Over in Tokyo’s Sumida City—a panoramic, riverside hub for tourists and the arts—they’re building Japan’s new TV and radio transmission tower. The existing, iconic Eiffel-esque Tokyo Tower is less than 10 kilometres away, but at over 50-years-old, the old beast just isn’t cutting it anymore. And when you’ve got a population of nearly 128 million, all waiting for high-definition digital images to be pumped out at a universal standard—over skyscrapers and spires, no less—what you need is a new tower, and that tower needs to be big. Like, really big. Upon completion, it will need to be 634 metres tall and break records like Tallest Man-Made Japanese Structure and Tallest Freestanding Tower in the World. It will be massive. Goddamn, melt-your-mind, out-of-this-world huge.
When I saw the new tower for the first time, it took a moment for my brain to properly process what it was seeing. As I stared skywards at the giant, looming metal spindle cutting into the fog, there was a delay until I realised it was only two-thirds complete. The top half looked like it’d been cleanly erased in Photoshop, with two little cranes perched on top, working away at it like tiny robots. The tower’s vertigo-inducing proportions looked like something out of science fiction, reminding me of the nearly-built alien transport from Contact. And, like something out of Avatar, the completed structure will be called the Tokyo Sky Tree.
Finishing off the Tokyo Sky Tree is important, because Japanese people really like their television. At last count, there was one television set to every 1.2 people in Japan. On subways and trains, people watch vodcasts on mobile phones and soap operas on analogue portables. It’s standard for giant LCD sets to be installed in sentos and onsens. I’d finish off the week by soaking in Japan’s traditional bathhouses alongside businessmen, seniors and college students, all of us naked, dripping wet and flopping all over the place. In the baths, we’d stew and sweat in respectful silence, but that all changed in the sauna. In the sauna, we’d watch TV with the volume turned up loud.
When I wasn’t discreetly examining everyone’s genitals from the corner of my eye (petite; gherkin-ish; finger-like; mossy; swollen; mutant slug; possibly amputated), I turned my attention to the sauna’s TV set, which was always—always—tuned into a variety-news show of some sort. A lot of Japan’s TV shows share this infotainment format: play the news in front of a panel of celebrity guests, who offer commentary. As the raw news footage reels off, a small box in the corner of the screen stays focused on the celebrities’ faces for reactions: Nodding Concern; Startled Delight; Breathless Laughter; Muted Shock; Considered Listening; Silent Crying. The celebrity panel’s reactions are like an emotional laugh track, suggesting what to feel and when.
Sweating in front of the sauna’s TV, I also started to get the distinct sense that Japanese television was, well … kind of gay. Trends come and go in Japan, and according to the Japanese culture magazine Shincho, gay was very “in” right now. Before that, Japanese television had been in the midst of a fat talent (debu tarento) craze, with big celebrities in pop culture demand. (It made sense that one of Japan’s most successful TV stars consolidated the two trends: a gloriously porky drag queen named Matsuko Deluxe, whose luxurious, silken-tofu-esque fat rolls were splayed all over billboards and advertisements.) At any given hour, there’s something queer going on Japanese television. At midday, you might see the drag queen Bourebonne-San giving current affairs commentary; at prime time, you’ll find a transsexual woman Ai Haruna doing the same thing; and by midnight, the fabulously mincing sprite KABA.Chan will be spruiking products on a home shopping network.
Captivated, I became a queer celebrity hound. I wanted to meet them, talk to them, and ask them about what confused me the most: why did Japanese television seem so gay, when Japanese society seemed so conservative and ultra-straight? I sent emails to publicists, agents and television stations, requesting interviews with their most prominent drag queens, homosexuals, transgender celebrities and celebrity lesbians (“celesbians”). It’s difficult enough to wrangle celebrity interviews in your home country and native language, but when I was dealing with middle-men who can’t speak English (I can’t speak Japanese), it was near impossible.
Still, I got interviews with various celebrities at different levels of stardom. But the celebrity I wanted most was also the hardest to pin down. Ai Haruna was a singer-commentator-entertainer-comedian, adored by the public to the point where she’d been nominated for the equivalent of a People’s Choice Award for Japan’s favourite television star. Every single person I spoke to in Tokyo knew who she was. With her cartoon good looks and bubble-gum cheeks, she was a TV personality as sweet as a toothache. We’d met briefly before, during her guest stage appearance in Thailand for Miss Tiffany’s Universe, the world’s biggest transsexual beauty pageant.
Getting in touch with Ai Haruna was sort of difficult. My contacts from Thailand directed me to someone called F. Kasai, though I wasn’t sure if Kasai-san was her manager, touring agent, publicist—or something else. After sending him a long and respectful interview request in English, his reply was short and blunt. A three-line email, it was almost haiku-like in its succinct beauty, telling me to piss off:
i say your order for HARUNA AI office
but she is very very busy TV star
she can not return soon
My heart sank. I sent two further emails without a response, and received nothing but radio silence after a couple of follow-ups. “Hello?” I wanted to bleet out lamely. “Are you there?” Then later, success:
ai chans manager say your interview ok
maybe he call you
his name is MR. KAZAMA
please talk with him
Several phone calls later to one Mr. Kazama, and we were in.
