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Marlen’s Dissertation Proposal

Discovering Voices, Discovering Selves: Queer sexuality in Japan and English language use

Marlen Harrison

Dissertation Proposal (working)


A 1928 manuscript in The English Journal declared, “English has become so much a part of the Japanese people in the last 50 years that it has rightly been called the second language of the empire” (Crocker, p. 288). Fast forward to 2005 as Torikai reflects in her analysis of national language policies in Japan:

On the surface, English language seems to dominate the Japanese society at present…To be sure, globalism is the key term in today’s Japan, leading the people toward a global society where English as a global language is a prerequisite – hence the emphasis on English language education. (p. 253)

As English has been such a strong presence in Japan over the last hundred years, it should be possible to investigate the social significance of its usage in various settings such as specific geographic regions or communities of practice. For example, Jackie Hogan’s 2003 study, “The Social Significance of English Usage in Japan,” does just this by focusing on the uses of English loanwords in a specific, rural community in Northern Japan. Hogan explains, “A key argument of this paper is that lexical choices are shaped by both macro- and micro-level social conditions. Thus different patterns of English-derived vocabulary use would be expected under different social conditions” (p. 56). The purpose then of this research is to examine the semiotic acts (how and what types of language are used) and spaces (situations and locations) where English language use exists within specific communities of practice – in this case, Japanese queer communities – and the social conditions (e.g. climates of hostility/acceptance towards queer sexuality) that encourage such use. The word “queer” is being used here to include any form of sexuality (desire or expression) that is not a hetero-sexuality (Cameron & Kulick, 2003; Curran, 2006; Kopelson, 2002; Nelson, 1999).

The following proposed research comes about as a result of this writer’s four–year experience living and teaching in Western Japan and the relationships formed with self-identified, queer, Japanese individuals. For example, English-language interactions with such individuals have included statements (spoken in English) from Japanese such as “I’m gay in English, but not in Japanese,” and “Only my English-speaking friends know I am a lesbian,” statements that reflect the attitudes and beliefs about identity construction within these two linguistic communities (English and Japanese), and how the uses of English allow both access to other communities (real or imagined) and expressions of identity. Such phenomena, with regard to the uses of English language, may be a reflection of the aforementioned prevalence of English-language education, offering insight into a) what other ideas/concepts are transmitted through such teaching (Gee, 1994), and b) the larger influence of English-language culture present in Japan. For example, a Japanese youth of the early 21st century may be exposed to English language education in all of the following spaces/modes: the school system, at a private cram school for university preparation, at a private English conversation school, with a private tutor, and through television or radio. Additionally, the prevalence of English language and cultural ideology in Japan has been well-documented as noted above, but little literature exists that addresses how the global spread of English affects how specific communities of practice such as the Japanese queer community, use, or don’t use English or intercultural interactions to construct identities, and specifically what types of language are used and in which spaces.

This research will provide focus to the examination of just who is using the English that is being taught in Japan and in what ways, hopefully giving credence to the idea that English language education needs to be inclusive of all of those who use it. The post-method, critical pedagogy paradigm encourages the consideration of queer identity in language education through its accent on inclusion, reflection on practice, student-centered learning vs. method, and awareness of student needs and local cultures (Hall & Eggington, 2000; Hoodfar, 1992; Kumaravadivelu, 2003; Pennycook, 1999). Kostogriz, drawing on Gee, envisions the creation of a semiotic, ESL “Thirdspace” as a way of “reconceptualizing literacy pedagogy in/for conditions of multicultural life” (2002, Abstract). Kostogriz recognizes the politics of the language learning environment as a multi-cultural arena and re-imagines the classroom as a collective of diverse identities “whose learning is related to the practices, discourses, and ‘funds of knowledge of other communities” (2002, Hybrid literacies and a pedagogy of Thirdspace). This concept of thirdspace is significant; as transferred to any EFL/ESL space where English learning and communication exists, it will allow for a theoretical framework (semiotics) and recognition of the importance of setting in which to examine firsthand the uses of English by queer individuals throughout Japan.

