Queer Eye: We’re in Japan! Gets it Right

Queer Eye: We’re in Japan! Gets it Right

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Queer Eye: We're in Japan!
Queer Eye: We're in Japan! from Netflix could've been a "weird Japan" disaster. But it avoids common pitfalls - and it's winning over Japanese viewers too.

Welcome to Queer Eye

It was with a small sense of trepidation that I sat down with my girlfriend, Yui, to begin watching the new four-episode Netflix Queer Eye special, We’re in Japan!

It’s not as though I have anything against the smash-hit Netflix reality show from which the special was spinning off. In fact, although I was a bit slow to hop onto the bandwagon, I’ve ended up pretty enamored of the show.

If you’re new to the concept, this what the standard Queer Eye episode looks like.

The show introduces a person from any potential background and orientation. Said person is, of course, in need of a lifestyle makeover. Soon, the “Fab Five” arrive to supply their seemingly life-changing ministrations to the subject. Designer Tan France provides his expertise in outfitting the subject with a new-and-improved wardrobe; hairdresser Jonathan Van Ness reshapes hair and grooming practices; chef Antoni Porowski provides cooking lessons; interior designer Bobby Berk revolutionizes the subject’s living space; and “culture” expert Karamo Brown assists with mental health and introspection. By the time the credits roll, the subject – often referred to as an episode’s “hero” in marketing – and the space around them have been transformed, bringing forth a more self-actualized, confident, and emotionally revitalized version of themselves.

Of course, this is reality TV. The vision we’re presented with is something shaped by editing and filming choices based on creating an on-brand narrative. Yet the Fab Five manage to avoid the nakedly manufactured nature of the vast majority of American reality TV shows. This is partially achieved by the sheer force of winning personality.

More important, perhaps, is the Fab Five’s sense of real, un-scriptable authenticity of emotion and affection – both towards each other and their episodic subject.  Then, there’s the LGBT aspect, so integral to the show (it’s there in the name), yet so naturally dealt with in most episodes. Of course, our principles, the Fab Five, are all queer — gay, sexually fluid, or genderqueer. The presentation of natural, authentic queer bonding, personal success, and live-out-loud-itude is undeniably a major part of what gives the show such appeal.

Basically, the show is great. So why was I apprehensive about Queer Eye bringing its unique combination of lifestyle help and emotional/orientational uplift to Japan?


What Western Reality TV Shows Get Wrong When They Go to Japan

In short, it’s because Western reality TV/documentary investigations into Japanese society have historically been a pretty mixed bag. People like to watch content about Japan, no doubt. Reality and documentary series seem to be chomping at the bit to visit. Unfortunately, such shows – intended as they are for Western audiences used to the idea of “weird Japan” – tend to exoticize just as much as they inform.

Cameras zoom in on the striking, idiosyncratic, “weird” corners of Japanese society. They show us maid cafes, hikikomori dens, host clubs, and friend rental companies. Tokyo turns into a city comprised of flashing neon lights inhabited by cosplayers, where every street is actually the Shibuya Scramble. These shows touch upon issues that are genuinely worthy of scrutiny, and yet present these problems with at least a twinge of hard-to-escape orientalism. Isn’t Japan silly and weird, they seem to say, even as they present real issues. Japan becomes a simple staging ground for vignettes of exotic strangeness.

Even great shows and productions often engage in this to some degree. Take, for example, Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain was a personal hero of mine who loved Japan and truly sought to understand it (he visited the country at least 13 times and often called Tokyo his favorite culinary city in the world). Yet, an episode of Parts Unknown set in Tokyo is described by broadcaster CNN as being “in search of the city’s dark, extreme, and bizarrely fetishistic underside…Japan is a paradox.” Even Bourdain engaged in the exoticizing of Japan.

Perils of Covering LGBT Issues in Japan

On the LGBT side of things, the pilot episode of Elliot Page’s admirable and interesting Gaycation featured Japan. In it, the movie star (who came out in 2014) visits Tokyo’s famous gay district, Ni-chōme (新宿二丁目), and talks with the first Buddhist monk to officiate (sadly still non-state-sanctioned) gay weddings. He even provides some encouragement to a young gay man about to come out to his mother.

