Interview with Director Graham Kolbeins

Director Graham Kolbeins’ Queer Japan (2019) is an intimate documentary which examines the struggles and rich lives of drag queen Vivienne Sato, manga artist Gengoroh Tagame, councilwoman Aya Kamikawa, non-binary performance artist Saeborg and others. Featuring over one hundred interviews conducted over three years in locations across Japan, Queer Japan examines a country with a unique history of queer expression. Previously he was the co-director, with Dorian Wood, of the short film Paisa, and the director of the short documentary The House of Gay Art.

JF Garrard caught up with Graham at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival (VQFF) to ask him about what inspired this documentary, queer issues in Japan and his next project.

JF Garrard (JFG): Hello, thanks for taking the time to connect with me! The Japan-U.S. Friendship Council named you a recipient of their Creative Artists Exchange Fellowship in 2016, can you explain a little bit about this fellowship and what inspired you to create Queer Japan?

Graham Kolbeins shot by Paul Sepuya
Graham Kolbeins shot by Paul Sepuya

GK: Thanks so much for taking the time to cover Queer Japan! The seeds of this documentary project were planted in 2012, when I first began working with gay manga artists including Queer Japan cast member Gengoroh Tagame. Alongside Anne Ishii and Chip Kidd, I embarked on a project of editing the first English-language publications translating Tagame’s brilliant comics, and producing a compendium of gay manga called Massive: Gay Erotic Manga and the Men Who Make It. This anthology included translated comics, behind the scenes portraits, and interviews with the nine of the top gay manga artists in Japan. I traveled to Tokyo with Anne to conduct these interviews in person. It was on this trip that my interest in Japanese queer culture expanded beyond the narrow window of gay manga, when I saw just how many brilliant and diverse queer expressions were flourishing in places like Tokyo’s gay neighborhood, Shinjuku Ni-chome.

Over the next few years, Anne Ishii and I continued working with Gengoroh Tagame, Jiraiya, and other gay manga artists through our publishing and fashion brand Massive Goods. Our mission was to help spread gay manga around the world, and we managed to organize international tours for the artists, produce more translations, and collaborate with high profile fashion brands to help introduce their work to new audiences and contexts. Every time I returned to Japan, my appreciation for LGBTQ+ culture in the country grew, and I knew I wanted to help put a spotlight on the broader the community. In 2016, I was granted a Creative Artists Exchange Fellowship from the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission, an organization funded by the National Endowment for the Arts in the U.S. and Bunkacho, Japan’s agency for cultural affairs. The JUSFC supports artists working in dialogue between the two countries, and encourages cross-cultural exchange. With that spirit in mind, I embarked on the journey of creating a film that would engage with Japan’s queer community and help spread appreciation and understanding for Japanese queer artists and activists around the world.

JFG: I was impressed by the sheer amount of material covered, from the importance of gender in mainstream society to the work of a deaf LGBT centre to discrimination against Zainichi Koreans (ethnically Korean Japanese citizens), etc. How did you chose what to cover and was it difficult finding a representative to interview?

GK: We tried to approach making Queer Japan as organically as possible, allowing the issues and topics in the film to emerge naturally through interviews with our cast. As an outsider to the community I was portraying, I didn’t want to impose preconceived notions onto the project or force the story into an oversimplified structure– I was more interested in finding out what was most important to our subjects. We started with a handful of people we had established relationships with, including Gengoroh Tagame, dancer Atsushi Matsuda (who I had met on a dance floor in Shinjuku Ni-chome) and legendary drag queen Margaratte, who had starred in a short documentary directed by our Tokyo-based producer, Hiromi Iida. We’d often get recommendations from our cast about who else to interview, and the film evolved in this way, through a combination of introductions from people we knew and reaching out to well-known figures in the community. I found most people we approached to be incredibly open and generous with us, and we ended up covering so many issues that weren’t even on my radar at the beginning of production. I think this approach made our documentary so much better, just listening to our subjects and learning about what they felt was important.

JFG: Department H, a place where once a month, people can attend for free and be whatever they want (dressed as canines, engage in BDSM, perform in rubber, etc) looked wild and spectacular.  How did you find out about this place and did you dress up as anything?

GK: Great question! I did dress up for our shoot at Department H, wearing an outfit I had picked up at a surprisingly fashionable construction worker clothing store called Mannenya. I was wearing a bright pink jumpsuit with work boots and felt like I had reached a new level of self-actualiztion. Department H is so amazingly inclusive– it’s a space that allows you to present as outlandishly as you can imagine without facing judgement or feeling out of place. I went to the party for the first time the week I beagn shooting Queer Japan, with producer Hiromi Iida. Hiromi was very familiar with the party, having previously directed a documentary there with the party’s long time host, drag queen Margarette. I instantly felt at home on that first visit, and it quickly became one of the central locations of our film.

JFG:  Manga and anime have exploded from Japan to the rest of the world. However, when one visits Japan, they may be surprised that not all Japanese people are fans of manga or anime. Similarly, although Queer Japan illustrates different members of the LGBTQ community in safe spaces, it is still taboo to come out as gender plays into social systems as stated by politician Aya Kamikawa. Aya mentions that since she is transgender but her family registry had recorded her as male, she couldn’t sign a rental agreement, use her health insurance card for doctors or use her pension book to become a salaried employee. Can you expand a bit more about the consequences of coming out for some of your subjects and how they dealt with these challenges? Are these struggles unique to Japan?

