As many of my readers know, I am maintaining two blogs: this one about personal interests (ranging oddly from flowers to pottery to male hair and female geeks), and another about a public policy research project sponsored by a prominent foundation and corporation. I have purposely not linked the two blogs, so as to provide more freedom for me to write candidly about my thoughts and interests in this blog.
Prior to moving to Tokyo, I have always been out. Youthful activism and a hostile academic environment shaped my professional career in unexpected ways. It is ironic that the elite academic department that blacklisted me is one that claims a dedication to cultural relativism and openness. I have no regrets, and have been able to reclaim and re-purpose my academic training into a career first in industry and now in public policy.
Creating a new life in Tokyo presents new challenges to a queer identity. With no threat of anti-gay violence in Japan, the flip side is a complete expectation of heterosexuality. And, for the first time, perhaps because of middle age, a new environment, a desire to “be harmonious,” and the sheer quantity of new people I meet every week, I feel an unfamiliar hesitation to challenge conceptions when I am asking new contacts for help and orientation.
This has led to some awkward situations for me. Since so many expats in Japan are only here for several years, at first I told business associates when I met them that I have a Japanese “spouse.” Legally untrue, except in common-law fashion. Still, I thought it would correctly project a permanence and rootedness. But after hearing so many questions about my (non-existent) wife, I have started to tell people that a (famous) university friend has offered me a place to stay here. From hetero husband to roommate, I am not sure which story is more unsettling and false.
I have been more direct with younger Japanese and expat business associates about having a male husband. Yet even then, I realize that our frame of references are so different. Like when I was talking to another expat recipient of the prestigious fellowship about my favorite expat-in-Japan author Donald Richie. What amazes me is his 60+ years in Tokyo, and his mix of movie star and celebrity high culture life with his decades of meeting working-class trade in parks and bathrooms. Said foundation recipient repeated that sentence back with complete incomprehension about “trade” and “how one meets people in public parks.” (For those interested, I highly recommend his early 1980s book Geisha, Gangster, Neighbor, Nun: Scenes from Japanese Lives and more recent Japan Journals: 1947-2004).
At other times, I laugh off the awkwardness. It helps that my in-laws are so open. Recently, a fortune-teller was visiting the ceramic studio, providing readings for one of the senseis and several students. He was youngish (early 30s) and possibly gay. Afterward, we were all chatting around the pottery studio when he asked who I was. My mother-in-law matter of factly said I am her son’s partner. The fortune teller was so uncomprehending that he asked her to repeat herself while his jaw kept dropping closer and closer to the floor. Apparently, even Japanese gay people are uncomfortable with spoken deviation from public heterosexuality.
My new professional interests are clearly related to my personal interests: including a love of gardening, an admiration of older ladies, and the liberating possibilities of public space for desire and the imagination. This blog in fact helped me formulate the proposal that led to the fellowship and the start of my third career. Even if I choose not to address sexuality directly in that other blog, I am certain that there will be ways to embed queer undertones in my professional research and writing.
Have any of my readers experienced shifts in public identity through age, relocation, or professional changes? Is there a balance between feeling comfortable with oneself, not unsettling new acquaintances, and living across the queer-straight divide? This is a topic that I am still trying to sort out for myself.