With regards to TESOL as a global industry, there currently exists a marginalization of queer identities in the international TESOL community as evidenced by their exclusion in instructional materials and classroom practices (De Vincenti et al, 2007; Kappra, 1998; Nelson, 1993; Nelson, 1999; O’Mochin, 2004; O’Móchain, 2006; Schweers, 1997; Spurlin, 2000; Vandrick, 1997; Vandrick, 2001). Arguably, this exclusion results in a denial of the existence of this population simply by ignoring it (Vandrick, 1997). Throughout the last two decades, a number of researchers have examined this paradigm and sounded a call for inclusion; heterosexuality is not the only identity, but rather one amongst a variety (Sears, 1997). The question has then been raised as to how to shift this paradigm within the field of TESOL specifically, and though queer identity in TESOL now has a presence (as evidenced by such professional organizations as Teaching English to Speakers of Other Language’s (TESOL) LGBTF Caucus and Japan Association for Language Teaching’s (JALT) Gender Awareness in Language Education (GALE) sig), very few studies have actually ensued (O’Mochin, 2006). Kumaravadivelu (2003) asserts that in a postmethod critical pedagogy, language teachers have a responsibility to understand and act within the local conditions in which they teach. If English is in fact being used by queer Japanese individuals, providing access to specific communities that foster identity construction or expression, or allows for expression of identities otherwise marginalized within Japanese native language communication, shouldn’t approaches to TESOL reflect this via their materials and practices? Interestingly, there have been a number of examples of approaches to including queer identities in TESOL classroom practice (Curran, 2006; Ellwood, 2006; Nelson, 1999; Joritz-Nakagawa, 2000; O’Mochain, 2006; Schweers, 1997; Summerhawk, 1998; Vandrick, 2001) and one may take note that many of the examples provided above are representative of the Japanese TESOL context or Japanese language learners, specifically. It’s a curious phenomenon worthy of further research – what is it about the cultural and political climate (social conditions) in Japan that should allow for or accept such research and inclusion? If the climate seems to be warming to the potential varieties of human sexual expression, what role has the prevalence of English-speaking cultures in Japan played and in what ways is the field of TESOL instigating and/or responding to this? Likewise, if the climate in Japan is changing, how will the uses of English language by Japanese queer individuals reflect this?

But what of the actual English language being used? Why should English hold any social significance? By far the most interesting descriptions of English-language use in Japan that offer support for this research are introduced in a section of Hogan’s research entitled “Managing Socially Sensitive Topics”:

Euphemisation, the substitution of a negatively marked term with a neutral or metaphorical term, allows speakers to talk about something while giving the illusion of not talking about it. Because many Japanese do not understand the original meanings of words borrowed from other languages, loanwords are particularly useful as euphemisms – they are sufficiently vague. (2003, p. 51)

The first example that Hogan provides of such euphemisation (and it should be noted that her research was not at all focusing on human sexuality, but rather the social significance of English language use in a particular community) is “kamingu-auto-suru”, or “coming out [of the closet]”. Hogan adds, “In the realm of sexuality, for instance, the Japanese language is admitting increasing numbers of English loanwords” (p. 51). Hogan then describes a discussion she had with one of the high school teachers she had interviewed: The participant concluded that the English-derived terms gei (gay) and nyu-hafu (new half), compared with the Japanese colloquialsims tama-nashi (no-balls) and okama (honourable pot), sounded less harsh/discriminatory and more neutral, reflecting a growing acceptance of homosexuality in Japan. Furthermore, Hogan asserts that the use of English-derived vocabulary can manage social distance and create various impressions among interlocutors and allow speakers to discuss “taboo topics” more comfortably than in the Japanese native language. Such uses reflect the attitudes in Japan towards both English and sexuality, suggesting that the time is right to further examine how specific language learning experiences facilitate expressions of identity and to examine what queer Japanese, specifically, make of this phenomenon.