GK: In many parts of Japan, there are no legal protections offered to LGBTQ+ citizens to prevent discrimination in the workplace, in the housing market, and in schools. As a result, a lot of queer people in Japan have been forced to remain closeted in certain environments for their own protection. Things are slowly improving, as individual corporations begin to institute non-discrimination policies for their LGBTQ+ employees, and more cities and municipalities offer same-sex partnership certificates. These certificates aren’t on the same solid legal standing as marriage, but they do put pressure on companies and medical services to respect same-sex partnerships at a regional level. These struggles are not unique to Japan, as there are unfortunately many countries in the world that do little to offer legal protections to LGBTQ+ citizens. Even in the United States, where gay marriage is legal, we lack a national non-discrimination law. In many American states, you can get married and fired for being gay on the same day.

One of the unique challenges that Japanese LGBTQ+ people face is the existence of the koseki (family registry), a sort of public genealogy document with legal standing. The family registry is not designed to accommodate same-sex marriages, and even among heterosexual married couples it causes unique problems: a married couple must have the same last name, so married women can’t legally keep their maiden names. For transgender people, the family registry is cited as one of the reasons for the harsh restrictions on legal recognition of transgender identity. If you have children under 20 years old listed on your family registry, or if you’re currently married, you are barred from having your gender marker legally recognized. And beyond that, if you haven’t medically transitioned– meaning you haven’t had your reproductive organs removed– your gender cannot be recognized under the current law. (Also unfortunately, this is not a situation unique to Japan– some U.S. states require medical transition as well). As Aya Kamikawa states in the film, this medical requirement for legal transition has been cited as a human rights violation. Earlier in 2019, a court case challenged the constitutionality of this so-called “sterilization” rule, but Japan’s highest court refused to strike down the requirement. The fight for equal rights continues.

JFG: Coming from an American culture in which queer culture is becoming more mainstream every day (recognizing there are still struggles), did you find any striking differences or similarities with queer culture in Japan?

GK: It’s hard to make sweeping comparisons, because both America and Japan are heterogeneous environments. Queer culture may differ as much or more between Los Angeles and Little Rock, Arkansas than it differs between L.A. and Tokyo. But in general, it seemed like queer identity was a bit more compartmentalized in Japan– even a revered gay artist or a outspoken trans rights activist might feel a need to hide or downplay their queerness around family, out of a sense of respect and familial obligation. It was interesting to see how people could live these full, rich queer lives at pride parades or parties and then fly under the radar in other parts of their lives. As activist Tomato Hatakeno told me, there’s a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude common in Japan when it comes to gender and sexuality.

At the same time, Japanese queer culture and nightlife feels a little more advanced than in the U.S. in some respects. The sheer number of bars and event spaces in Japan’s queer neighborhoods allows for more specialization and can deepen the sense of identity one feels in these spaces. For instance, we cover a monthly FTM (trans masculine) party called Grammy Tokyo in the film, and the existence of this party and other bars and spaces catering specifically to trans masculine individuals felt pretty groundbreaking to me. Even in a city as big as Los Angeles, while there are some inclusive queer spaces, there are few that cater directly to the trans masculine community. That’s just one example, but I think there’s something unique about how specific you can get when you have 300+ bars in a neighborhood like Shinjuku Ni-chome, many of which are so small they can only fit 10 customers, instead of a standard American gayborhood that might have 10 bars that can fit 300 customers each.

JFG: In making a documentary in a foreign country, what was the most difficult process of film making? How did you overcome this?

GK: There were both language barriers and cultural barriers to making a film like this as a foreigner in Japan. I began production as a beginner Japanese speaker, and now I’m more intermediate, but most of the time I didn’t feel confident conducting interviews myself. So I was very lucky to have the support of producer Hiromi Iida, and co-producer Anne Ishii during the shooting of Queer Japan. I prepared interview questions, and they would conduct interviews in Japanese while I filmed. Working with a Japanese producer like Hiromi was also essential to navigating some of the formalities and cultural expectations of working in Japan that I was not familiar with. It was important that we approached these individuals and communities with as much respect as possible, and Hiromi managed to navigate that beautifully in all of our interactions.

JFG: What advice do you have to novice documentary film-makers?

GK: Collaborate! Film-making is a collaborative medium, and your work will benefit the more you involve other artists with a diversity of viewpoints in your process. Bring your subjects in to the process too! These days, we’re all filmmakers and photographers, telling our life story daily on social media with the cameras we carry around in our pockets. So the relationship between storyteller and subject has rapidly shifted, and your work can benefit from embracing that new egalitarianism.

JFG: What will your next project be about?

GK: I’m developing a variety of new projects, but after spending 4 years working on this documentary, I’m eager to try my hand at narrative filmmaking. I’m working on my first feature screenplay, a queer love story set against the backdrop of the renewable energy industry and the American southwest.

JFG: Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and knowledge with us!

GK: Thank you JF, and Ricepaper, for taking the time to feature this film and help us put a spotlight on the LGBTQ+ community in Japan!


Details for VQFF’s showing of Queer Japan can be found here: For summary of VQFF film-maker interviews, see this Ricepaper Magazine post.