But the episode also featured the usual “weird Japan” factors: a famous gay porn star who sells molds of his mouth and throat; a scene where Elliot listens to a CD of an explicit boy’s love scene in a karaoke booth while two fujoshi (腐女子, female otaku obsessed with Boy’s Love [BL] manga) excitedly geek out; and one scene where Elliot accompanies a Japanese friend-for-hire to a session with the aforementioned gay client. This scene feels especially egregious. Here, the boy comes out to his mother. All the while, the poor woman is surrounded in this tiny apartment by two foreigners and a film crew. (Such a combination of meaningfully informative and strangely exploitative is, sadly, not all that surprising for something produced by Vice).

Perhaps most controversial of the recent Japan-set documentary series was a certain episode of Netflix’s Dark Tourist. The Fukushima-oriented episode insinuated that produce from that maligned prefecture might be contaminated by radiation. This despite the prefecture’s extremely stringent screening process. It’s this sort of fear-mongering presentation of Fukushima Prefecture that continues to do damage to the nearly two million people who live there.

…And What Queer Eye Got Right

Model Mizuhara Kiko makes an appearance in the Japan-set production of Queer Eye: We’re in Japan!. (Photo: Shutterstock)

With all this considered, my worry was that Queer Eye would repeat all the same old mistakes. In my mind’s eye, I saw five American, British, and Canadian men wandering into a wacky, exotic space, zooming in on marketable local eccentricities and trying to “fix” wide aspects of a society they might not know enough about to engage with properly (and promotional stills of the Fab Five striking poses while bedecked in Judo uniforms did little to inspire confidence).

Thankfully, Queer Eye: We’re in Japan! proved to be much more self-aware than I had anticipated. More than that, it was a deeply satisfying viewing experience, both culturally and emotionally speaking.

Admittedly, there were tiny shades of what I was concerned about. Mostly, these were on the production side of things — some funky, stereotypically “Japanese”-sounding background music, the ubiquitous shots of the Fab Five dancing down the Shibuya Scramble. But thankfully, the show generally eschews orientalism and “wacky Japan” and does a great job showing real people with real problems in the often-alienating metropolis of Tokyo. 

There’s an early portent of the success of the show in feeling authentic in its representation of Japan when famed model/actress/designer Mizuhara Kiko (水原希子) is introduced as a local “tour guide” to the Fab Five. Her continued presence on the show allows it an authentic grounding (and a later cameo by the mega-famous Watanabe Naomi helps, too). When Mizuhara tours Ni-Chome with the show’s stars, it brings to mind a more LGBT-focused version of similarly wonderful moments in Anthony Bourdain’s shows.

From there, a personal focus on one individual Tokyoite per episode, centered on their specific lives and issues, allows for a more natural, ground-up view of Japanese societal issues than the more wide-ranging visions shown elsewhere. Whether it be the idea of lost womanhood (episode 1); the pressure to hide one’s true self in Japanese culture (in the LGBT-focused 2nd episode); bullying and self-image (episode 3); or sexless, romance-less marriages (episode 4), the show allows major Japan-specific societal problems to be brought to life. Yet it’s the personal nature of how Queer Eye presents the problems to the viewer that truly sets this mini-series apart. The statement isn’t “look at these strange problems in Japanese society.” Rather, it’s “get to know these authentic people, whose real lives are affected by societal pressures.”

More on What Makes the Show Great

It’s thanks to explanations by Mizuhara, and via emotionally sympathetic and emphatic conversation (assisted, of course, by an editorially invisible Japanese interpreter) between the Fab Five and each episode’s “hero,” that Japanese society is explicated. This is almost always carried out on a personal level, rather than a monolithic one. The Fab Five provide emotionally-grounded advice and encouragement the like of which each “hero” has likely rarely received in life. Yet the show never centers the foreignness of these stars as the principal factor in their relationships. Thus the show manages to avoid the sticky issue of foreign “saviors” swooping in to save Japanese characters. (As bad as that would be, I hesitate to imagine a version of this show if produced for Fuji Television).

Perhaps unsung amongst the various praisable aspects of the show is the work of interior designer Bobby Berk. It’s a joy to behold how he makes use of Japanese living spaces, so often much smaller than those encountered in the America-set version of the show. Cramped spaces, devoid of personality or cluttered beyond recognition, become inviting, cozy, and relaxing areas tailored to each “hero’s” personally and needs. Much is done with so little room. Bobby even finds ways around the usual limitations of rentals in Tokyo, using strikingly-colored temporary wallpapers that bring the rooms to life — without bringing down the ire of cantankerous Tokyo landlords.

