He has been warned by friends Dan and Martha that Japan is twenty years behind the US in terms of the gay scene. He is told gaijin - foreigners - are not even allowed in most of the gay bars. But when he travels there to publicise his new book, his experience is somewhat different.
About the AuthorFelice Picano is the author of thirty-five books of poetry, fiction, memoirs, nonfiction, and plays. His work is translated into many languages. Several titles were national and international bestsellers, and four plays have been produced. In the U.S., he is considered a founder of modern gay literature along with the other members of the path breaking Violet Quill Club of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Internationally, he is considered an eminent Post-Modernist. Picano was involved in early GLBT media , writing and editing at The Advocate, Out, Christopher Street, and The New York Native. Scores of his essays, stories and reviews have also appeared in major media around the U.S. In 1977, Picano founded the first all gay publishing house, The SeaHorse Press, and then joined two friends in 1981 to form The Gay Presses of New York. Its first title was Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy and it subsequently dominated the independent gay book scene for over fifteen years publishing almost 75 titles by men and women across the country and from France and the United Kingdom. Picano’s first novel was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award in 1975. Since then he’s been nominated for and/or won dozens of literary awards in the U.S. Britain, France and Germany, including a Lambda Literary Foundation Pioneer Award in 2009. He was also one of OUT Magazine’s 100 Important Gay People of that year. At the 2004 Tennessee Williams Festival, Felice received the Violet Quill Life Achievement Award, and in 2011 he was named a West Hollywood Rainbow Lifetime Award recipient, and a California State Legislature honoree. The New York Times listed Picano’s history/memoir of early GLBT Culture, Art & Sex in Greenwich Village as one of its Notable Books of 2007. A half dozen of his books have remained continually in print since their publication four decades ago. Including such gay classics as The Lure, Late in the Season, Ambidextrous and Like People in History. Picano’s most recent work includes True Stories Too: People and Places From My Past, 20th Century Unlimited:Two Novellas and the memoir, Nights at Rizzoli. His notebooks, papers, and archives up to 1990 can be found at The Beinecke Library at Yale University and in the Fales Collection in the Bobst Library at New York University. Picano was openly gay and “out” before the Stonewall Riots and was associated with the early gay political movement. Felice has appeared in Jeffrey Schwarz’s film Activist: the Life and Times of Vito Russo; Mark Mullian’s film, Stonewall: The Movement and Jim Tushinki’s film. I Always Said Yes; The Many Lives of Wakefield Poole. Faced with the threat of what would become the AIDS Epidemic, in 1980, Picano joined ten other men in forming GMHC, The Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the first and still largest organization to combat the disease and succour the stricken. Those experiences led him to co-author The New Joy of Gay Sex (1992) and The Joy of Gay Sex, 3rd Edition (2003), with the eminent psychiatrist, Dr. Charles Silverstein, addressing all aspects of gay men’s mental and physical health issues. They traveled around the U.S. and then around the world during the 1990’s bringing much needed attention to nascent AIDS organizations, especially in Australia, Japan, Israel, and Iceland. That book is now in its 21st edition, translated into seventeen languages including Hebrew, Slovenian and Taiwanese. Picano was the first openly gay novelist to do a book tour in the United States in 1979, and has also toured the British Isles, Australia, France and Germany as a gay author. Picano was a co-founder of the Vito Russo/Audre Lorde Library at the Gay and Lesbian Center of New York City, a founding member of the Publishing Triangle in Manhattan and is still on the board of the Ferro-Grumley Awards and the Rainbow Book Awards to further LBGT Literature. He has been an adjunct professor of literature at Antioch University, Los Angeles, and an advisory board member of that school’s Colors Youth counseling program, as well as of various LGBT libraries and centers around the country including The Quatrefoil Library in Minneapolis, and SAGE USA in New York. Picano now teaches a Writer’s Workshop at the West Hollywood Library and in 2017 that will expand with a separate Screen and Playwriting Writer’s Workshop. He has appeared as a reader, speaker, or panelist at the West Hollywood Book Fair, The Rainbow Book Fair in New York, The Los Angeles Times Book Festival, The Tennessee Williams Festival, Saint & Sinners Festival, and The South Carolina Book Festival as well as various Out-Rites and university writers readers conferences. In Canada he was the first and only non-native to join two Wilde About Sappho fund raising book tours. Picano blogs on topics pertaining to the LGBT community on the HuffingtonPost.com—Gay Voices and has reviewed at OutinPrint.com. Recent stories, essays, and reviews are up free to be read at www.felicepicano.net. More information can be found in Contemporary Authors, The Cambridge History of 20th Century American Literature and on Wikipedia.com.
