Thursday, July 23, 2015

15 years ago today.

Fifteen years today, on July 23, 2000, I moved to rural Japan to teach English on the JET program on a one year contract.  After renewing the contract (twice!) and staying in that position for three years, I then spent two years in the UK while I attended graduate school (2003-2005).  Moving back to Japan after I graduated, this time I settled in Tokyo, and the rest is, as they say, history...

I thank you all so very much for your support over these many years and ask for your continued support over the years to come.

My first car in Japan.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Coming out again. At 40. 齢40、いま再びカミングアウト。

This article was first published in English in the magazine "5": Designing Media Ecology (3rd issue, summer 2015) on June 12, 2015 (INFO).  It appears here with permission and minor corrections.  The Japanese, translated by Takako Matsui, is being published here for the first time. My gratitude to Sarah Lushia for her editing and advice, as well as the editors of "5" for the opportunity to write this article.

本記事は、雑誌『5: Designing Media Ecology』3号(『5』編集室、2015年6月発行ここ)に掲載された英語原稿(一部誤りを改訂)と、その日本語訳です(翻訳・松井貴子)。日本語訳はこれが初出となります。


My decision to move to Japan at the age of 23, two months after graduating from university, was motivated less by a yearning to live abroad than it was by a desire to leave the place in which I had been born. Growing up mostly in upstate New York and having had no other experiences with which to compare my life, it was not until I left my hometown that I was able to verbalize that I had always felt a sense of not belonging to the only place I had ever really known. Like an actor returning to real life once the filming is over, I somehow never felt that I was fully participating in my own life or that what was happening around me was real. Perhaps this was my way of coping with being bullied for not being masculine enough or for choosing choir and performing arts over sports.


Drawn to our school’s foreign exchange students and the children of soldiers stationed at the local army base who had returned from living overseas, I somehow felt connected to them even though I had never lived anywhere but the US. And I realize now that it was this feeling of being a foreigner in my own hometown that motivated me to leave and move halfway around the world.


Although I was not fully conscious of it at the time, moving to Japan would give me an opportunity to reinvent myself and enable me to shed the shared history I had with those who grew up alongside me and with those who had taught and raised me. Given a clean slate, suddenly the only things that people would know about me were those that I chose to share with them.


One of the things I decided not to share with people when I moved to Japan was my sexual orientation. At 17, I had come out as gay to my mother in the summer before my senior year of high school. We were on a road trip, and I was sitting in the passenger seat nervously thinking about how I was going to tell my mom I was gay when she asked if I wanted to take over driving. As soon as I was behind the wheel of the car driving down the highway at 60 miles per hour, I suddenly found the words to tell my mom I was gay. And the courage to speak them had come from being in the driver’s seat and in control of the car.


with my mom
 My mom’s reaction? “Yes, I know. I knew when you were two.” I also had known since I was very small. Although I had never wanted to be the princess in storybooks, I identified with her, with her desire to be free from the role into which she had been born, the bullying by an evil entity, the loneliness. And I, too, wanted to live happily ever after with a prince with whom I shared a love so strong it could overcome caste systems, the opposition of parents, and the expectations of society.

 母親の反応? こうだ――「知ってるよ。お前が2歳のときからね」。たしかに、僕自身もとても幼いころに気づいていた。絵本の中のお姫様になりたいわけではなかったが、僕は彼女の姿に自分を重ね、邪悪な勢力に虐げられる彼女の孤独な運命を思った。宮中の政治や親の反対、世間の期待をもはねのける真実の愛を王子様と分かち合い、ずっと幸せに暮らしたい、とも。

Just like in the storybooks, I even had a magical guardian to help guide me. Growing up I knew that my godfather, Brian, was gay, and after I came out he become a trusted confidant. Brian was more an older brother than father figure, and during a pilgrimage to the gay Mecca of Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he took me the summer I graduated from high school, he shared with me stories about his own experience of coming out. How fortuitous it was that my parents had chosen for me a “fairy Godfather”!


with my Godfather Brian
It was not until I entered college that I first met gay people my own age who were “out and proud.”. Quickly gravitating toward them, I began to embrace my own sexuality as part of who I was and became the co-founder and co-president of the Lesbian and Gay Alliance on campus. Helping to arrange club activities and events raising awareness about issues that affected LGBT students, being gay began to define who I was. This was the first time in my life that I had felt such a purpose, and no matter what I did, whether it was serving on the student council or editing the student newspaper, I did it as a gay person and I made sure that everyone knew it.

