Taiko, Buddhism and Being a Non-Binary Teen

Camaron Miyamoto
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist

Columnist’s note: This last weekend I had the pleasure of leading an educational event LGBTQ+ 101 for the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai‘i organized by the Commission on Buddhist Education and Committee on Social Concerns. In a future article I will go into more detail about my gratitude for the Buddhist community in Hawai‘i to have a conversation about LGBTQ+ issues and how it relates to their teachings and community. Truly, this was a rewarding experience.

Chihiro Okawa, a high school student at Pacific Buddhist Academy and LGBTQ+ member of the panel discussion at the event this last weekend, helped discuss how to ensure all beings may enjoy their lives filled with harmony, peace and gratitude.

The flyer for the LGBTQIA+ 101 discussion, which was held at the Buddhist Study Center. (Photo courtesy of Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii Facebook page)
The flyer for the LGBTQIA+ 101 discussion, which was held at the Buddhist Study Center. (Photo courtesy of Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii Facebook page)

Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where are you from and how do you describe yourself in relation to your different identities?

My name is Chihiro Okawa. My legal name is Chad but the nickname I go by is Chihiro. My pronouns are “they/them.” I am from ‘Aiea and that’s where I got my connection to Hongwanji. I live in walking distance to the Aiea Hongwanji Mission, which I am very involved with. My identity is non-binary so I don’t conform to typical male and female standards or identity. Non-binary goes beyond the idea of just male or female. It’s a feeling that I don’t fit into one category or the other. I like the idea of being somewhere in between the two. For me, I like to go deeper and explore the idea of being gender fluid where my gender identity isn’t fixed at one place always. It lives on a continuum.

Can you tell me more about being non-binary and exploring being gender fluid? What’s it been like learning that you are part of the LGBTQ+ community? How did you first get the idea that yes, I belong here?

It’s been kind of an interesting journey figuring things out. I think for me being from an Asian household, being Japanese and Korean, there’s a stigma about not conforming to gender norms and the binary options of only male and female. In Japan with filial piety and gender roles it’s really strict about certain things that you are supposed to do. Pretty much as a male you have to provide for the family, you have to have a certain job, and you have to fulfill cultural roles. For me, I was seen as a boy and told when I was younger that certain mannerisms are not something a male should do. Because I was seen as feminine, it was difficult. I still remember things that made me shut down but at the same time I knew I could look deeper into things, and I started to wonder “Why is it that I can’t do this? Maybe I actually can!”

As I got older — maybe fourth or fifth grade I learned about the LGBTQ+ community. This is the time when I learned about transgender being more prominent — especially in the time when Bruce Jenner became Caitlyn Jenner. That was a turning point for me to realize, “Oh I can get out of these conformity boxes.” That led to me doing more research about who I am and my gender. At first I started out thinking I am not male, I know that doesn’t feel right. But then I realized I don’t feel right with being female either! For me non-binary is the happy middle ground. I think especially as a Buddhist, we appreciate feelings of balance. Also, in line with Buddhism, as someone who is gender fluid my gender is not permanent and it is always changing.

Chihiro Okawa. (Photo courtesy of Chihiro Okawa)
Chihiro Okawa. (Photo courtesy of Chihiro Okawa)

For me, coming out is an opportunity to invite someone else into a deeper sense of who I am. What does coming out mean to you? 

For me coming out is a way to show people that I trust them. I know that for me and in this society we live in, it is very good to have a strong support system – to have people who will listen to you and who will support you, and who will love you unconditionally. Coming out means I trust you with this knowledge and I trust that you will be able to support me if I face any issues along the way — if I need to rant or process what’s going on, I am comfortable doing that with you.

Please tell me more about your journey of self-acceptance. What has this journey of coming out been like for you and with your friends and family?

The first group I came out to was my friend group. I told them I was non-binary and they pretty much said “ok, cool we will support you — thank you for letting us know!” I think as I slowly let my friends know, I started to share more about who I am as non-binary with my school community at Pacific Buddhist Academy. I asked my teachers to please use the pronouns that are correct for me — not “he/him.” I am non-binary and the pronouns I use are “they/them” pronouns, because “they” is gender neutral. I also asked, can you use my nickname Chihiro for me and not my legal name, Chad, anymore. I am very fortunate to be in the small school setting that I am in. In my private school, Pacific Buddhist Academy, everyone knows each other and we spend so much time together it is almost impossible to not be very close to each other. For someone like me, it was a relatively easy transition and they have been supporting me along this journey. 

In terms of my family, I am adopted and raised by my grandparents, so there is a bit of a generational gap. They were exposed to a lot of stigma around the LGBTQ+ community so at first they were very defensive and asked me are you sure you’re non-binary? Maybe you just need time to explore? But now I see they were just concerned about my safety because of all of these reports of harassment, discrimination and abuse of the LGBTQ+ community. But also, I think this is a thing with the Asian community, too, as we can see with recent attacks and backlash especially on the U.S. continent, with misunderstandings of the COVID-19 pandemic. For me I am both Asian and non-binary, regardless.