Two Gaijin in Gay Japan
“Gay life is different in Japan. Not anything like here. The bars are small, more like clubs, even the few that do allow in gaijin. That’s what foreigners are called. Bathhouses? You’ll never get near one so forget about baths. The best places are discos on weekends. They’re mixed, and young. Even so, however, the gay scene is twenty years behind the U.S.”
It was one of those sultry early summer nights, before Gay Pride, when Dan gave me this depressing rundown sitting on a stoop on the north side of Tompkins Square Park, in Manhattan’s East Village. He had just moved back, after having lived in Tokyo for three years. But I couldn’t slough off his words as merely disillusionment and a broken heart, true as those were in his case. After all, Dan’s friend Martha still lived in Tokyo, and she was doing fabulously in her career, and she backed up everything Dan said.
“The women’s scene is even further back than twenty years,” Martha moaned. She was in the U.S. visiting her American girlfriend, who was almost done with her hitch in the navy. The two of them were trying to work out how they could live together in Tokyo.
“The dykes there are just beyond the pottery and tie-dye stage,” Martha concluded. “Drear-y!”
All I’d told Dan and Martha was that I was about to go to Japan for several weeks to publicize The New Joy of Gay Sex, coming out there in hardcover from Byakuba Shobo, a hot press specializing—or so I’d been told—in picture books on American and British rock singers and illustrated novels.
“Japanese guys are impossible to meet,” Dan told me. “And once you do meet them, it’s endless circling around before you can get anywhere near asking them home. The direct approach is taboo. You’ve got to be subtle.” Martha agreed (and promised to connect me up with a good-looking American guy in Kyoto, where I’d be during the middle of my trip). When I revealed that my usual pick-up technique had all the subtlety of a baseball bat, I was told by both: “Forget about sex with Japanese men.”
I already had mixed feelings on the topic. Like many Americans of my generation, my ideas of how Japanese men looked and acted were based on grade-B war movies. That thin, pigeon-chested, POW camp commandant, impeccably groomed even in the jungles of Sumatra, his face all but a mask, pencil-line lips, pinched nostrils, slits representing his eyes, vaguely feminine except for his all-too-masculine cruelty. Either him, or his opposite, taken from later films, Samurai warrior epics made in Japan itself: the sweaty cartoon of an out-of-work, downtrodden farmer, or the over-stuffed Buddha of a temple priest.
Hearing that even these would be denied me, I decided I’d do without. I even went so far as to mutter something to the effect that gay tourists who slept with the natives were no better than the worst colonials. My loins girded with a mental chastity belt, I copied down the names and address of the clubs, the museums, the palaces where I’d need reservations, the out-of-the-way gardens with cheap restaurants Dan and Martha mentioned. I had no idea what I was about to face: the day before I got on Japan Airlines, I found myself saying to Andrew Holleran on the phone, “It’s half a world away. Half a day away by jet! The most foreign place I’ve ever gone to. What if I hate it?”
What I didn’t know then was that my informants had been absolutely right—and yet also completely wrong. Partly because, after all, I wasn’t visiting Tokyo “without status,” a terrible fate for a Japanese, yet typical of most Americans arriving there: No, I was going as a famous American author, alongside a famous American psychologist co-author. It even said as much on the book jacket of the Byakuba edition of our book: My name was followed by a character that stood for “distinguished author,” as Charles Silverstein’s had that and was preceded by the more honorific “Dr.”
More important than status, we were going to Tokyo on the leading edge of the spear-point of Japan’s sexual revolution. And who’s to say what strange twists and turns can happen during a revolution?