Approaching sexuality in Japan as an identity construction, however, is a tricky undertaking. McLelland, in his manuscript “Is there a Japanese ‘gay identity’?” (2000) discusses the difficulty of transferring a Western concept such as a “sexual identity” to a traditional, Asian, group-focused culture (where one avoids setting him- or herself apart) such as that found in Japan, as Jñanavira writes “…the notion of ‘sex’ in general, and more specifically, how the idea that individuals inhabit or express themselves through distinct ‘sexualities’ is a modern innovation confined largely to those cultures with their roots in northern Europe” (n.d., In his interviews with self-identified gay Japanese men, McLelland discovered that there is an association between the concepts male homosexuality and femininity as popularized in the media (Japanese) such that for a male to identify himself to other Japanese as gay is to assert a desire to be like a woman, an assertion that some may find unfavorable and hence results in avoidance of self-revelation. Moreover, there exists a debate among queer Japanese as to whether one is a gay (reflective of a queer identity) or a person with specific sexual desires (reflective of Japan’s long history of accepted male homosexuality as a behavior rather than a lifestyle choice that shuns contemporary familial roles). While this uncertainty may exist for particular queer individuals, there are in fact gay-rights groups “that promote Western concepts such as gay identity and gay rights” (Mclelland). One example is OCCUR, a group that “provides a clear example of gay Japanese following American gay and lesbian discourses” (Lunsing in McLelland, 2000). It is such “discourses” representative of ideological approaches to sexuality that may be influencing how, where, and why Japanese are expressing or not expressing their sexualities, and to whom and in what language. The objectives of the current, proposed research then are:

  1. To examine how self-identified, queer Japanese do or do not consider themselves as having constructed a queer identity.
  2. To examine how English language and intercultural communication might play a role in queer individuals’ understanding of their sexuality or in the construction of a queer identity.
  3. To examine how, when, where and why (the semiotic acts and spaces) English language is used by self-identified, queer Japanese.
  4. To examine the significance of inter-cultural communication (specifically with regard to the uses of English language) for self-identified, queer Japanese.
  5. To examine the ideas and beliefs about English-speaking cultures such that self-identified, queer Japanese prefer to use English language in specific semiotic acts or spaces rather than their native language.
  6. To examine how such language use as discussed above is reflective of TESOL in its various forms, specifically in Japan.

The following are hypotheses of the proposed research:

  1. There exist Japanese individuals who identify themselves as queer (defined as any non-heteronormative sexuality).
  2. There exists self-identified, queer Japanese who have a functional knowledge of English language (the ability to communicate orally or in writing such that a conversation may ensue) who do in fact construct queer identities (as typified by a statement such as “I am gay” or “I am a gay” as opposed to merely experiencing queer desire or performing queer behavior; typified by a person who “comes out” to another individual). These identities may be expressed in both Japanese and English language communication, just one, or neither.
  3. Self-identified, queer Japanese who have a functional knowledge of English language have formed ideas about English language, culture, and communication as a result of their EFL/ESL learning experiences.
  4. Self-identified, queer Japanese who have a functional knowledge of English language believe that English language indexes a freedom of expression not available in their first language (Japanese).
  5. There are linguistic and pragmatic differences between the English and Japanese languages (and how they are used for interpersonal communication) such that self-identified queer Japanese who have a functional knowledge of English feel more comfortable using English language (as opposed to Japanese) to construct possible queer identities in specific interactions (semiotic/pragmatic).
  6. There are specific situations and locations where English is preferentially used by self-identified, queer Japanese to construct or reveal their sexualities.
  7. There is specific English language (words/phrases) that is preferentially used by self-identified, queer Japanese (as opposed to use of Japanese language) to discuss or express their sexuality.

To undertake the proposed research, it is essential to be present in Japanese communities so that the researcher may examine and observe examples of language in use. Methods include a questionnaire posted to the internet, but also naturalistic observation in bookstores, cafes, bars and clubs; likewise an examination of representations of English language/culture and queer sexualities via popular media will be possible. Additional research in Japan will include in-person interviews and small group discussions in order to examine the research hypotheses. The 4 cities in which the research will occur – Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya, and Tokyo – have been chosen due to their status as large, metropolitan cities, their relevant closeness to each other on a central train line, and the researchers’ familiarity with queer communities in these locales.

Handling Sensitive Subjects and Protection of Sensitive Populations

Participants will be self-selected/identified through a snowball approach (this writer, and this writer’s friends and colleagues, will invite acquaintances to participate anonymously). Informed consent will precede access to the questionnaire and individuals may withdraw from this process at any time. If consenting, follow-up interviews and small group discussions (digitally recorded) will be carried out in Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya and Tokyo, Japan (at private locations volunteered by colleagues, i.e. a restaurant, though subjects will not be recruited from these locations) with participants from the questionnaire in order to further explore the hypotheses listed above and to examine questions raised from the questionnaire. Informed consent will again precede interviews and discussions, individuals may withdraw from this process at any time, and names will be changed in the writing of the research to protect anonymity of participants.


