PhD Research: Language & Identity

“…I ask him if he is ‘out’ and he looks at me, moves his head slightly forward and asks, ‘Pardon?’”

“Are you out of the closet?” I explain.

He shakes his head from side to side a little, leans in and says slowly, “I’m not gay in Japanese, I’m only gay in English.”

The above excerpt introduces Marlen Elliot Harrison’s “Discovering Voices,” an examination of language, sexuality, and identity in 21st century Japan. After living and teaching in Western Japan for 4 years, Harrison returned to the United States to complete a doctoral program in applied linguistics. When considering a dissertation topic, he recalled a conversation in which a friend discussed being gay in one language and not in another (above) and wanted to further explore why this might be. By weaving together his own narratives about Japan and sexuality with the autoethnographic narratives of queer Japanese individuals, Harrison showcases the intersection between linguistic repertoire and those critical moments when we conceptualize, reveal, and perform our sexualities. Harrison writes:

I can remember my reaction to Takashi’s statement – confusion. “I’m not sure I understand what you mean,” I replied. Takashi went on to explain that his family, co-workers, and most of his Japanese friends were unaware of his sexuality. What is it about English that Takashi should say that? Did he mean 1) that the actual word “gay” had either a different meaning or no meaning for him in Japanese, but a very specific meaning in English or vice versa; 2) that he prefers to reveal or perform his sexuality with English speakers or using the English language; or 3) that for Takashi, “gay” only exists as an identity construction in non-Japanese contexts? In other words, with regards to this last possibility, perhaps Takashi does not consider himself to have constructed a “gay” identity in his L1 communities, or if he has, perhaps this identity is silenced there (or according to Yoshino, “covered”) but expressed in other linguistic communities.

In this dissertation, Harrison introduces a puzzle of questions and responds to them by discussing key theoretical and methodological themes such as imagined communities and the role of narrative in sexuality ethnography, examining histories of same sex intimacy in Japan,  and considering the social significance of English language and culture in Japan.

Please browse this site for excerpts, background information, correspondence with participants, and other related projects from this researcher.