But before even all that could become an issue, another, more emergent issue suddenly arose, on the tarmac at J.F.K. Airport, causing me to wonder exactly how big and encompassing a mess I had—all unawares—gotten myself into.
Some background is needed here: it was my distinguished co-author, Charles Silverstein, who had contacted me to say that if we wanted to, we could do a book tour to and within Japan. What did I think?
Yes. Yes. And yes! is what I thought. I’ve been a Japanophile since I watched the movie Ugetsu at my college’s film society. Since then I’d seen all the movies made by Mizoguchi, Akira Kurosawa, Ozu, et al. I’d read Lady Murasaki’s epic yet intimate 1,200-page novel, The Tale of Genji, and then followed that up by reading Chikamatsu’s plays, Saikaku’s tales of samurai boy lovers, followed by Akutagawa, Hearn, Mishima, Endo, Junichiro Tanizaki (The Makioka Sisters), Kobo Abe, and my current favorite at the time of the trip, Soseki Natsume. In fact, Martha gave me a copy of Natsume’s Grass on the Wayside to read before I’d left, saying it was the most “Japanese in feeling” of all the author’s works. Then there was Japanese art, architecture, textiles, pottery, tea, and food: which I was familiar with and adored. So when Charles added that Kyoto wasn’t included in the book tour but that he and William knew some folks who could get us there and back for the weekend on the bullet train with hotel accommodations for what seemed like a modest amount of money, naturally I said, “I’m packed and ready.”
Naturally too, I assumed that Charles was as psyched up about Japan as I was. In the weeks ahead, he and I would meet and go through various newspaper and magazine articles as well as tour guide books, highlighting where exactly we would go during our free time. He was bringing cameras and the smallest movie camera then available, along with film, tripods etc. We’d be “working” for four days, then in Kyoto on our own for three days, and then working another four or five days. It seemed sensible and fun too.
So you can imagine my surprise as the plane was taxiing on the runway and we were getting comfortable in our business-class seats, when Charles turned to me and said, “I’ve got to confess, Felice. I’m not sure how I feel about Japan.”
“Excuse me?” I said, consternation bubbling just below the surface.
“Well,” he explained. “I’m older than you. I was a little boy during World War II and I very well remember and I probably absorbed all of the anti-Japanese propaganda of those years. I don’t know if I forgive them yet for their attack on Pearl Harbor, and I cheered when I heard of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
“I see,” I said, consternation now a fully achieved effect of his words. I was busily going through my little carry-on bag, looking for my bottle of Valium. Could I get more in Tokyo? Charles is a big man. How many would he need to become calm? Could I slip them into his Diet Pepsi when he wasn’t looking?
“At any rate, I thought you should be prepared,” he ended, opening the Japan Airlines menu.
It was noon. This was a twelve-hour flight. We’d arrive in Tokyo noon of the previous day. I calculated and calculated and, failing to find an answer, I took three medium-sized Valiums myself, figuring I’d fall asleep on the plane and perhaps I wouldn’t wake up for another day or so. Or so I hoped.
Foolishly. I was awake for a meal on the plane—several tasty sushi and my first roasted eel, a dish that would become an obsession for me during the trip. After a short while, we landed.
We were met by a tall, good-looking woman from our publisher, Kurihara-sana, who spoke English and who told us she’d be our liaison. She was followed by a group of shorter men in business suits: also from Byakuba Publishing, our sponsor. We were quickly moved into the VIP lounge for refreshments and where the first of what would end up being about eleven thousand and sixteen group photos were taken. Charles’s face, I noted, was surprised, and not smiling. Uh-oh! I took the social lead.
As we were regrouping for yet another shot, I could see through the lounge’s glass windows several other Japanese people purposefully approaching. These included a cute, Beatles-mop-headed guy and three young women carrying pink teddy bears and red roses in plastic sheaths. (Martha had clued me in that the color pink signified s.e.x. in Japan.) The newcomers chanted “Picano-san, Picano-san!” and handed me their gifts, all the while Kurihara was translating, “These are your fans.”
Charles was in equal parts perplexed and amused at my own perplexity. “You’ve been holding back on me! You have a secret life as a Japanese pop star!” he declared.