 大学に入ると、僕は初めて「隠さず、誇り高き(out and proud)」同世代のゲイピープルに出会った。たちまち彼らに引き寄せられた僕は、やがて僕という人間の一部として自分のセクシュアリティを受け容れ、学内のゲイ&レズビアン団体の副代表になった。LGBTの学生に関わる事柄への関心を喚起するための活動やイベントに携わるなかで、ゲイであることは僕自身を定義するものとなっていった。生まれて初めて、僕は目的を見つけた ――自治会の活動であれ学生新聞の編集であれ、僕は何をするにもゲイとして活動し、ゲイであることを皆に知ってもらうべく行動した。

When people would ask me personal questions about being gay, I took it as a sign of interest and gladly answered even the most inappropriate queries. But after years of hearing the same probing questions, mostly about my sex life, I began to tire of being seen through the same stereotypes. Simply because someone is gay does not mean they are experts in fashion, hairstyling or oral sex. And when friends started using my sexuality when introducing me (“This is Ian. He’s gay.”), I realized that I was being reduced to just one thing — being gay — and it upset me, because while being gay was a part of who I was, it was not all of me.


When I moved to Japan and made a conscious decision not to tell people I was gay, I did not see this as hiding who I was or going back into the closet. Rather, it was keeping private something that I saw as nobody’s business but my own. I embraced the high level of privacy granted to people in Japan and reveled in the lack of personal questions asked here, especially in the work place. Personal information such as whether one was dating or living with someone was never discussed, and spouses were never invited to attend work functions.


For the first time, I realized that knowing personal information about someone can actually be a kind of burden. In the west, you are expected to ask about someone’s personal life—“How’s the wife and kids?” or “How’s your girlfriend?”—but in Japan, I was relieved of the responsibility of keeping track of the kinds of personal details about someone that I had never even wanted to know, and spared of having to reveal such information about myself.

With conversations in the work lunchroom limited to innocuous topics such as the weather, my food likes and dislikes, and whether or not I could use chopsticks, I was never concerned if my sexuality would become office gossip or if I would be cornered by someone who just had to know “how guys do it.”.


This is not to say that no one ever suspected I was gay. I am sure that some people did. But the beautiful thing is that even if someone thought I might be gay, no one ever asked. And I liked it that way.


When I entered into a serious relationship, the only people who knew about it were those I chose to tell. How refreshing that I could be seen walking around town with someone and that people would simply assume that we were friends. This was quite unlike the small town I grew up in, where being seen with someone was apt to start rumors of romance.


Shortly after I had come out, my father warned me against telling people I was gay before I was “really sure”, because, he said, “once you come out as gay, you can never take it back.”. At the time, I remember being insulted at my father’s insinuation that my being gay may just be a phase, but now years later in Japan, I understood what he had meant. Suddenly I was free to explore who I was without the fear that I would become a caricature of myself based on the way other people saw me.


with my dad

For the last eighteen months, I have been quietly working on a documentary called MSM: Men Who Have Sex With Men, which is about, among other things, male sex workers who, despite having sex with other men, do not identify themselves as being gay, and, how this can impact HIV/AIDS outreach. Although this film is extremely important to me, I must admit that I had been unable to allow myself to speak about it openly because I was afraid that doing so would somehow out me.

 実は18カ月前から、僕はあるドキュメンタリー作品の制作に取り組んでいる。タイトルは、 "MSM: Men Who Have Sex With Men"。自分はゲイではないとしながらも男を相手にセックスをする男性セックスワーカーと、HIV/AIDSアウトリーチプログラムへの影響を描いた(それだけじゃないが)作品だ。しかし白状すると、これは僕にとってきわめて大切な作品であるにもかかわらず、僕は"MSM"のことを人前で話すことができずにいた。話せば自分のセクシュアリティがばれてしまうのではと怖かったからだ。

Photo credit: ©Uchujin Adrian Storey 2013
Here I was working on a film that dealt with issues of discrimination and equal rights, and I, as a gay man, was afraid to talk about it, despite the fact that these were some of the very issues I had tried to address as an openly gay student activist. When I realized that my filmmaking partner, Adrian, a straight married man, had been talking about our film with his friends openly for months, I suddenly realized that my silence had been contributing to the kind of intolerance and alienation upon which we were trying to shed a light. And it made me feel like a hypocrite for potentially exposing our subjects to discrimination while I myself was unwilling to assume the same risk.


What had honestly started out as a reclaiming of my privacy by moving abroad had slowly, insidiously become a willful turning away from who I really am. It was in Japan that I had became a shakaijin, or full-fledged member of society, accepting my first fulltime working position, enrolling in my own health insurance plan separate from my parents, and leasing a car for the first time. But recently I realized that I will be 40 this year and have lived my entire adult, shakaijin life in Japan in the closet.


