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'Queer Eye: We're in Japan!' Is a Surprisingly Thoughtful Approach to Travelling

VICE talked with executive producer Jennifer Lane to discuss the show's approach to treating cultural exchange with respect.

by Bettina Makalintal
05 November 2019, 4:31pm

Screenshot via Netflix

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

This weekend, Netflix released the special mini-series, Queer Eye: We're in Japan!, which sent the show's beloved Fab Five across the globe to connect cultures and transform lives, per its trailer. It wasn't clear what to expect from the first peek released last month, and skepticism seemed a reasonable response to the Fab Five wearing martial arts uniforms and suddenly speaking Japanese. The show, however, is surprisingly smart and nuanced.

Taking an American show and plopping it into another culture is dicey territory. That's even dicier given Queer Eye's premise of helping people change their lives; there's potential there to flex feelings of cultural superiority by centering outsiders, and there's the risk of deriding local culture through unfamiliar American stars. There was a chance it might seem like ignorant othering, or needless parachuting by clueless foreigners in the vein of Gordon Ramsay's recent travel show. Overall, Queer Eye in Japan could have felt insensitive and even insulting.

But it didn't, really. Over the course of its four episodes, We're in Japan! took a sensitive approach to crossing cultures. By facilitating conversations and letting locals speak, the show treated the people and society that it was visiting with reverence and respect, and it broke from the stereotype of the self-centered American traveler. Instead of always speaking the loudest, When in Japan! proved that the Fab Five also know when to pass the mic, and the mini-season's biggest strength is that it lets locals be the experts.

Aside from its setting, the most obvious change in When in Japan! is the addition of Japanese American model Kiko Mizuhara as a guide. Having grown up in Japan, Mizuhara is there not just to provide recommendations but also to explain Japanese customs and references, like the rebellious yankii clothing style followed by hero Kae in episode three. A local guide is the standard for travel television, but the inclusion of Mizuhara, one of Japan's biggest models, is worth calling out for its smart cultural relevance for Japanese audiences.

Even before Mizuhara was involved, deferring to Japanese expertise started early in the production process, according to Jennifer Lane, Queer Eye's executive producer and showrunner. "I think that one of our best first decisions was in approaching a Japanese production company and making sure that our crew, our producers, were Japanese," Lane told VICE. "If we can say how well we did in Japan, it's because of our Japanese partners." When it came to questions like whether or not it would be okay to bust into someone's home with cameras, the team at Twenty First City "shepherded us every step of the way," she said.

Guided by Mizuhara, the Fab Five actively asks about Japanese norms and practices instead of making assumptions or doing what they might do in the United States. Before meeting Yoko, the hero of episode one, they ask Mizuhara how to approach her. "Some cultural stuff," Tan France asks as they sit down at dinner, "Do we hug her? Do we take our shoes off? What do we need to know?" Including that line is small but important since it acknowledges that what flies for the Fab Five in the rest of Queer Eye might not be the case in Japan.

"It doesn't matter if you're walking into a farmer's house in Kansas City, Kansas or if you're walking into someone's house in Japan, we wanted to make sure that we did things as they dictated," Lane said. "We really weren't interested in bringing our Fab Five to Japan and pretending that by any stretch of the imagination they that they knew anything. It was so important for us to hear them talk to Kiko about the questions they might have about meeting someone and to hear how they were getting some of that information because we certainly didn't want to come in with the idea that our Fab Five knew how to behave."

That sense of respect for Japanese culture extends to language, both in terms of what is spoken and how things are spoken about. One episode includes a hero who sometimes speaks English, but the season's other three heroes speak exclusively on the show in Japanese. The heroes don't seem cherry-picked in favor of only English-speaking American viewers, which makes the show feel accessible both for people who speak English and people who speak Japanese. The conversations are mediated by an essential but invisible interpreter who allows both sides to speak their minds however they're comfortable.

When it comes to discussing social issues with heroes, the Fab Five avoids making sweeping statements about Japan and it focuses instead on the individual experiences of each hero, without trying to generalize those either. "We have no pretense to say, 'These represent all of Japan, and okay, we're done.' No, no, they just happened to be five unique stories and heroes who really appealed to us emotionally," Lane said.

Queer Eye's entire conceit is that the Fab Five is made up of "experts," each needed in order for the hero to better themself. Bobby Berk is the design expert; Karamo Brown is the culture expert; Tan France is the fashion expert; Antoni Porowski is the food and wine expert; and Jonathan Van Ness is the grooming expert. In Japan, however, the show is keenly aware of when to pass that expertise on to someone else. The mini-season feels a little different than the regular Queer Eye, and that's a good thing because the context is different.

That's most apparent in episode two in which the Fab Five comes to the aid of Kan, a young gay man who struggles with fully being himself. Instead of teaching Kan how to cook Japanese food, Antoni brings him to a restaurant where chef Yuji Takahashi guides him through making yakitori; when it comes to discussing the reality of being a gay man in Japan, Karamo defers to Japanese monk and makeup artist Kodo Nishimura instead of dominating the conversation himself. By connecting the show's heroes with people who better understand the society in which they live, the Fab Five deftly facilitates important discussions and provides questions to keep them going, but with a refreshing approach to whose knowledge should be at the center.

"It's like, yeah, you don't come up into anyone's face and pretend that you know how to be better than they are," Lane said. "That's not the point. Right? Our point isn't to change people. Our point is to show people a new way. They have to do the changing."

A more thoughtful approach to a travel show still doesn't mean perfect, though, and there are certainly still things to question here. While Mizuhara guides the Fab Five, her authority has limits; the experiences and opinions she provides are those of just one person, just as Lane pointed out in terms of the mini-season's four heroes. Plus, it remains troubling to exist in a media landscape in which not doing cultural caricatures or perpetuating American exceptionalism is something in need of praise.

But We're in Japan! is an attempt at doing better, understanding what learning still needs to be done, and making the learning process a little more transparent. While we, as viewers in America, learn from its insights into self-love and self-reflection, what we can also glean from it is a model of being more conscious of our position in the world.

Tagged:
fab five
netflix shows
queer eye
2019 tv shows
queer eye: we're in japan