One of the things I like about Pacific Buddhist Academy and being on the same campus as the Hawai‘i Betsuin is that I feel the support of the congregation as well in my school. Because we integrate a lot of the teachings of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, we embrace a philosophy that provides a path that helps with perceptions of LGBTQ+ issues and current events, in general. My transition and my discovery in being non-binary has been easier because of teachings of balance, impermanence and change. Everything is precious and beautiful. The Buddha doesn’t care about things like race or gender. Instead all things are interconnected.

Aiea Hongwanji Mission. (Photo courtesy of Aiea Hongwanji Mission Facebook page)
Aiea Hongwanji Mission. (Photo courtesy of Aiea Hongwanji Mission Facebook page)

What things in your high school experience have really given you a stronger sense of who you are? Are there any student clubs that have been important for you?

Two student clubs have helped me a lot, one for my understanding of advocacy and the other with the arts. 

For advocacy I am part of The Buddhist Club — it is a group of students who have a way of giving back to the Hongwanji Temples. For example, we visit the temples on various islands and this year we went to the Big Island of Hawai‘i. We gave talks and had conversations at various temples and for me it has shown how open our religion is. It is our way to show the interconnectedness of our community, or sangha. I think Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, everyone is very open and welcoming and that has helped me with sharing my non-binary identity. 

I think the other club is taiko drumming. I am a taiko drummer at my school and I am happy to be involved because I think in the past 50 to 60 years taiko has evolved in the United States. I think historically in Japan taiko is seen as a male art form. At minimum, taiko groups are segregated by male and female roles with an emphasis on the men with strong movements and big drums. More recently in the United States, the groups haven’t been caring about gender. A lot of times we have males and females playing together. With this new identity we were able to create different styles and incorporate different movements. 

Artistically in a sense it has helped me come to a deeper realization of being non-binary. The tradition is to be very strong and to hit the drum really loud and making big movements. But also, taiko can be very graceful. You can bring in softer movements and be more dynamic. A combination of all of that adds to my style of drumming as a non-binary performer. One of the things that is exciting for me is to know that today in the United States there are taiko drum facilitators that are non-binary too. One major facilitator is Yeeman “ManMan” Mui. They are advocating for new forms as they play taiko in various projects. They were originally with the Taiko Center of the Pacific with Kenny Endo.

What are some things your temple or sangha has done to support you as non-binary or a member of LGBTQ+ community?

One of our statewide youth organizations, the Junior Young Buddhist Association, works on community projects and builds a deeper understanding of our religion. For me, coming out as non-binary in this organization has been accepted — people just asked me what can we do to support you? One thing that I am proud of being part of as part of the Junior Young Buddhist Association is a change we made for gender inclusion. When I became vice president of the Junior Young Buddhist Association we started talking about gender inclusion and our organization. I remembered that when I registered for the organization the form had only “male” and “female ” on the registration form and it made me feel uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure what to check because neither box represented who I am. We worked together and came up with a more open solution to allow for people to write in their gender on the registration forms with a fill in the blank option instead. We decided to have the check boxes removed.

The Buddhist Study Center, where the LGBTQIA+ discussion with Camaron Miyamoto and Chihiro Okawa took place on Saturday, April 22. (Photo courtesy of the Buddhist Study Center Facebook page)
The Buddhist Study Center, where the LGBTQIA+ discussion with Camaron Miyamoto and Chihiro Okawa took place on Saturday, April 22. (Photo courtesy of the Buddhist Study Center Facebook page)

It has been inspirational getting to know you as we worked on the panel for the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai‘i. What would you like to share with any young LGBTQ+ people who might be reading this article?

I understand isolation and not feeling accepted. But know that there is always someone who you can talk to. There are so many organizations that are there for you. For example, The Trevor Project thetrevorproject.org 1-866-488-7386 is a very important helpline and resource for all of us. It is a helpline for LGBTQ+ young people. 

Know that you are not alone. If you are fighting, always dare greatly. Always continue to explore yourself. Even though our world might try to make us conform, you can always do your research and live differently!

Camaron Miyamoto is the director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Queer+ Center and tenured faculty in the Division of Student Success at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. As a Yonsei, Mexican and Filipino American, Mr. Miyamoto has served on the boards of the Hawai‘i LGBT Legacy Foundation and the Japanese American Citizens League, Honolulu Chapter, where he advocated for marriage equality in Hawai‘i. Mr. Miyamoto continues to learn from his students at UH Mänoa and is fueled by the belief that by being grounded in our culture and community we will create a better future through compassion, education and a steadfast commitment to social justice. The Hawai‘i Herald is a cornerstone of that future.


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