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Terrace House’s first openly LGBT member proves Japan’s ignorance toward sexual minorities

Shunsuke Ikezoe's bravery challenged Japan's implicit “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

By 9 min read

This article contains spoilers up to episode 38 of Terrace House: Opening New Doors.

Since its debut in 2012, the main fuel of Netflix and Fuji TV’s reality show Terrace House, which throws together three girls and three guys in cohabitation, has been heterosexual relationships. But in episode 32 of the recently finished Part 5 of Opening New Doors, an openly LGBT cast member joined the house for the first time.

Meet Shunsuke Ikezoe. He’s 21, lives in Tokyo, and is studying (so far, with success) to be a hair and makeup artist. Although he’s been in relationships with women, for the past two years he’s been slowly questioning his sexuality. And he’s come to Terrace House to find answers.

In Japan, it’s no small thing to be openly queer, let alone on international television. LGBT individuals certainly don’t enjoy widespread representation in mainstream media, and many hesitate to come out to coworkers and family members for fear of discrimination or non-acceptance. Shunsuke isn’t only remarkable for being Terrace House’s first openly LGBT cast member — he’s remarkable for being so brave.

Coming out

On Shunsuke’s first day in the house, Takayuki Nakamura asks the required, producer-fed question, “Why did you come to Terrace House?” Shunsuke replies, “I’m probably bi. I can go both ways. It’s not really clear to me yet either. I haven’t told anyone, and I don’t know for certain myself. If I live in a place with guys and girls and tell everyone about myself, it might help make things more clear for me.”

I have one bone to pick with the translated subtitles. To me, the nuance of “I haven’t told anyone, and I don’t know for certain myself” is actually “I haven’t told anyone, so I don’t know for certain myself.” The suggestion that Shunsuke’s sexual identity is related to his coming out gets lost in translation but it’s an important point to consider.

Shunsuke wants to use his time on Terrace House as an opportunity not only to discover more about his sexuality but also to articulate it to others. He isn’t out, and he jokingly says in his introductory interview on YouTube (below) that his family will probably be surprised when they watch the show.

Terrace House’s producers and editors make sure to show every single one of Shunsuke’s coming outs — four separate scenes, by my count — in order to gauge the other members’ initial reactions. The repetitive editing is a reminder that coming out isn’t a one-and-done deal; often, it’s a process that one must decide whether or not to repeat with every new acquaintance.

In his interview, Shunsuke said he expected some of the members, particularly the guys, to be wary of him, even if they try not to show it. However, Shunsuke was greeted with the same politeness that marks most Japanese introductions, a politeness that melted into the same warmth any other housemate receives.

The most gleeful reaction was from Terrace House all-star Seina Shimabukuro — still emerging from her own rocky romance storyline — who said, “If you swing both ways… How great is that? Your fun doesn’t just double. It’s like it multiplies by 10! I’m envious.”

Another new member of the house, Maya Kisanuki, has no qualms about mentioning to the other girls that she might be bi. The topic comes up because Shunsuke was pinging her gaydar like no other, even though they had just met. In her introductory interview below, Maya says that she had spent nine months studying abroad in Canada, so perhaps she gained a more acute LGBT consciousness outside Japan. Maya’s sensitivity is refreshing and indicates that Japanese young people can be more understanding of LGBT individuals than previous generations.

The Japanese generation gap

According to the Pew Research Center, 83 percent of Japanese people younger than 30 think homosexuality should be accepted, as opposed to 71 percent of 30 to 49 year olds and 39 percent of people 50 and above. That’s a stark generation gap.

[…] 83 percent of Japanese people younger than 30 think homosexuality should be accepted, as opposed to 71 percent of 30 to 49 year olds and 39 percent of people 50 and above

Terrace House’s panel of commentators reacts positively to Shunsuke’s revelation — but also with not-unexpected ignorance, given that the older members generally speak the most and set the tone for discussion. Comedian Ryota Yamasato comments that Shunsuke is trying to figure out “which way he swings.” And after Shunsuke expresses his attraction to Noah, Yoshimi Tokui says, “Shunsuke seems to be more emotionally synced to women, rather than being bisexual.” They imply that Shunsuke’s bisexuality is merely a rest stop on the road to going gay. It’s harmful, thoughtless bi-phobia. The whole point is that bisexuals don’t have to pick a side! Nor do they have to maintain equal levels of interest in their own and other genders at all times.

Ignorance, invisibility for LGBT people in Japan

In its modern history, Japan has taken an implicit “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude toward homosexuality. Although it isn’t usually met with physically violent vitriol, neither is it something most people feel free to discuss, which can lead to feelings like shame for LGBT individuals and widespread ignorance on the part of the straights.