Tokyo’s TBS televsion studios are set in dual towers that mesh closely together like conjoined twins. Inside the studio’s common green-room, my interpreters Aya and Simon sat beside me, the three of us watching the live television broadcast that was taking place in another room, only metres from where we were sitting. On the monitors, the TV host—a pug-faced man with meringue-like hair—ran through a news story about a junior baseball player wanting to make it into the big time. People were crying; it seemed emotional. As the baseball player footage ran, a small box in the corner showed a celebrity panellist expressing a combination of Nodding Concern and Heartfelt Sympathy. She wore a white, dapple-patterned dress with Disney Princess puffy sleeves and a big red bow in her hair. “That’s her!” my female translator Aya said, squealing and pointing. We all got excited and all spontaneously decided we needed to pee.
The recording wrapped up, the audience filed out and the celebrity panellists swarmed out into the green room in a tightly packed bunch—a walking mass of well-coiffed hair. For a brief moment, Ai Haruna sailed past us (prompting Simon and Aya to mime silent screaming), and then we heard a troubling, high pitched sound. It was two girls squealing. Two Japanese women in their 20s, dressed in wild, monochromatic Harajuku outfits, were bouncing from foot to foot, bowing at Ai Haruna. Ai Haruna laughed and squealed with them. They grasped each others’ hands, bowed again, laughed, squealed and then: one of the girls started crying. Ai Haruna comforted her, bowed towards them in farewell and headed to her change room. Her assistant gave us a quick smile and told us to wait.
Ten minutes later, Ai Haruna came out wearing rainbow check pyjama bottoms and a bright orange hoodie that said ‘Mississippi Ridgeland Football Club’. With glittery moisturiser still on her face, she grabbed each of our hands to greet us one by one, offering us chilled green tea and water. As Simon did the introductions—Hajimamashite! Hajimamashite!—Ai Haruna said she actually remembered me from the Miss Tiffany’s Universe pageant in Thailand earlier in the year. Simon, who is a white Australian guy, and talks in the theatrical timbre of a male Liza Minelli impersonator—said, “Well, it’s hard to forget a good-looking face like his!” in Japanese. Everyone laughed. Shut up, Simon, I want to say.
For a singer, Ai Haruna’s voice is almost unplacable. On one hand, it’s super-feminine—ultra-girly, with a habit of sliding into squeals—but there’s a nice gravelly quality too. It isn’t masculine, but sort of hard-to-place, as if you’re talking to a 12-year-old girl who smokes a packet of cigarettes a day, or has spent a lot of time listening to the later albums of Marianne Faithful.
It was late in the evening as we chatted, but Ai Haruna said not to worry; there wasn’t such thing as a set schedule in her life. There’s so much work to do that she didn’t actually remember what’s going on most of the time. There was all sorts of promotional work between Tokyo and Hokkaido, regular TV appearances with TBS, shooting music videos, as well as promoting her recently released CD single ‘Crazy Love’, a song that—like most Japanese pop—is both maddeningly stupid and infuriatingly catchy. For Ai Haruna, the concept of “time off” didn’t exist.
“Recently, one of my appointments got cancelled out of the blue,” she said. “And so, I had this day off. I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ So I flew to Korea, had a sauna, relaxed, had Korean-style barbeque and came back. All of this in less than 24 hours. That’s the first day I’ve had off since the beginning of this year.”
As the only transsexual woman on Japanese TV, Ai Haruna was in demand. But she admitted there was also a weird pressure that came with being one-of-a-kind; a burden of responsibility to ensure sure she was a good role model. It weighed down on her sometimes. “It’s really hard,” she said. “The main reason is, there aren’t that many people on TV like myself who have changed from a man to woman. So it’s difficult. It’s very hard for people in Japan to relate to me and to understand what I’ve been through. Japan’s very behind in this area; Japanese people can’t seem to understand why you’d want to change your sex. So in order to educate people—in a fun way—I do a lot of comedy and talk shows to help Japanese people understand. Most people look at me as a person, instead of being a person who’s been through a sex change.”
We kept chatting—about her recent 24-hour charity marathon; about her parents; about her sex change—but like all celebrity interviews, it was cut off pretty quickly. What I thought would be my golden interview turned out to be like any other interview: short, too-brief and cut-off. I felt deflated. After an hour—which is no time when questions and answers are being translated—Ai Haruna’s assistant told us to wrap up. “But wait!” I wanted to say. “You haven’t provided me with deep and sophisticated answers to the following questions! Like: Considering sex change procedures were illegal in Japan until 2004, how did you get around it? Why is Japanese television so queer, while queerness is almost invisible in Japanese society? Where do you shop? How do you get your hair like that? Tell me, Ai Haruna. TELL ME.”
Ai Haruna apologised for having to leave us, and handed us all a complimentary CD-single copies of ‘Crazy Love’ before posing for photos with us. Then, perhaps sensing my disappointment, she insisted that we’d be her guests at one of the restaurants where she presided as CEO. She made some phone calls and, after a series of giggling bows and hand-clutching, disappeared.
Simon had to go, but Aya and I ran through the freezing Tokyo winds and caught a taxi to Ai Haruna’s restaurant Garden Diner, a cosy nook with its name written out in Helvetica, filled with attractive, glamorous Tokyo kids who cushioned the air with warm cigarette smoke. As the cab drove us there, the old Tokyo Tower came into focus as if we were driving straight into it, the old spire still pumping out signals and images of Ai Haruna and others like her, though it was about to be replaced by something sharp and altogether new. After dinner, we walked out and hailed another cab, with Tokyo Tower’s bleeping lights reflected in the rain-streaked road.