Last edited: December 05, 2004

‘Selectively Out:’ Being a Gay Foreign National in Japan

Daily Yomiuri, March 24, 2001
Tokyo, Japan
Fax: 03-3279-6324

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 he’d 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 now."

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 aren’t 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 you’re ‘out’ or you’re in the closet — but it’s 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 he’s the president of his company, he doesn’t 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, "Let’s say it’s an ‘open secret.’ I mean, they know that when my boyfriend calls, he gets put right through. They know, basically."

Legal situation

There aren’t 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 Japan.

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 didn’t 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 who’s single should be living on his own two feet — in other words, alone. There’s no concept of two men living together. They might think, for instance, that neither of them had any money. Naturally, they wouldn’t 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 am."

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, it’s easier to be gay in Japan than in the United States. "In America," he says, "we’re always seeking ‘the real me’ or ‘my real feelings.’ Everything here, on the other hand, is situational."

In Japan, in other words, it’s 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 aren’t interested in your real self, it’s a relief."

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