In a 2016 Nijiiro Diversity survey, 37 percent of respondents said they were out in their workplace, and roughly 52 percent said they were out to their family. Although coming out to friends was the most frequent response at roughly 81 percent, many straight Japanese people say they have no LGBT friends. Terrace House members Sota Kono and Kaito Nakata say as much, and I’ve heard the same in real life too.

I asked two queer individuals currently living in Tokyo for their thoughts on the state of LGBT issues in Japan, as well as what their own experiences have been. One, a 22-year-old Japanese man, said he is not out because nothing prevents people from being homophobic and that in Japan “there are no real efforts to end discrimination, and actually victims of discrimination often do not come forward.”

“[In Japan] there are no real efforts to end discrimination, and actually victims of discrimination often do not come forward.”

The second, a nonbinary, 23-year-old American, said they generally feel comfortable being out in their workplace but don’t speak explicitly about LGBT issues for fear of backlash from their employer.

Limited perspectives

Terrace House takes viewers into one of Japan’s few LGBT spaces only once, in an extra scene available only on YouTube in which Shunsuke visits a drag bar in Shinjuku Ni-chome.

Shunsuke wonders aloud to two drag queens behind the counter whether it took him so long to come to terms with his own sexuality because it doesn’t fit neatly into either straight or gay (in his introductory interview, he had mentioned researching bisexuality online but not finding any helpful information). As the conversation with the queens flows from there, one of them explains that sexuality is a spectrum and that each person’s sexuality is unique to them, even among people who may fall under the same label.

It’s a much-needed perspective, as Terrace House’s foray into LGBT issues was surface-level, if well meaning. If you hadn’t guessed, the drag bar scene took place only after Shunsuke had already left the house.

It’s a pity that other members of the LGBT community weren’t included in any episodes, but — wild speculation alert — perhaps the producers worried that “getting advice from badass drag queens” would totally outclass “finding oneself with the help of five (probably) straight people.”

The fetishization of gay culture in Japan

The official episodes’ content is much less informed. In one commentary break, panel member Yu calls Shunsuke and Noah’s bath together “a lovely Boys’ Love scene.” Boys’ Love (BL), the famed Japanese gay manga subculture, often romanticizes and fetishizes gay love for straight consumption and rarely touches on social issues related to sexual minorities. Why does BL have to be Yu’s first, and indeed only, point of reference?

Why does BL have to be Yu’s first, and indeed only, point of reference?

Unlike the prolific BL subculture, there is a dearth of LGBT representation in mainstream Japanese TV drama, although that may be slowly changing. NHK, the national broadcasting service, recently aired a miniseries adaptation of the manga My Brother’s Husband (2018). Before that, the eight-episode series Transit Girls (2015) became the first Japanese drama to feature a lesbian relationship. Transit Girls was produced by the same Fuji TV crew that makes Terrace House and included a handful of Terrace House cameos.

Slowly growing media representation is a step in the right direction, but homophobia isn’t without its own platform in Japan. This past summer, 51-year-old Liberal Democratic Party politician Mio Sugita published an article in the magazine Shincho 45 (which has since folded) in which she called LGBT individuals “unproductive” and said, according to an article in the The Japan Times, “the recent media tendency toward celebrating sexual diversity risks instilling in those ‘capable of enjoying normal romance’ a misguided notion that ‘they have an option of going homosexual’ and therefore increasing the number of ‘unhappy people.’”

Sugita’s article brought thousands of demonstrators to the streets of Tokyo. They held signs reading “ban discrimination,” gave speeches, and called for Sugita’s resignation. Currently, Sugita has not publicly apologized for her comments and remains in office.

It is against this backdrop that Shunsuke joined Terrace House, although the political landscape is not obvious from watching the show. Instead, it’s just more classic Terrace House fun — chatting about which housemates are cute, asking said cuties out — this time with a queer twist. But that in itself is groundbreaking and hopefully helps normalize LGBT individuals in the eyes of potentially ignorant viewers.

Gone too soon

Shunsuke goes on one date during his time in the house, with the cute but blunt Sota. Upon returning home, Shunsuke debriefs with the girls: He had fun on the date; he’s attracted to Sota; he knows now that he’s definitely bi; and therefore he is leaving the house.

Shunsuke’s sudden departure is a shock — he had only been in the house for six weeks — but perhaps he didn’t, understandably, want to chase straights forever. In a later scene, alone with Sota, Shunsuke tells him the same thing he told the girls and adds, “When we next meet, I might be in a relationship… with a girl or with a guy.”

Shunsuke’s bravery and understated confidence are his defining traits and rank him among Terrace House’s most inspiring members. Here’s hoping that the show doesn’t treat Shunsuke as a one-time novelty but instead invites more LGBT individuals to proudly grace the house.

I think we’re all ready for it. 

Part 6 of Terrace House has already been released on Netflix. Are you caught up? What do you think of the new housemates? Let us know in the comments.

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