The proposed research is planned as follows:

March 1st, 2008: Publication of English-language questionnaire on website to gather initial data.

March 1st – May 1st, 2008: Recruitment of participants to complete questionnaire.

May 1st – May 10th, 2008: Analysis of questionnaire results and identification of questions for further research and use in in-person interviews and small group discussions.

May 12th, 2008: Travel to Japan.

May 15th – 25th, 2008: In-person interviews and small group discussions in Osaka, Japan; naturalistic observation.

May 26th – 28th, 2008: In-person interviews and small group discussions in Kyoto, Japan; naturalistic observation.

May 30th – June 1st, 2008: In-person interviews and small group discussions in Nagoya, Japan; naturalistic observation.

June 3rd – June 15th: In-person interviews and small group discussions in Tokyo, Japan; naturalistic observation.

June 15th – June 25th: Follow-up interviews and correspondence via phone/email with Participants in Tokyo, Japan.

June 26th, 2008: Return to Ft Lauderdale and complete data analysis and research write- up.

Budget Narrative

The budget for this research is as follows: Supplies and materials will cost $50 ($25 cost of website creation for data collection, one year at; $25 cost of survey software for data collection at Travel will cost approximately$2,000($1,500 r/t ticket from Ft Lauderdale to Tokyo as quoted on for summer 2008; $250 r/t ticket between Tokyo and Osaka on Japan rail system; $250 for miscellaneous rail/bus travel within Osaka and Tokyo (and to/from Nagoya & Kyoto), approximately $5 a day for approximately 6 weeks). Equipment fees will cost $50 for a digital recorder to be used in interviews. Other expenses will include $720 for room & board – $300/mo, x 1 mo, room rental in private residency, and other lodging will be provided free by colleagues; $10/day for meals, approx 6 weeks=$480. It is possible that there will be additional expenses such as room rental fee if in-person interviews and discussions are scheduled at a hotel/community center/public facility. Total proposed cost is $2,880 US. Total requested from the School of Graduate Studies and Research is $500 US.


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Personal Information

My interest in this research topic is a result of having lived and taught for four years in Western Japan. Additionally, my undergraduate Honors research (Appalachian State University, B.S. Psychology with Honors, December, 1995) and my Masters internship (The George Washington University, M.A Education and Human Development, September, 1997) focused on the psychology of and counseling with queer individuals. Recent scholarship examining this topic has included an October, 2007 presentation at Canada’s Simon-Fraser University (Department of Linguistics Colloquium, by invitation) and scheduled presentations at the American Association of Applied Linguistics and the American Men’s Studies Association annual conferences in spring, 2008. A presentation on this topic is also planned for the JACET/JALT joint conference in Nagoya, Japan in summer 2008 (acceptance is currently pending). Moreover, in fall of 2007 I undertook an independent study in queer sexuality and linguistic research (under the direction of Dr. Nancy Hayward) as part of my doctoral program in Composition and TESOL at IUP.

During my time in Japan I had numerous Japanese friends, co-workers, and colleagues who self-identified as queer. I consistently noted the level of sadness and despair at their inability to express themselves (“come out”) and the self-imposed repression of their sexualities, a phenomenon more notable and prevalent in my experience in Japan than in the USA. Conversations throughout my experience in Japan consistently touched on the ability of queer individuals to express themselves and reveal their sexuality with less trepidation and greater confidence to English-speakers, or using English language, than to other native Japanese.

While living in Japan, I acquired a functional knowledge of the Japanese language and developed a communicative competence that allowed my acquaintances to speak to me in Japanese. I also gained the ability to navigate in Japanese society using Japanese language (make reservations for travel, communicate with non-English-speaking Japanese, etc) and participate in a Japanese workplace.

My experiences at IUP with Japanese graduate students and continued conversation with my Japanese acquaintances in Japan only served to reinforce my impressions about the uses of English language and inter-cultural communication by queer Japanese. My studies in the doctoral program in Composition and TESOL at IUP also introduced me to concepts of identity construction, second-language identities, critical pedagogy (in TESOL) and transmission of culture through language teaching, all serving me well to pursue the proposed research.