Farewell, Queer Eye

The end result is something that Yui and I found to be emotionally and culturally relevant to both of us. This was true individually – for me, as a foreigner who knows Japan intimately, and for her as a Japanese woman enmeshed in that society.

More than that, it was simply a great show to watch as an interracial, international couple. Japan and the West meet, not in a cultural clash, but in a meaningful, hopeful, and self-affirmingly joyous way. Seeing something like this, which celebrates diverse gender, sexuality, and self-actualization in Japan without punching down or stereotyping is almost a revelation. (And the fact that the emotional moments brought tears to both our eyes didn’t hurt, either). For that, I can only thank Queer Eye for actually getting it right.

Reactions from Japan

But don’t just take our word for it. Let’s take a look at what Japanese viewers are making of the Fab Five’s exploits in Tokyo.


@lune_1113: “Queer Eye is simply too amazing. Giving out hugs full of love, helping someone right in front of you to find courage via frank words; I think that it’s in Japan, where we consider such things to be embarrassing, that this show is so necessary. You are beautiful. You are a wonderful person. There must be so many people who could be saved with those words alone. I want to become the sort of person who can help people like that, too.”

どき丸胸男 on Twitter


@domimaru: “It’s tough how all it takes to cause the Japanese people on Queer Eye to cry so much is for someone to just treat them kindly. Everyone really keeps it all pent up inside.”

ドー・ナツ on Twitter


@dona_OHO_ak: “For some mysterious reason, I felt a sort of embarassment and resistance about them setting Queer Eye in Japan. But when, with a ‘here we go!’ I started watching it, I’ve been crying ever since Yoko-san first appeared…[thread continues] The episode with Kan, who is gay, is full of words I want to engrave into my heart…[thread continues] When I saw Kan, who kept his clothing and interior design to a minimum in order to not be outed in rigid Japan, and who didn’t try to make any of it comfortable… In that moment, I truly felt like I was appearing in the show.”

マちゃ〜ん on Twitter

クィア・アイ in JAPANあっという間に見終わってしまった。よくわからないところでぼろぼろ泣いたりウッとなる場面もたくさんあるんだけど、日本でやる意味 大アリ〜という感想

@yaaaak_tt: “And all of a sudden, Queer Eye: We’re in Japan was over. Although there were all sorts of parts where I was sobbing for reasons I didn’t quite understand or when I was at a loss for words, my reaction is that there’s some realll~lly good reasons to do this show in Japan.”

おネエJIRO@美容垢 on Twitter

Netflixのクィア・アイinJAPAN。 1話だけ見て寝るはずが、全部見ちゃって完徹🤔笑 介護問題にLGBT、親子問題(毒親)、セックスレス… 現代日本の問題に見事に切り込んでると思うのアタシだけ?すごいセレクトだと思うわ~ それでも見終わったあとは感動。ほんっと5人の魅力だよね😊 #クィアアイ

@JIRO59564645: “Netflix’s Queer Eye: We’re in Japan. I meant to watch just one episode and go to sleep, but I ended up watching all the episodes and pulling an all-nighter, lol. From elder-care problems to LGBT, parent-child problems (toxic parents), sexlessness… Am I the only one who thinks they did an amazing job getting to the heart of the problems of modern Japan? I think they did an incredible job with their selection~. Even still, when it ended I just felt so deeply moved. That realllly is the charm of these five guys. #queereye”

Of course, there are some slightly more critical opinions out there as well.

Maari on Twitter


@maarisugs: “I can’t deny feeling that the Japanese version of Queer Eye is pushing assimilation into a standard of Western multiculuralism, nor can I close my eyes to its Lost in Translation-esque orientalism. But to be honest, I think it’s a necessary “good medicine” for Japan, in which there are so many people with a low sense of self-actualization because of the truly massive pressure to conform.

But would this round-up really be complete without a bit of commentary from the fabulous Utada Hikaru herself?

宇多田ヒカル on Twitter

I can’t believe my favorite show on Netflix queereye did a mini series in Japan and THEY DIDN’T TELL ME ABOUT IT #queereye #utadahikaru #hikaruutada https://t.co/fYqmkffRrO

Maybe next time, Utada – and I do hope there is a next time!

Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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