Words and photos by Arrun Soma
The teachers at my senior high school are freaking out. They’re in a proper panic. They’re wondering what having an openly gay ALT means. They’re wondering whether I’ll share my lifestyle with my students. They’re wondering whether I’ll hang rainbow flags up around the buildings, and walk around in a tank top and cut-off jean shorts. I’ve even been told by another local ALT that some teachers are worried my boyfriend and I will make sexual advances towards our male students. It’s rough, to say the least, that we’re being thought of as sexual predators, just because we are gay. It’s utterly wrong. But there’s a fabulously silver lining at the same time – and we couldn’t be happier. We’re two men living together in a conservative part of Japan. They’ve never had an ‘out’ gay couple here in Hiroshima prefecture. It’s potentially pioneering, and hopefully it helps change certain viewpoints held by certain Japanese people. Hopefully. Here is our story.
My partner Jake and I are from New Zealand. It’s a liberal land, and they’re currently on track to pass a marriage equality law, giving LGBT people the right to get married and adopt children. On applying for the JET programme, we knew Japan would be a test. We signed up as a couple, both writing ‘male’ on the application form. Well somewhere, somehow, someone didn’t check the paperwork properly and it was assumed we were a heterosexual married couple. That meant we were placed in the same city, which was naturally very exciting. But it was a complete surprise when I got an email from my predecessor to the effect of “Welcome! The staff and students at your high school are really excited to meet you and your wife.” Wife? WIFE? At first, I laughed. Then I sent an awkward email back telling my predecessor what the school didn’t want to hear. I’m gay.
At this point, both our senior high schools [we teach at different schools] went into damage control. While other LGBT JETs may have the choice to stay in the closet, giving them time to decide if they want to be out at work, we had to reveal our sexuality to some of our Japanese colleagues and bosses immediately. While it didn’t bother us, it felt like we were being judged, without even stepping foot in the country. My predecessor told me my JTEs want me to stay in the closet, and not mention anything about my sexuality to anyone at school.
It was nerve-wracking arriving in Japan. Luckily I have the country’s best supervisor, and after arriving in Tokyo, and then meeting her at Hiroshima Airport, I asked her about mine and Jake’s situation. She said it was fine that we live together, and that although other teachers are very worried, she just wants me to feel comfortable and happy. She even offered Jake and I a bed at her house on our first night in ‘real’ Japan, before the power and gas were connected at our apartment.
So yes, Jake and I now live in an apartment together, and we are over-the-moon. Living together in our own place is the next big step in our relationship, and we never wanted to live apart while in Japan. But it’s by pure luck that we live together. On thinking Jake and I were married and heterosexual, our schools decided we could share an apartment. So the contract was signed, but on later finding out we were gay, it was too late for the schools to back out of giving us one place. We’ve been told though, that if our landlord ever asks, we’re just two ‘really good friends’ who’re living together to save money.
We’ve also had a meeting with the Hiroshima Board of Education. It wasn’t by choice. We were summonsed to a mini-conference, where two bureaucrats wanted to reaffirm their concerns, but also offer support. I was nervous about the meeting, but really, they just wanted to state that we’re the first openly gay people the BOE has had to deal with, and so our schools and the BOE are concerned. We were told to withhold any public-displays-of-affection, like holding hands or kissing on the street [which we don’t do anyway]. The BOE offered their support to us though, and they told us if there are any problems, to get in contact and they will look out for us. I told my supervisor the meeting went well, and she said that most of all, the schools and the BOE didn’t want to offend Jake and I. They didn’t. We understand that this world is different, but at the same time, we hope that will change.
So what does all this mean? I think it can only be good. Yes, some of it is tough. Being thought of as sexual predators; no, that’s not at all ideal. Quite frankly, it’s absolutely insulting. But being Hiroshima’s first openly gay ALT couple can only pave the way for others like us. Jake and I were absolutely aware that when we came to Japan, we would have to suppress some of who we are. At my former workplace back in New Zealand, out of 40 people, I was one of six gay men and I had a rainbow flag at my desk. I never expected Japan to be like that, but perhaps Jake and I [and the rest of the LGBT community] being here will start to normalise homosexuality for this country.
Despite all that’s happened, and the worries of our JTEs, I’m really excited. Jake and I are just two normal people who love each other, and I’m excited Japanese people will have the chance to realise that. I’m excited to help dispel the fears of Japanese people who think bad things of the LGBT community. Jake and I are most definitely being judged; even if we don’t see it or hear about it, but I say bring it on. Jake and I are comfortable with who we are. We are [or at least we think so] two normal, nice guys, who love and respect our families and friends, and who put a good effort into the work we do here in Japan. So if we’re judged on that, then hopefully the Japanese people who know us will respect us for who we are.
Further to that, maybe it’ll make it easier for Japanese people who identify as LGBT to ‘come-out’ or at least feel like they’re not alone. While I’m so happy with being out of the closet, it saddens me that so many Japanese people are restricted by society’s views. I hope that by just being who we are, Jake and I can change those views in the community we live in here. I’m not a martyr, just someone that cares for those who can’t express themselves the way they want.
Many people experience severe pain through the coming out process. I was one of those people. But I’m just one person. It feels to me like most of Japan, as a country, is in the closet. And while I absolutely respect Japanese culture and tradition, I’m also passionate about creating change where it’s due. So as I type this article, during some downtime at my senior high school, the JTEs are passing by and walking around me. I’ve kicked my shoes off, and I’m wearing a pair of rainbow coloured socks I just bought. I’m hoping it’s the small things that slowly start to create big change.