After sharing with a fellow producer and friend that I had decided to come out in Japan as a result of my experiences while working on this film, she told me that she, as an out lesbian, would never have been able to work on a film like this with a gay director who was not out. She said that the fear that she would have inadvertently “outed me” would have created such a level of stress and paranoia that she would not have been able to work effectively on the film. It was then that I knew coming out was the right decision. And I felt an immense relief.

 僕は、プロデューサーであり友人である女性に、"MSM: Men Who Have Sex With Men"をつくるなかで日本でカミングアウトしようと決断したことを告げた。彼女は、カミングアウトしているレズビアンとして、公表していないゲイの監督と"MSM"のような作品を一緒につくることはできないと思っていたと話した。僕のセクシュアリティをうっかり「暴露」したらどうしようというストレスに苦しみ、彼女はこんな状況でいい仕事なんてできるはずがないと悩んでいたという。その言葉を聞いて、僕はカミングアウトが正しい選択であることを確信した。そして大きな安堵を覚えた。

For me, moving to Japan had not been about escaping from being identified as gay, it was about escaping from the kind of small town simple-mindedness around which I had grown up. Yet while I could take the boy out of the small town, I could not take the small town out of the boy, and now I find myself trying to escape again; this time from myself and from my own small-mindedness which has prevented me from being honest about who I am.


So, to all of my friends, colleagues, and supporters in Japan who did not know I am gay, I would like to tell you that, well, I am gay. And for those of you who already knew, like my mom, I would like to thank you for respecting my privacy and for allowing me to tell you when I was ready.


Being gay is not the only thing I want you to know about me, but it is a part of who I am, a part that I am no longer going to hide.


Born in New York, filmmaker Ian Thomas Ash is the director of the Japanese feature documentaries ‘In the Grey Zone’ (2012), ‘A2-B-C’ (2013) and ‘-1287’ (2014).  He is currently in post-production for ‘MSM’, about male sex workers in Tokyo, and in production for his third feature documentary about children living in Fukushima.  Both films are scheduled for release in 2016.  More information about his documentaries can be found on his website:

Monday, June 08, 2015


Fresh from the amazing experience of screening in Frankfurt's Nippon Connection and the honour of receiving the audience award for my film '-1287' (STORY), I am in Munich where several of my films are screening all this week at the Werkstattkino cinema.
with friend, film critic, writer and Werkstattkino co-owner, Dolly Kuhn
A gorgeous underground (literally!) cinema that shows awesome films old and new, it is an honour to be screening my films during their Artist in the Focus series.  Screenings will be nightly from Monday to Saturday of this week (SCHEDULE) and will include my films 'In the Grey Zone' (2012, WEBSITE), 'A2-B-C' (2013, WEBSITE), '-1287, (2014, WEBSITE) and a program of my short films, including 'Even the Birds Need to be Loved' (INFO).

Connecting with the Audience

I am so honoured to have been able to share my most recent film, '-1287' (WEBSITE) at the 2015 Nippon Connection Film Festival in Germany this week (INFO).  This festival is close to my heart; after receiving the Nippon Visions Award here in 2013 for my film 'A2-B-C' (STORY), not only did the life of the film, but my life changed, and in ways for which I will be forever grateful.

This year, I was absolutely floored to receive the Nippon Vision Audience Award for the Best Feature Film.  While receiving awards from a jury of one's peers is an immense honour, to receive an award from the voting cinema-goers is absolutely humbling, and I am truly grateful.

「ニッポン・ヴィジョンズ観客賞 2015『-1287』 イアン・トーマス・アッシュ監督」

Its been an amazing experience to attend the 2015 Nippon Connection this week, and  am so thrilled I could share it with my dad.  Here are some of the highlights:

arriving at the festival

with Domo-kun
Group photo

celebrating at the closing party

What exactly this award will mean for '-1287', only time will tell.  This film has not yet been screened in Japan, and more than one Japanese guest in attendance went out of their way to tell me how difficult they thought it would be to screen it back home.  It would seem that both my films and me are always on the edge.  My gratitude to all of you for being my parachute through your continued support and encouragement.

Much Peace and Gratitude,
Frankfurt, Germany

Tuesday, June 02, 2015


Since returning from screenings in Taiwan 2 weeks ago (INFO), I have been chained to a computer within the depths of the edit suite (thus my relative silence on social media).  I have just handed over the edit to my filmmaking partner Adrian (a.k.a. Uchujin), and we are really excited to be able to share with you more about the film, called MSM, over the next couple of months.

