“Sister boy,” said a classmate in my first grade class. I was stunned and speechless. I did not know how to respond to his comment because I did not understand what he meant. I had developed pneumonia and had not
been able to attend the first few weeks of school. I was very small and skinny, probably the smallest child in the class and I looked like a little girl because of my soft and round face.
I was a Mijyukuji, a premature baby. It was the word my mother used to describe me to her friends and neighbors. Although due on May 5, Gogatsu-No-Sekku (Boy’s Day), I was born on March 1, two days before Hina-Matsuri (Girl’s Day). I was a weak child and, during childhood, had three episodes of pneumonia, a series of seizures caused by high fever and chronic ear infections that the doctor warned might lead to hearing loss.
My parents did their best to protect me from all possible illnesses and harm during the first six years of my life. As a result, I was a quiet boy who loved watching TV and listening to music at home. To this classmate, I must have looked timid and weak. I was definitely nothing like him. Throughout my boyhood and adolescence, I was often called different or unique, sometimes a problem child by friends, peers and teachers. It was sometimes painful, but this circumstance also made me reflective: Who am I? Why am I different from other boys? Early on, I was able to see myself as a spiritual entity and I realized that I needed to find my own life. It gave me the chance to leave Japan and visit other countries, ultimately coming to the U.S. to find my life.
By eighteen, I realized that I was gay. I did not know any other gay men except a boyfriend who later chose to be straight and is now a father of three. I wanted to get out of Japan. At that time, Japan was experiencing rapid economic growth and a still rigid male-dominated patriarchal social system. Those were the days before Japanese gay liberation. Gays and lesbians were invisible outsiders of Japanese society. Heterosexuality was a prerequisite for thriving in corporate Japan.
When I graduated from college, I did not want to join any of the corporations. I did not want to be in the closet or be forced to date or marry a woman to succeed. I wanted to go to a country totally different from Japan, so I visited India for six months. My memory of India is about chaos, poverty, sickness and culture shock. However, while traveling the country I encountered one incident after another which changed how I saw the world. India taught me the diversity of human beings and the importance of accepting these differences. I had come from a homogeneous country where people were forced to conform to strict social norms. My time in India forced me to examine myself and what I had been taught.
When I came back, I stayed in Tokyo for two months. There, I realized that Japan was no longer a place I could live. I came to the U.S. on September 22, 1982. I thought that here, I could be apart from the mainstream and still be respected. I thought I could freely live as a gay man and develop myself. I stayed in L.A. for a month, then I came to San Francisco. Although my experiences in India helped me adjust, my transition still was not easy during the first few years.
“Follow the villagers when you are in the new village.” This is a Japanese proverb used to express how a person should adjust to new environments in order to be accepted. I used to repeat the proverb to myself whenever I faced differences with the people around me. At the same time, I would ask myself how much I should compromise because I thought that I would lose my Japanese identity if I always followed American customs. There were certain things that had shaped my personality and I had a hard time changing.
The Japanese are not good at confrontation and verbal demonstrations of emotions. It was difficult for me to discuss my feelings and issues of sexual and emotional intimacy with my American boyfriends. I often expected them to know how I felt without spoken words. Then I began to recognize the differences between Japanese and American culture. My American boyfriends were not necessarily insensitive; we simply had different ways of communicating.
Furthermore, these cultural characteristics sometimes hindered my talking about my sexual history and negotiating safer sex. The AIDS epidemic had just exploded when I came to the U.S. and I was terrified. I did not have enough information and I did not know where to go to get the information in Japanese. As a result, I did not have sex with anybody for about four years. Then I learned more about HIV. There were no Japanese-language materials available until ’89 or so. My communication problems and fear of AIDS made me interested in HIV/AIDS prevention in the Japanese community and I became an HIV/AIDS educator and outreach worker for the Japanese Community Youth Council in 1991. Ten years later, I am still in the area of health education.
I think about how much I have assimilated and how much more I have to assimilate to America, yet something deep inside of me resists forgetting my Japanese-ness. I am still Japanese, no matter how long I live in the U.S. It is important for me to retain Japanese customs that I respect while being flexible enough to adopt American customs and values I see as valuable. I can see American culture from a Japanese point of view and I will always understand America differently from other Americans.
Most importantly, I am very lucky to have been able to create a life for myself as a gay man. There are still many gay men my age in Japan who do not have this opportunity, even after Japan’s gay liberation.
Yukihiro Yasuda has worked at Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center as a Case Manager, Treatment Advocate, and an HIV Testing Coordinator. He is currently in school at San Francisco City College studying outreach methodology in the HIV/STD Peer Educator Training Course.