interview has been edited and translated from Japanese, and so any awkward or strange phrasing is entirely my fault.  The text is a compilation of a Skype interview and a series of emails we exchanged, edited into a single conversation.  If you’d prefer to read the edited interview in its original language, you can click here.  Because a fair amount of our conversation was about language, I’ve included the Japanese terms in the text where relevant.  I’ve also included footnotes for any terms that may be unfamiliar to non-Japanese readers.  If you want to know more about how sexuality is conceptualized in Japanese, you may find reading this article helpful.

Queenie: Where did you first hear about asexuality?  You said you’ve been doing asexual activism for 14 years, but that was before AVEN, right?

harris-hijiri: Yes!  AVEN was created in 2001.  Therefore, I lived until my 20s without knowing about asexuality.  Because of this, the springtime of my youth was tragic.

I started using the internet in 1996.  I created a homepage.  I wrote an essay about how I “don’t understand romantic love,” and uploaded it to the homepage.  Then…Queenie, do you know about dōjinshi[1] markets?  It’s a place where you sell amateur compositions.  I took my essay and sold it there.

Oh, sorry.  I digressed, didn’t I?

As for [the way] I learned about asexuality, what I clearly remember is from February of 2005.  The place was mixi.[2]  When I saw the “A-sekusharu” (Aセクシャル) community.  But I had already seen the word “A-seku” (Aセク; the Japanese equivalent of “ace”) on 2channel,[3] so possibly I [first] saw it there.

In the 2000s, there were many Japanese homepages about asexuality.  [She pointed me toward Is the Asexuality Known? (from 2002 or 2003) and asexual.jp (2003).]  Because of this, there’s a very good chance that I saw the word “asexual” before the mixi community.  However, where and when I saw it, I don’t remember.  What I clearly remember is [seeing it] on the mixi community in 2005.

Q: What sort of people bought your dōjinshi?  People who also didn’t understand romantic love?  People who didn’t have any special interest in asexuality?

H: I’ve never received any feedback from the people who bought it, so I don’t know what kind of people they were.

Oh, there was one person, a sexless (セックスレス) woman.

Q: “Sexless” means that you’re married but don’t have sex, right?

H: [in English] Yes! She had married. And her husband had not forced her to do sexual acts.

Q: Are sexless and asexual people in the same communities in Japan?

H: “Sexless” is a husband and wife or couple.  In the asexual community, there are probably sexless couples, but I think there are more asexuals.

Q: In English, “celibacy” and “asexuality” are strongly differentiated, but is Japan also like that?

H: In Japan, the word “celibacy” isn’t common!!  I am 43 years old.  I have rarely heard the word “kinyoku” (禁欲; abstinence or celibacy) from native Japanese people.

When I look at 101 [materials] from the English-language world, celibacy always comes up.  Is that because of Christianity?

Q: I’m not particularly knowledgeable on the subject, but there is probably an influence.

Aside from the relationship to celibacy, are the English concept of asexuality and the Japanese concepts of asexuality and nonsexuality different?

H: asexual (アセクシュアル) is similar to aromantic [asexual]

nonsexual (ノンセクシュアル) is similar to romantic [asexual]

Q: Since there’s a differentiation between asexuals and nonsexuals, are there separate “asexual communities” and “nonsexual communities”?

H: There are places where they’re together, but there are more places where they are separate.

Q: How are English-language and Japanese-language communities different?

H: Japanese communities are “let’s make friends/find lovers ♫.”

I’ve never seen language appropriate for awareness [activities] in the [Japanese] asexual world.  [In a later email she mentioned that it seems as though this has begun to change recently, as she found a discussion in one of the mixi communities about petitioning mixi to implement expanded gender options, similar to what Facebook has been doing.]

Q: Why do you suppose that is?

H: I don’t know…  I can’t agree with [not focusing on awareness].  So, I stopped managing [the Japanese asexual] community.  After thinking about it, I’ve thought, Isn’t the reason basically because of the way Japanese people are?

Q: What do you mean by “the way Japanese people are”?  Is it a cultural thing?

H: It’s [a question of] “If it is hidden, it is a flower.”[4]

Q: Does the Japanese community borrow asexuality-related words and concepts from English?  Or does it mostly use words and concepts created within the community?

Well, I suppose English doesn’t have the division between asexuality and nonsexuality, but aside from that are there any big differences?

H: I don’t think there are any big differences.