In the meantime, I find myself writing this on the way to the airport.  This time I am on my way to Germany where the German premier of my film '-1287' will take place in the 15th annual Nippon Connection Film Festival in Frankfurt (INFO).  It is an honour to again be invited to screen at Nippon Connection, where the World Premier of my film 'A2-B-C' took place two years ago (INFO).  

'-1287' (WEBSITE) will be screening on the final day of the festival, on Sunday, June 7, 14:45 in the Naxoshalle Kino (INFO).

Following the Nippon Connection film festival, I will be traveling to Munich, where my films 'In the Grey Zone" (2012), 'A2-B-C' (2013), '-1287' (2014) and several of my short films will be screening in the "New Asian Cinema" program of the Werkstatt Kino 2015 (INFO).
  • June 8: ‘In the Grey Zone’ (2012) and program of Ian’s short docs
  • June 9: program of Ian’s short docs and ‘-1287′ (2014)
  • June 10: ‘-1287′ (2014) and ‘A2-B-C’ (2013)
  • June 11: ‘A2-B-C’ (2013)
  • June 12: A2-B-C’ (2013)
  • June 13: A2-B-C’ (2013) 
Thank you all so very much for your continued encouragement and support of my work.

Much Peace and Gratitude,
Tokyo, Japan

    Thursday, May 14, 2015

    Radiation, secrets and lives

    It has been a busy week.  On Monday, I returned from screening '-1287' in Taiwan (STORY).  Tuesday I had the press conference about the cancellation of screenings of 'A2-B-C' (STORY).  Yesterday, I received confirmation that a piece I had been working on for the Japan Times was going to be published in the online edition last night and in the print edition this morning, so there was lots of final checking of the story and polishing up of the accompanying video.

    The assignment was to conduct a taidan, or conversation, with documentary filmmaker Kamanaka Hitomi.  The edited transcript was printed in the newspaper, and I edited a longer video which was published on my channel in conjunction with the article.

    I first saw it online late last night, but when I saw it print for the first time this morning, I was surprised to realize that it was a full page!

    I am extremely grateful for this opportunity and the challenge to try something new.  I am especially thankful for the support of my colleague Dreux Richard (who recommended me for this job and who edited the transcript),  Ben Stubbins (my editor at the Japan Times), Daisuke Sanada & Sophia Swanson (for the subtitles), and Adrian Uchujin Storey (for the sound mix).

    The full article can be read online HERE and the video is below:

    And the week is not over yet.  Today I started cutting a brand new documentary.  More on that soon...

    Tuesday, May 12, 2015

    Violent far-left extremists in Fukushima? 中核派と福島

    Today, the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan (FCCJ) hosted a screening of my film 'A2-B-C', which documents the health of children living in contaminated areas of Fukushima after the nuclear meltdown on March 11, 2011. The screening was followed by a press conference focused on the cancellations of the screenings of the film in Japan (INFO).

    Before the press conference began, I struggled with how I was going to explain something which I am still finding difficult to understand. I also see the issue of the cancellations of 'A2-B-C' as a symptom of a much larger problem affecting press freedom in Japan, and I was hoping that the screening and press conference could also be an opportunity to speak about this much larger issue.

    At this afternoon's press conference I was relieved to be able to announce that during a meeting this morning the Japan domestic screening rights to 'A2-B-C' were returned to me. I will now work toward re-establishing a process for organizing private screenings of the film. A DVD/ internet release of the film is not currently planned for the reasons outlined HERE.

    I would like to express my gratitude to the A2-B-C Screening Committee for their hard work to establish distribution of 'A2-B-C' in Japan. Through their effort, a theatrical release of the film, as well as dozens of private screenings, was made possible. While I find it unfortunate that it was decided that they could no longer be involved with the distribution of the film, I wish them the very best as we all move forward.
    Today's press conference
    The attendees at today's press conference were there not only to see 'A2-B-C' but also to hear why the screenings of 'A2-B-C' had been cancelled.

    The A2-B-C Screening Committee cancelled all domestic screenings of the film after learning that one of the mothers in 'A2-B-C' was rumoured to be a member of Chukaku-ha, a communist political group whose tactics in the past have included violent confrontations with the authorities. The medical clinic that appears in the film, where children are seen receiving thyroid examinations, was also said to be tied to this group.

