Archive for May, 2008

Discovering voices, discovering selves: English language, intercultural communication, and Japanese queer sexualities

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.



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Cameron, D. & Kulick, D. (2003). Language and Sexuality. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Crocker, L. (1928). The Impact of English on Japanese. The English Journal, 17, 288-294.

Curran, G. (2006). Responding to students’ normative questions about gays: Putting queer theory into practice in an Australian ESL class. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 5, 85-96.

De Vincenti, G., Giovanangeli, A., & Ward, R. (2007). The Queer Stopover: How Queer Travels in the Language Classroom. Electronic Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, 4, 58–72.

Ellwood, C. (2006). On coming out and coming undone: Sexualities and reflexivities in language education research. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 5, 67-84.

Gee, J. (1994). Orality and Literacy: From the savage mind to ways with words. In J. Maybin (Ed.), Language and Literacy in Social Practice (pp. 168-192). UK: Multilingual Matters..

Hall, J.K., & Egginton,W. (2000). The Sociopolitics of English Language Teaching. UK:Multilingual Matters.

Hoodfar, H. (1992). Feminist anthropology and critical pedagogy: The anthropology of classrooms’ excluded voices. Canadian Journal of Education, 17, 303-320.

Hogan, J. (2003). The Social Significance of English Usage in Japan. Japanese Studies, 23(1). 43-58.

Joritz-Nakagawa, J. (2000). Gay identity in university EFL courses in Japan. Retrieved June 21st, 2007 from

http://members.at.infoseek.co.jp/gender_lang_ed/articles/gayidentity.html Jñanavira, Dharmachari. (n.d.). Homosexuality in the Japanese Buddhist Tradition.

Western Buddhist Review, 3. Retrieved September 27th, 2007 from http://www.westernbuddhistreview.com/vol3/homosexuality.html

Kappra, R. (1998). Addressing heterosexism in the IEP classroom. TESOL Matters. Retrieved June 18th 2007 from www.geocities.com/Tokyo/8771/iep.html

Kopelson, K. (2002). Dis/Integrating the gay/queer binary: “reconstructed identity politics” for a performative pedagogy. College English, 65, 17-35.

Kostogriz, A. (2002). Teaching literacy in multicultural classrooms: Towards a pedagogy of ‘Thirdspace’. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Australian Association for Research in Education, Brisbane, Australia. Retrieved June 19th, 2006 from http://www.aare.edu.au/02pap/kos02346.htm

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2003) Critical language pedagogy: A postmethod perspective on language teaching. World Englishes, 22, 539-550.

McLelland, M. (2000). Is there a Japanese ‘gay identity’? Culture, Health & Sexuality, 2, 459-472.

Nelson, C. (1993). Heterosexism in ESL: Examining our attitudes. TESOL Quarterly, 27, 143-150.

Nelson, C. D. (1999). Sexual identities in ESL: Queer theory and classroom inquiry. TESOL Quarterly, 33, 371-391.

O’Mochin, R. (2004). Sexual identity politics in the classroom: The case against monosexual pedagogy. JALT GALE Newsletter, Fall, 4-18.

O’Móchain, R. (2006). Discussing gender and sexuality in a context-appropriate way: Queer narratives in an EFL college classroom in Japan. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 5, 51-66.

Pennycook, A. (1999). Introduction: Critical approaches to TESOL. TESOL Quarterly, 33, 329-348.

Schweers, W. (1997). Resources and ideas for working with gay/lesbian themes in the ESL classroom. Paper presented at The Annual Meeting of the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Orlando, Fl.

Sears, J. (1997). Thinking critically/intervening effectively about heterosexism and homophobia: A twenty-five year research retrospective. In W. Williams & J. Sears (Eds.), Overcoming Heterosexism and Homophobia: Strategies That Work (pp. 13-48). NY: Columbia University Press.

Summerhawk, B. (1998). From closet to classroom: Gay issues in ESL/EFL. The Language Teacher Online, 22. Retrieved June 21st, 2007 from http://www.jalt-publications.org/tlt/files/98/may/summerhawk.html

Torikai, K. (2005). The Challenges of Language and Communication in Twenty-first Century Japan. Japanese Studies, 25, 249-256.

Vandrick, S. (1997). The role of hidden identities in the ESL postsecondary classroom. TESOL Quarterly, 31, 153-157.

Vandrick, S. (2001). Teaching sexual identity issues in ESL classes. Paper presented at The Annual Meeting of the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, St. Louis, MO.

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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.

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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.

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The Closet in the Classroom: A personal narrative

Indiana University of Pennsylvania instructor, Marlen Harrison, reflects on queer sexualities in the Japanese TESOL classroom. Through personal narrative, Harrison examines both the ramifications of coming out to students and the presence of queer sexualities in ESL/EFL instruction.

On my first day as a university teacher in Western Japan, I entered the classroom and felt both a flurry of excitement and wave of heated fear. “Would they like me?” I wondered. “Will they accept me?” I continued. After all, this would be my first time to be alone and completely autonomous in a university setting. I had taught before, but as a university teaching assistant, and as a private and small group teacher. In my previous experience at a well-known eikaiwa (English conversation school), I had struggled with questions like “Are you married?”; “Do you have a girlfriend?”; and “What kind of women do you like?” These questions were difficult because when it comes to my sexual orientation and gender identity, I have lived my life in an honest manner. My belief is that it is useful to be self-revelatory if the issue arises if only to illustrate that gay men are not all mentally ill pedophiles and sex addicts. Moreover, I don’t believe in the coming out proclamation; just as heterosexual people needn’t announce their heterosexuality, I don’t believe it a necessity to announce my homosexuality. My mode of everyday communication is infused with authentic commentary about myself without a need for spectacle or apology. I believe that disclosure also illustrates an absence of shame and it has been my experience that such revelation has led to acceptance, questioning, and ultimately informed perspectives. Now, all this being said, I do not wish to hold myself as an example; I believe to each his/her own. We all have our own ways of discussing our identities as dictated by our own emotional and developmental needs. So, when asked the questions above, it was difficult for me to be purposely vague. I had no idea what the repercussions would be should I disclose my identity to my students. Would I be fired? Would I be questioned? Would I be told not to talk of such things? This reticence is a sad reflection on my internalized homophobia, my being still uncomfortable enough with my identity such that I had to worry about keeping it secret.


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