Noriake Fushimi, the male newcomer, understood him and said, “No! He’s our favorite okoge author.” Noriake then produced a copy of June, a bilingual monthly magazine with photos of mostly Western male movie stars and pop singers, along with stories with lavish illustrations of mostly cute Japanese guys and an occasional Japanese woman. “This!” Noriake said in English, “is the bestselling issue. Four months ago.” He opened it to page 55, where I could see an excerpt from my memoir, Men Who Loved Me, that I’d sold them, titled “The Most Golden Bulgari.” Sketches of a sports car, an Italianate landscape, stylishly dressed men and women, and especially a big golden watch, confirmed that it was indeed my story. Noriake said, “Your story was voted the favorite of June magazine readers.” Suddenly all the suits from Byakuba publishing were near: they nodded and bowed and murmured a lot at me: this was great start off for publicity.
It got even better for the men in suits. The little scene of me meeting my fans had been noticed by paparazzi, who I later found out roamed Narita Airport like sharks circling shipwrecks looking for—well, celebrities. Three of these photogs dashed in, approaching Kurihara. She spoke to them firmly, consulted with the suits and finally let one—the cutest, with ripped, torn black Levi’s and gray cowboy boots—take photos of Charles and me. He then took photos of my fans handing me a teddy bear. Then of the fans and me with the issue of June. Then of the entire group. The other, by now surly and bitching, photographers had also gotten inside the lounge and they were clamoring for photos. They had to settle for shots of us all exiting in twos and threes since Kurihara had announced that our cars to downtown Tokyo were waiting outside the terminal. I saw one of the publisher’s suits talking to Noriake, who bowed back a lot. I would later see him at dinner, so a big favor was being returned immediately: very Japanese.
As for Charles, well, he and I rode in the back of the same large Toyota Avalon the long distance into the city and Charles’s visage was—dare I write it?—inscrutable. He would remain either inscrutable or slightly scowling for several days and I understood why. He was taking his time, making up his mind. Clearly we were being treated like royalty. Equally clearly he was on enemy territory. I figured it could easily go either way.
We’d arrived at Narita at noon and our first day began with a lunch: Charles, myself, Kurihara, and two suits. Along with us were two interviewers, one from The Asahi Times, the Tokyo paper that combines the power of the Wall Street Journal and of the Washington Post; another from a local television network which would later broadcast us: I guess they were checking us for screen viability: Charles at least would overspill it. He was six foot three and weighted over two hundred fifty pounds. They asked us questions, a bit nervously, as though ready for the suits to interfere at any second. I found them innocuous enough, but clearly this press junket would not be an American-style free-for-all: to a certain extent it would be scripted.
Charles said almost nothing but clearly enjoyed the food at lunch. Did I even discern the hint of a bow from his quite stiff posture as we said goodbye to the journalists? Or was I merely hoping he’d be civil?
After lunch we went to our publisher’s offices in a nearby building. There gangs of workers came out to greet us: mostly male, while young women employees watched from the sidelines. The publisher himself had a penthouse office with a giant picture window with a view. He pointed it out to us proudly. And no wonder: “Fujiyama” I replied, i.e. Mt. Fuji—straight ahead. My Japanese now exhausted, we peered at the snow-capped peak in the distance. Suddenly a very cute younger guy in forest-green shorts, bright sneakers and a close-fitting black T-shirt joined us: Moriko. Kurihara explained that he was the publisher’s son. “Call me Mickey,” Moriko said, shaking our hands vigorously: no bowing for him. “I’m a freshman at Sierra College in California. Do you guys follow football at all?”
I did, and he and I chatted a bit while Charles very stiffly met the publisher. But his eyes had begun to wander to Mickey, so I brought him to meet Charles (“cute guy” is, after all the universal solvent, no?) and I stole his old man away for some unnecessary questions about the biz to let Charles ogle Mickey from close up. Despite how official and clean and white-collar the place and its denizens all seemed to be, I would later discover that Byakuba was a kind of renegade publisher: the company made most of its profits selling books like How to Win at Pachinko. That’s the Japanese gambling arcade game that had spawned a thousand Pachinko Parlors and is considered a worse vice than Las Vegas’s one-arm bandits. Despite the book tour and our eventual best-seller status in Japan, Charles and I would never see a dime beyond the not very large advance against royalties.