Of course, there are people who tried to create the concept “unsexual” (アンセクシャル),[5] but that is definitely not common.

Q: But the definition is slightly different, right?  Asexuality and nonsexuality is defined as “not having sexual desire,” but in English it’s defined as, “An asexual person is a person who does not experience sexual attraction.”

H: [The Japanese definition] is mixing “sex-revulsion” (性嫌悪), “I don’t want to do sexual things,” and “not having sexual impulses.”

Q: In English it’s slightly different, isn’t it?  In English we’re always saying, “attraction is not behavior,” but the definition you just gave is half about behavior, isn’t it?

H: Ah, I’m sorry.  “Sexual desire” is a good approximate [translation] for “seiyoku” (性欲; sexual desire).  I was confusing it with [the feelings of] people in the nonsexual community.  Sorry.

Q: In other words, is sexual desire the feeling of wanting to have sex?

H: It probably is.  (We don’t really talk about sexual desire much, so.)

Q: Is the definition of nonsexuality different from the definition of asexuality other than romantic love (恋愛)?

H: Probably, falling in love and wanting a partner [would fall under] nonsexuality.

Q: Are there arguments about whether asexuality is queer in Japanese communities like there are in English-language communities?

H: [In English] In Japan, “queer” is rarely used even by LGBT people.

[In Japanese] I have no memory of seeing an argument in the Japanese asexual community about “whether asexuality is queer.”

[In English] I think when the cooperation of LGBT is tight and strong, the question “asexuality is queer or not” is important. But [in Japan] the LGBT’s cooperation is weak, the importance of the question is low.

In my experience as asexual activist, I have never been refused my asexual identity by LGBT group, NPO, activists, and a lot of LGBT persons.

[…]

[In Japanese] Right now if you look on mixi’s “Aセクシャル Asexual” [community], there’s undoubtedly a comment saying, “Asexuals and nonsexuals are different!”  The same topic is constantly repeated.

Q: Are people trying to differentiate asexual from nonsexual?

H: It seems as if they want to separate them.  I can’t understand why they make such a fuss about it.

Q: Is the Japanese community mostly online?

H: If we’re talking about the LGBT community, there are offline networks in various locales.

Q: Are there offline asexual communities?

H: Probably not.  [She then explained that she had been involved in a number of offline LGBT communities, often dominated by gay men and people with GID.[6]]  Sometimes asexual members who met online say, “Let’s meet offline,” but [otherwise there aren’t offline meetups].

Q: This is the last question, but what would you like to tell asexual people who only speak English?

H: On videos about asexuality, please put up captions and summaries.  I can’t understand English just by listening to it.

Also, why are you so particular about community?[7]

Also, isn’t it better to stop thinking, “I want to live in Japan” when you can’t speak Japanese?

Also, there doesn’t exist a huge asexual community in Japan.

Q: In America, there’s an image of herbivore men being one part of the asexual community, so Americans occasionally say, “In Japan, there are a lot of asexual people!”

H: That’s also an annoying assertion.  Japan is not an asexual paradise.

Speaking of herbivore men, in the past the Dutch media contacted me to request materials and information.

[In English] At first, producer requested me to speak asexuality in Japan.

But I talked to her via Skype, I understood that she ([the] producer) wanted to interview herbivore people,  (She [had] mixed [up] “asexuality” and “herbivore man”), [thinking that the herbivore men were] a phenomenon unique to Japan.

I said “asexuality is universal” to her.

The producer never contacted me [again].

And, herbivore men and asexuality [is] often used by English media as funny gossip!

[On] AVEN, members repeated talking about herbivore men!!

[In Japanese] Give me a break!

***

[1] The word “dōjinshi” is probably familiar to anyone who has knowledge of anime and manga fan culture.  There are two types of dōjinshi—“parody” dōjinshi, which are derivative works based most commonly off of anime and manga, and “original” dōjinshi, which are much more like what we would call “zines” in the States.  The dōjinshi markets harris-hijiri was attending either banned “parody” dōjinshi or were much more strongly focused on “original” dōjinshi.

[2] mixi is a Japanese social networking website, sort of like MySpace.

[3] 2channel is Japanese textboard, similar to 4chan.

[4] This is a reference to something Zeami wrote: “If it is hidden, it is a flower; if it is not hidden, it is not a flower.”  The idea is that things that cannot easily be seen are valued more than things that are accessible to anyone.  Following this line of thought, some people might think that awareness efforts will devalue their identity.  This may seem contradictory from an American point of view, but, as I said, cultural differences!

