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Silencing identity through communication: Situated enactments of sexual identity and emotion in Japan

Makoto Saito, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation studies ethnographically how ordinary heterosexual people habitually and with the best intentions make homosexuals or LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-gendered/trans-sexual) people invisible in their daily and ordinary communication processes in Japanese communities in both Oisawa, Japan and Western Massachusetts, U.S.A. This study raises a general question: what are the scenes and communication practices in and through which homosexuality becomes invisible or irrelevant to identification of the self? The main conceptual frames used are those of stigma theory by Ervin Goffman (1963), ethnography of communication by Dell Hymes 1972, 1974), cultural communication by Donal Carbaugh (1989, 1990, 1996, 2001, 2002, cf. 2003, 2005), and coordinated management of meaning by Vernon Cronen 1994). The methodology involves a variety of data including field observations, various forms of textual data, as well as interviews in each Japanese community in Japan and the U.S.A. In five chapters, different aspects of communicative practices and processes as well as associated cultural premises are explicated, delineated, and analyzed. In each case, both intended and unintended functions of the communication are explored. First, a communicative style of “being ordinary” (futuu) is explored, in and through which ordinary heterosexuals habitually enact a complete lack of awareness of homosexuals. This practice involves actions of “not seeing, not hearing, and not saying” (mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru ) that are enacted individually. When multiple interlocutors enact the actions in collaboration, the communicative practices constitute an event of “pretending nothing happened” (nakatta koto ni suru ), making LGBT identities communicationally invisible. Second, while addressing the Japanese cultural emphases on silence and indirect and ambiguous communication practices, a direct and open mode of Japanese communication practice is examined. This communication practice is called “speaking straightforwardly” (massugu yuu/hakkiri iu), in and through which the speaker expresses candid and sincere thoughts and feelings in accordance with common sense. The recipient of such communication often enacts “being open and receptive” (sunao), that involves listening silently without being defensive or becoming upset. These communicative practices actively and explicitly discourage and at times prohibit discourse about LGBT identities and orientation. Third, cultural premises regarding social and emotional selves associated with the communicative practices of being ordinary and speaking straightforwardly are explicated and analyzed. The dialectic interplay between the two selves becomes salient as the two communication practices are enacted, and it creates tension and human drama. Although ideally speaking an interlocutor has to be always in dialogue with the two selves, one self becomes more salient, as expressed in the communication process, than the other, depending on the situation. These two conflicting selves play a key role in legitimating the heterosexual understanding of what constitutes ordinary personhood, which often marginalizes LGBT identities and orientations as unimportant. Fourth, speaking straightforwardly as a silencing form of communication renders LGBT identities as frightening and cultivates gut-level discomfort against “homosexuals,” without knowing any of them personally. This silencing communication involves cultural conceptualization of human nature, human sexuality, and homosexuality. The family and intimate communication practices function as the gatekeeper, in which the interlocutors express openly and candidly their perceptions and gut-level discomfort about LGBT identities and their implications in society in terms of achieving mundane happiness. This ensures invisibility of LGBT identities, since parents wish for their children nothing but to be able to pursue mundane happiness. Fifth, an analysis of the Japanese heterosexual male-centered lovemaking scenes in ero-manga provides some possible sources of misunderstandings between males, females, and male homosexuals. In particular the analyses seek to identify and examine the intersection between the ero-manga representations and communicative practices of talking about sexuality. Many males often project their own male sense of sexuality on their female counterparts, while trying to please their female counterparts. In the males' communication practices of talking about male “homosexuals,” they project their sense of male sexuality on them. Thus, they express the gut-level discomfort that gay people may aggressively and sexually attack them. These analyses suggest a deeper examination of a gut-level discomfort with “homosexuals” as a communicationally cultivated feeling as opposed to an innate one. This study concludes with a summary of findings about communication generally and Japanese cultural communication practices specifically. It will also expand Goffman's framework of stigma, further develop the framework by discussing three additional categories, discuss the indiscernible power of heterosexual people, point out our communicative (in)actions that stigmatize, marginalize, and dehumanize homosexuals, and make suggestions for minimizing such negative effects.

Subject Area

Communication|Individual & family studies|Gender studies

Recommended Citation

Saito, Makoto, "Silencing identity through communication: Situated enactments of sexual identity and emotion in Japan" (2007). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3289199.