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26/05/2020 The Communication Science magazine

Queer Eye: We’re in Japan!: How Netflix’s Makeover Show (Respectfully) Dived into Japanese society

The gays are back! Queer Eye’s Fab 5 is a team of five gay men with individual specialities (fashion, culture, food & wine, grooming, and design) who do makeovers on nominees’ outer and inner struggles.


After conquering the American South with their tear-jerking quest and fabulousness, the Fab 5 expanded their horizon to Japan. One of Asia’s most developed nations but known for social restrictions. In this 4-episode spin-off, the cast members assisted the heroes to confidently live as their true selves in the conservative Japanese society. The show put in surprisingly considerate efforts to highlight its makeover magic without offending the local cultural norms and forcing Western ideologies onto the Asian thinking. 

 

Who and Why Japan?

The special episodes followed 4 emotional stories: Yoko, a selfless nurse who has forgotten how to be a “woman”; Kan, a semi-openly gay man who faces social judgment; Kae, a manga illustrator who has lost self-confidence due to past bullying experiences; and Mokoto, a radio producer whose marriage has gone stagnant.

Japan has been known as Asia’s dynamic economic powerhouse showcasing innovative technology and an intensely diverse culture. However, in recent years, Japan’s systematic social structure has gathered attention from Western media, raising issues about the population’s happiness, single status, overworking, depression, loneliness, and even suicide. This particular juxtaposition between its joyous self-portrayal and the grim reality is prominent in the lives of the 4 heroes in this Queer Eye special. Despite leading wildly different lifestyles, one thing holds the nominees in common: They were all controlled by social norms and emotionally repressed. 

Changing Lives One Step at a Time

Yoko, a 57-year-old divorced nurse, has devoted her life to the hospice without taking care of her appearance because “for people in her age”, she will be judged if she dresses in a certain way and that she “had given up on being a woman.” Kan, a gay man in his 30s who returned to Japan after studying abroad, found his queer identity struggling to assimilate and conform to the rigid Japanese cultural norms. Kae, a 23-year-old manga illustrator, found her life in disarray and had difficulty opening up to her mother about her traumatic experiences of being bullied in high school which has impacted her self-confidence. Lastly, Mokoto, the radio producer in his 30s, attempted to reconnect with his wife of 6 years whom he has now chosen to see as a “sibling” due to their lack of interaction and communication, both emotionally and physically. 

However, a challenge arose: the heroes were unsure how to confront their problems and were quick to cover up the pain they were suffering from. That was when the Fab 5 came to the rescue with their usual wicked transformations! With carefree (maybe slightly intrusive), honest, vulnerable, and open hearts they listened to the outpour of emotions that the heroes had bottled up. Like mine diggers, the cast members allowed the heroes to face their “tough-to-swallow pills”, breaking down cultural as well as language barriers. 

However, as an Asian myself, I was skeptical. When Western shows come to Asia, there is always an inherent format of highlighting and criticizing the conservative Eastern values while adding Western (or “liberal”) values to local norms. However, there was no inclination of Queer Eye attempting to subvert Japanese cultural conventions. 

Instead, they fully acknowledged and accepted the status quo and focused more on the personal issues of each hero and assisted them in their journey for open self-expression and self-contentment within their social climate. Although some of the cast members expressed their wish for the Japanese social standards to become more tolerant (just so that the heroes would have more comfortable lives), they recognized that this is probably hard to change. The main message was loud and clear: If you can’t change your situation and place of living, find happiness within yourself. 

Why you should add Queer Eye: We’re in Japan to your binge-watching list

Even though it is understandable that Netflix probably does not wish to alienate its Japanese audiences, the Fab 5 nonetheless took a remarkably direct jab at the problems that the four heroes faced. This representation gives exposure to other individuals in similar situations and helps them find some solace, consolation, and encouragement in their own lives. The carefully scripted yet genuinely respectful interaction of the East-West cultures made Queer Eye: We’re in Japan! brilliant entertainment. Although the usual comical approach that the Fab 5 take in their American-made episodes is not explicit, these down-to-earth, heartwarming and sweet sentiments will bring you new insights and understanding of interpersonal and intercultural communication. 

Queer Eye: We’re in Japan! is now streaming on Netflix.

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