[5] “Unsexual” is defined as “someone who has sexual desire but does not have desire to engage in sexual activity” (「性欲はあるけれど性行為欲は無い」).  Needless to say, there are some pretty different ideas of “sexual desire” in Japanese!

[6] GID stands for Gender Identity Disorder or 性同一性障害 in Japanese.  Although there has been pushback against GID and the pathologization of trans identities in Japanese communities—just as there has been in the US—some people choose to describe themselves as “GIDの人” or “GID people.”  This is an umbrella term, somewhat similar to “trans.”  Japanese trans identity politics are way beyond the scope of this post, though.

[7] When we were emailing, she mentioned that she had had a number of American aces (as well as a French ace) pressuring her into making a Japanese asexual community, and having specific ideas of what that community should look like.

About queenieofaces

QueenieOfAces is a graduate student in the U.S. studying Japanese religion. She is a queer asexual. She also blogs over at Concept Awesome and runs Resources for Ace Survivors. She is never quite sure what to write in these introduction things, but this one time she accidentally got a short story on asexuality published in an erotica magazine.
This entry was posted in Interview, Language, personal experience and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Asexuality in Japan: a conversation with harris-hijiri

  1. Ace in Translation says:

    This is a great interview. Thank you harris-hijiri and queenie!
    What you tell about the history of asexual communities and websites in Japanese is very interesting. It shows that the years in which the Japanese internet started to talk about asexuality and nonsexuality are roughly the same as the English language and Russian language internet. It seems people started writing about their experiences as soon as they had internet (late 1990’s) with the creation of different community-based websites in the early 2000’s.

    I’ve got two language questions: are the sexless (セックスレス) persons and couples you talk about always nonsexual (ノンセクシュアル), or can sexless people also be sexual (non-nonsexual?) people? And what is the difference between the definitions of sexless (セックスレス) and abstinence/celibacy (禁欲)?

    • queenieofaces says:

      Sexless people are usually presumed to be heterosexual, from my understanding. And “sexless” specifically refers to people who are married but haven’t had sexual contact with each other for [X period of time] (I think it’s a month), so “sexless” is a subtype of celibacy.

  2. Carmilla DeWinter says:

    I’ll second Ace in Translation: This interview is great. It’s also really fascinating how different cultures conceptualize similar phenomenons.
    Anyhow, looking at the “celibacy” thing. This muck-up of terms has Christian origins. Meaning, Christianity is, to my knowledge, the only religion that conceptulizes sex as something that is, in itself, morally inferior to abstinence. There’s no way for a devout Catholic Christian to enjoy sex and not be sinning at the same time. Lutherian/reformed beliefs in Europe are usually less strict, but the idea still lingers.

    • A. says:

      Actually, most modern Christian denominations would not hold abstinence superior to sex. While they do still (almost universally) advocate sex within marriage and not outside it, sex within marriage is seen as a gift from God for BOTH pleasure and procreation. Sex that doesn’t or can’t lead to procreation (because of infertility, birth control, type of sexual act) is accepted and appreciated in most Christian denominations. In fact, especially in the original Hebrew texts, some parts of the Bible are very pro-sex, particularly the Song of Songs which is an entire chapter of the Bible dedicated to appreciating the beauty of sex. So while the concept of celibacy might have originated in Christian morality (I don’t know, personally, where this word came from), celibacy is BY NO MEANS seen as the ideal among most Christian communities.

  3. luvtheheaven says:

    This is a really fascinating interview!! Thanks for conducting, translating, and annotating it. 😉

  4. harrishijiri says:

    I am harris-hijiri, the person who was interviewed.
    Queenie, 大変お疲れ様でした。

    To Ace in Translation:

    >are the sexless (セックスレス) persons and couples you talk about always nonsexual (ノンセクシュアル), or can sexless people also be sexual (non-nonsexual?) people?

    At first, in general, Japanese will not talk about sexual acts, so I know only few cases.

    >And what is the difference between the definitions of sexless (セックスレス) and abstinence/celibacy (禁欲)?

    In my understanding, abstinence/celibacy (禁欲) is strong will of stopping sexual acts. Sexless(セックスレス) is loss of feeling to do sexual acts.

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  7. Isaac says:

    I second harris-hijiri’s suggestion of putting captions on videos because many people can understand properly such quick spoken English.

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