    It should be noted that in Japan the two main accusations that are hurled at someone to discredit them are that they are either ethnically Korean or communist; accusing someone who is speaking out of being Korean or a communist is a rhetoric often employed in Japan when no other logical argument can be found.

    Leading up to the cancellations of 'A2-B-C', I had received an e-mail alerting me to an article that had been published in the Fukushima Minyu accusing a medical clinic in Fukushima (the one in my film) of having ties to Chukaku-ha.

    It was also brought to my attention that Chukaku-ha was using a political group called Nazen to organize private screenings of 'A2-B-C' in an apparent effort to raise money for their activities. Although the A2-B-C Screening Committee had been aware of these screenings, they were unaware of Nazen's ties to Chukaku-ha:


    I felt that whether or not a member of Chukaku-ha appears in 'A2-B-C' should be openly discussed, as should why this group may have established in Fukushima a medical clinic offering independent testing of children for radiation-related health issues. I also wanted to know if it was true that this group was attempting to use my film for political gain and felt this was something that should be investigated further and warranted a statement addressing the issue.

    Wanting to distance myself from any political group that may try to use my film for gain while also making it clear that at no point during the making of 'A2-B-C' did I receive support from any political organization, I wrote a disclaimer that was posted to the film's website (HERE):

    Unfortunately, this was not enough to dissuade the A2-B-C Screening Committee from cancelling all screenings of the film in Japan. Shortly after taking this action in March, the committee dissolved.

    What is Chukaku-ha? 中核派とは?

    Having not even heard of this group before, I asked several people what Chukaku-ha is. Almost no one I spoke to could tell me anything of any substance about Chukaku-ha, and most people only said vague things like "I heard they are scary" or "I heard they did something bad in the past".

    During my attempt to understand what Chukaku-Ha is, I was told that it had been designated as a terrorist organization by the US State Department and was sent THIS link which briefly describes the group's establishment in 1957 but with no activities listed beyond 1993. I was also sent a link to THIS Wikipedia article, which lists no activities beyond 1991. Despite not being able to find any information about current Chukaku-ha activities, a link to a recent Japanese government document listing domestic terrorist groups included Chukaku-ha.

    p.62 中核派は,新運動体を結成し,大衆運動強化と各層の取り込みを企図

    A list of groups "under watch" appeared in the same document. These groups are:
    • groups suing to stop the Futenma base construction
    • groups who are anti-nuclear
    • groups concerned with the Comfort Women issue
    • any group considered to be against the Abe administration
    Suddenly, any group identified as anti-nuclear was now a target for government surveillance.  In light of this, the decision of the A2-B-C Screening Committee to engage in what I see as an act of self-censorship began to make sense.

    Today's press conference
    During the Q&A following the press conference, I was asked if I had confirmed whether the mother in my film was, in fact, a member of Chukaku-ha. I had. At the urging of one of my colleagues, I contacted the mother in question shortly after the cancellations and asked her to meet. Before I could ask her about the rumours, she asked me why the screenings of 'A2-B-C' were cancelled.

    I asked her why she thought they had been cancelled, but she replied that she wanted to her it from me. "Because," I told her, "people are saying you are a member of Chukaku-ha."

    "Oh, that's what I thought," she said. I asked her if it was true, if she really was a member of Chukaku-ha. "Yes," she admitted. "I am."

    Another person during the Q&A asked why the political leanings of one of the mothers in the film even mattered. After all, he suggested, it would be impossible to make a non-political film even if it was about Mickey Mouse.

    I could not agree more. Anyone who can look at a scene of a child receiving a thyroid examination following a nuclear meltdown and still attempt to turn the focus onto the political views of that child’s mother is completely missing the point of the film.

    The full video from today's press conference will be available tomorrow on the FCCJ channel (HERE).

    Full video of press conference added May 13, 2015:

    Monday, May 11, 2015

    What money can't buy

    Another post from the airport after another amazing time in Taiwan.  I am so grateful for this opportunity to visit Taiwan and to share my work.  My films may not make me lot of money, but they make me extremely grateful, honoured and provide me with a sense of purpose.  And those are things on which it is impossible to put a price.

    I am now on the way back home to Japan, back to my real life, and the real issues I am facing.

    Thank you all so very much for your continued support and encouragement.

    Much Peace,

    PS  A few highlights of my last day in Hualien:

    Top right: "Caution: Culture".  Bottom Right: "Creativity Ahead".
    My first time on a moped!

    Black tapioca pearls as big as eyeballs, served with shaved ice and sweet tofu.  Delicious!
    I can not get enough Stinky Tofu.  LOVE it!!!
    Drinks together with the TIDF staff after the last screening.