Though 2020 is destined to go down in history as the year of the global pandemic, it was also a time when movements for social equality gained traction. Transgender architect Sari Kaede, who stars in You decide. (Musuko no mama de joshi ni naru), a documentary that charts her gender journey from biological male to female, says: “I think it was the year that people in mainstream society woke up to minority issues. People had to stay home, and many felt afraid or disconnected. For the first time, many got a taste of what a minority person goes through.”
In You decide., Kaede is seen speaking in English at length.
“We knew we wanted to take the film overseas and get our message out there. English is a tool for transgenders in Japan to connect with the overseas community.”
As a child, Kaede had been on excellent terms with the English language.
“I had been going to ECC since the age of 3,” she says. “I kept attending classes until the third grade. It was a lot of fun, and I was able to speak pretty fluently.”
But when she started studying English in middle school, her relationship with the language changed.
“It wasn’t fun anymore,” she says, laughing. “My classmates would make fun of my non-katakana English pronunciation and the teacher seemed miffed that I could speak so well.”
So Kaede altered her pronunciation and made mistakes in her exams on purpose, in order to fit in.
It wasn’t until university that Kaede felt safe enough to enjoy speaking English again.
“The language came back to me, little by little, and then I became confident about using it again.” She enjoyed traveling across Europe and Southeast Asia, and went on to study in an architectural school in England for six months.
Now, Kaede works as an architectural designer and consultant at Nikken and her English abilities have had an enormously positive impact on her job.
“The language opens up your potential and the possibilities of the world,” says Kaede. “I love it when I’m speaking to our overseas clients online and I can use the right words to describe a point. It’s a real joy to be able to add nuance and complexity to my sentences. For example, recently I learned the word ‘revitalize,’ to use in context with community building. And in architectural school in England, I came across the word ‘patina,’ which refers to oxidation but is used to describe positive aging. These are truly inspiring encounters for me, and I feel glad that English is a part of my life.”
Kaede knew from an early age that she was transgender but discussion of it never cropped up at the family table.
“Growing up, I never really discussed gender issues with my parents,” says Kaede. “We all knew it was there, but they weren’t willing to tackle the subject. I hadn’t been to my parents’ house for a while and one day, I showed up with a film crew to have a conversation with my father.”
In the documentary, Kaede admits to feelings of guilt about not being the son who would win her father’s approval. Still, she takes it all in stride.
“As a transgender woman, I’m used to crossing boundaries and communicating with people from all walks of life. And I can always see the other side of the argument, including my father’s. This skill is invaluable, both as a human being living in the modern world, and in the world of architecture.”
At the same time, Kaede says she wants to reach out to people struggling with their own gender issues.
“When people go through various stages in their lives, some of them start questioning their identities. I want to be able to help these people find themselves, and tell them that they don’t need to feel isolated. There’s a large community out there to discover and connect with. And now that remote working has become common, we have a lot of time to start forging ties and sharing experiences online before going out in the physical world again.” (Kaori Shoji)
Words to live by
サリー楓 （さりー かえで）