Selectively Out: Being a Gay Foreign National in Japan
March 24, 2001
By Elizabeth Floyd Ogata, Special to The Daily Yomiuri
Steve Dodd, 44, a lecturer in Japanese literature at London University,
comes to Tokyo for a few months each year to do research. He became interested
in Japan during a two-year job teaching English in a small town in Mie
Prefecture more than 20 years ago. That first stay in Japan was certainly
life-changing not only because it led to a career, but because it
convinced him he needed, for his own sake, to lead an open gay life.
"I had no idea really what the attitude toward homosexuality was in
Japan, in the small town where I was teaching kids. I felt this terrible fear
of being exposed," he said.
Perhaps it was because he was still only about 20, he says. "But they
were all saying, Do you have a girlfriend yet? Or they were promising to
take me to a prostitute or something. I can remember always living in fear
that I would be dragged along to a brothel."
It was not until 1990 that his work brought him back for a second visit to
Japan. This was after hed spent almost a decade living a very open gay life
in London and New York.
He has resolved to be equally forthright in Japan this time around, with
the academics and others he meets, and so far, he says he has not had any
problems. He says simply, "I am much more in control of my destiny
Assuming that everybody is straight in Japan, as anywhere else, the onus is
on gays to tell people that they are "different," with all the
stigma that can entail, particularly in a country that likes to claim that
everybody is the same. No wonder then that some prefer to keep quiet, even if
that means hiding what they really are.
There arent many people in Japanese public life whether actors,
athletes or politicians who have publicly announced that they are gay,
except for cross-dressers and the occasional activist.
"People tend to think of being out as an either/or thing
either youre out or youre in the closet but its not that
simple," says George Mirren (not his real name), 37, president of the
Japanese subsidiary of a multinational corporation. Originally from a small
town in Arkansas, he has been living in Tokyo for 15 years. He speaks fluent
Japanese, and has a steady Japanese partner. "There are varying degrees
of outness. No one is completely out all the time."
Since hes the president of his company, he doesnt need to be
concerned about being fired for his orientation, but he considers the topic
personal and does not try to let people know. When asked if his staff of 10
know, he says, "Lets say its an open secret. I mean, they
know that when my boyfriend calls, he gets put right through. They know,
There arent any sodomy laws in Japan. Homosexual
activity is not a crime as it is, for instance, in some states in the United
States. Some people say this proves there is no discrimination against gays in
The lack of any legal sanctions or legal
protections is just another aspect of invisibility of gay people in Japan,
like the lack of respected role models.
But although there may be less overt discrimination, social factors
especially the overwhelming emphasis on the so-called "traditional
family" can make life difficult for gays.
Matthew Phillips (not his real name), a tenured economics professor, says
he was turned away by numerous real estate agents when he went with his
Japanese partner to look for an apartment. "It took us four months
looking every weekend, and we finally found one. But the landlord put an extra
condition on our contract that he will automatically take one month
deposit at the end, no matter what." Phillips accepted that condition
because he felt he didnt have a choice.
Kazuya Kawaguchi of OCCUR (Japan Association for the Lesbian and Gay
Movement) in Tokyo, says that a lot of people would be not shocked, but
puzzled, by the idea of two men living together. He says, "In Japan,
people think that any full-fledged adult male whos single should be living
on his own two feet in other words, alone. Theres no concept of two men
living together. They might think, for instance, that neither of them had any
money. Naturally, they wouldnt want to rent to them."
Kawaguchi says that there has recently been some discussion in the media of
adding gay rights to the human rights guidelines periodically issued by the
government. However, he goes on to say that, ironically, if this does occur,
he would expect more incidents of discrimination, since this would finally be
official acknowledgment of the fact that some people in Japan are gay.
Taking on a different self
Phillips is "selectively out"; he has told very few people at his
university. He resents not only having to keep so much of his private life
hidden, but also not having the same legal benefits with his partner that a
married couple has, including health insurance or inheritance rights. He says,
"I find it a terrible use of energy to have to keep hiding who I really
Mirren is also selectively out, but is not bothered by having much of his
life be unknown to others. Mirren believes that in many ways, its easier to
be gay in Japan than in the United States. "In America," he says,
"were always seeking the real me or my real feelings.
Everything here, on the other hand, is situational."
In Japan, in other words, its considered natural to put on a different
face for different situations, and for each one to represent part of the
truth. "In America," Mirren suggests, "gay men spend a lot of
time hiding their real self. So when you come to a culture where people arent
interested in your real self, its a relief."
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