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, 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.


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 ‘Boys For Sale", 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 2017.  More information about his documentaries can be found on his website: