When I started learning Japanese over a decade ago, some phrases stuck with me from the very beginning. One of them was “Doki-doki,” which is an onomatopoeia describing the heartbeat quickening. Japanese people use it in situations where they’re happy, excited or something makes their heart literally skip a beat.
I feel like this is an accurate description of anyone watching Netflix’s Queer Eye. It is a reboot of the popular early-naughts show Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, especially its latest rendition, a special season where the Fab Five go to Japan. The four episodes tell the stories of various people in Japan who need the help of Bobby, Jonathan, Antoni, Tan, and Karamo in all aspects of their life.
Having lived in Japan and having been connected to Japanese culture my entire life, I went into the idea of this season with a weary mind. I saw the possible issues of Japanese life being reduced to certain stereotypes of the show ignoring the problems the country has with LGBTQ+ representation and acceptance. Or not being respectful of certain norms and traditions and forcing a Western ideal on the people they are “making over.” I can’t say that the show steered clear of all these issues, but I think it did better than expected.
What viewers need to understand about Japan, is that compared to Western countries, people are not only polite and modest, they tend to be closed-off, and not open when it comes to sharing feelings and emotions – even in an institution like a committed relationship or marriage. It is not common for people to hug as a hello or goodbye, and admitting you need help is not considered to be the societal norm. So a lot of the territory that Queer Eye has demonstrated in the past few seasons would be difficult to portray on the show.
However, Netflix didn’t let the Fab Five loose by themselves in a foreign country. They gave them a Japanese co-host, Kiko Mizuhara, who is a known “talent” in Japan. She helps the men navigate their journey throughout Japan, and makes them aware of possible mishaps and possible foot-in-mouth situations. In my opinion, it was handled well and thoughtfully except for one episode – which is still one of my favorites in the season regardless – where they are supposed to help a gay man named Kan.
The episode begins with Kiko meeting the Fab Five in a gay bar in Tokyo and explaining to them what the problems the queer community faces, without ever letting an actual queer person speak. I found that slightly problematic, but it was redeemed when they take Kan to said bar, to explore the LGBTQ+ scene in Japan and some other people from the community get their chance to speak.
All in all, this season is just as heartfelt and just as heartbreaking as the previous ones. Sadly, it is also a shorter season with only four compared to the usual eight episodes. Queer Eye has managed to draw a broad-enough picture of Japanese society by sharing the life of a single, middle-aged woman Yoko, who has dedicated her life to helping others and her community, Kan, a young, gay man in a long-distance relationship with a British man, Kae, a young woman who is struggling with the strict beauty standards of her country and finally Makoto, who has problems communicating with his wife and sharing his feelings with her.
It is difficult to say which episode I enjoyed the most because each episode brought forward a different part of the country that I feel connected to and love. Each episode also brought forward an issue I had come across while living there. Apart from my personal experience, these episodes also showed a deep, human empathy that is just uplifting to witness and experience.
When Yoko takes time for herself and decides to take care of her own needs, it is evident that she still feels guilty. She tries to overcompensate some of the scenarios by making fun of herself and the fact that she is in a way starved for this kind of care she always provides for others. It is incredibly uplifting to see her enjoy herself, to feel more like a “woman,” even though she doesn’t conform to the standards society has set upon her. Her child-like enthusiasm and joy bring the same for every viewer, and that’s something wonderful about this show.
When Kan talks about the fact that he never felt like he was able to express himself and live life as a gay man whilst living in Japan. He talks about the experience of queer kids everywhere in Japan, but also in other countries. Kan shares his story with such emotion and such visible struggles, one wants to shake some sense into the people who have made life difficult for him – and that concerns the people in his own country, as well as the people abroad who made it clear to him that Asian men are not what they were looking for. The “no fems, no fats, no Asians,” phrase has been used in the gay dating scene so much that popular dating apps have had to ban them from the user-profiles. The discrimination Kan faced was not limited to his own country, and that makes his episode one of the more heartbreaking ones. However, it also makes his transformation so uplifting and so inspiring to watch, that one hopes that things and circumstances will change for his benefit in the future.
When Kae is introduced, one wonders why she needs a fashion makeover. She clearly has a sense of style and artistic talent, but she is chained down by her insecurities and a lifetime of bullying and non-acceptance. When we as Western people watch her episode and her struggles with body image, it might seem bizarre to us why she is struggling, but you have to keep in mind that Japan (and other Asian countries) are much more strict when it comes to beauty standards and the way they are enforced. What I specifically loved about Kae’s episode is the introduction of Japanese media sensation Naomi Watanabe. The actress, model, director, comedian, and fashion designer challenges traditional beauty standards and promotes a message of body positivity and was just the perfect person to include in this episode. I enjoyed how she seemed to give Kae an extra boost in self-confidence.
Finally, when Makoto shares his struggles about connecting on an emotional level with his wife, we can see the deeply-rooted difference in expressing feelings and emotions in different cultures. Throughout the episode, the narrative that unfolds is that of two people deeply devoted to each other, caught in a daily routine and unable to bring up their issues and needs in fear of losing the other person. As Makoto is talking to his wife, saying “I am saved by the fact that you exist,” and proceeding to break down crying in the arms of Karamo, we can quite literally feel the relief washing over him and the pain that he has built up over years and years. It is incredibly cathartic to see people not only opening up to each other but also resolving their issues and willing to work together to revive their relationship.
What we haven’t talked about so far are the beautiful moments in-between. The sequences of Tokyo’s skyline, small streets, unique shops, incredible food, and colorful lights, help with building a small glimpse of Japanese life. Which is much more vast than a four-episode season of a TV series will ever be able to show. Of course, that is not the point of Queer Eye. The point is seeing makeovers of people’s tiny apartments, an update of their wardrobe, their cooking repertoire, and their haircut – next to all the emotional work. In an awe-inspiring way, Bobby manages to transform these small, Tokyo apartments into new spaces, most of the time with the help of small aides because Japanese landlords tend to be strict when it comes to renovations. We see Tan, the fashion expert, managing to create a style that is reminiscent of Japanese street style and also influenced by Western fashion. And we see Antoni, the food expert, teaching some of the people basic cooking skills and some of them just a new dish to get inspired. Finally, Jonathan, the grooming expert, shows how taking care of yourself and investing in some time for care will help you feel better about everything in your life, not just your hair.
All in all, Queer Eye: We’re In Japan is just as heart-wrenching and uplifting as the last seasons, with the added bonus of showing not only a different culture but also giving inspiration to viewers of how they can change their lives for the better. It also managed to give me a severe amount of homesickness, so I’ll be looking up flights to Tokyo immediately.