At the next (again pre-arranged) general press conference, downstairs with a dozen reps of the Fourth Estate, Charles was at first iron faced, but I was getting bored speaking alone and began saying any old thing after a while. Charles stepped in and contradicted me. Finally! He quickly explained. And the press all turned to him. To my surprise, after an hour or two of this, coffee and dessert was served all around.
Wait a second, you’re thinking? Coffee? Not tea. Not green tea? Well, yes, there’s plenty of tea, but the stimulus of choice among urban Japanese was undeniably coffee. It was sold over the counter, in restaurants, and in largish coffee specialty shops. It was also sold cold and sweetened in cans out of street level vending machines everywhere, and it was sold in big mugs from carts on the street. It’s not cheap either: $4.00 a can. $4.50 a cup. $7.00 for a big fancy cup. Mocha, European Mocha, Java, American, Espresso, Latte, Mochachino. And not only coffee, but coffee names too dominate in Japanese society. People call each other love names after favorite coffees: “My little Macchiato!” “She’s my Grande!” I heard one guy say to another. They name their pets after coffees. And Mazda’s two-seater sports car, badged as the Miata in the U.S., is known in Japan as—are you ready?—the Cappuccino.
From coffee we segued into dinner, two more cars-full driving to Roppongi, the foreign diplomat row of Tokyo, and with us more suits and two more interviewers from the earlier large group. Also two young women: the younger and more Americanized was Hiroko, who Kurihara said would be our translator for the rest of the book tour. “Not you?” I asked. “Oh no! My English is not that good,” Kurihara said, looking down and then making sure all the suits heard her taking a submissive position. I’d see a lot of this posturing for effect among women for the next few weeks.
Roppongi is the stylish “foreign” district of Tokyo which by night is clubs and cafés and by day is all about diplomacy and fashion designs (Armani and Prada and Valentino showrooms are there, too).
Eventually I would get used to group meals. This dinner included the fellow for The Asahi Times and a pouty-lipped beauty from Friday (Japan’s combo of People and Entertainment Weekly), and her Hokkaido-born, James-Dean-of-a-stud photographer boyfriend. Also present was Noriake Fushimi from earlier, and two editors from small quarterlies, so perhaps invitation was based on favors and on need, i.e. how little they earned.
So there we were, having dinner in a fine Italian restaurant. Oh, another thing Don and Martha hadn’t told me about Japan was how terrific the food was. Not only had I already eaten phenomenal yakitori and exquisitely grilled eel and mind-bending sashimi—as expected—I would end up having excellent French, Chinese and Indian meals. At this moment, I was savoring my tortellini in an aromatic walnut-gorgonzola sauce, when Noriake asked if I was single.
A widower, I explained, but healthy. How long widowed, he asked. Two years. Then I must be dating again? he prodded. No, not yet. And Charles, he asked? Charles said he had a partner waiting back home. This gained him many supportive murmurs. Charles was surprised and pleased too. He almost stuck his tongue at me: Nyah! Nyah!
Hiroko, our translator, was a woman of about twenty-five with a terrific laugh and a delightful honesty and ease, unusual in Asian women. No wonder: It turned out her father had been affiliated with the Japanese delegation to the United Nations and so Hiroko had been born in Flushing, New York, grew up in Queens and went to college in Boulder, Colorado. She’d returned to Japan, married a boy she’d met at college, and together they were trying to adjust her to Japanese life. This, she admitted, was not the easiest task as she was about as American as anyone I’d met anywhere; we’d connected instantly.
“Is that guy flirting with me?” I asked Hiroko of Noriake. “Yes!” she said, coloring. “I apologize,” I said, “for putting you in the middle.” But she was listening to him again, blushing as she translated that Noriake fully intended to help me forget my grief. We could begin right that evening, if I was free, he said. His apartment was small but…
Japanese gays are subtle, both Don and Martha had insisted. Yeah, right! Subtle as a twelve-wheeler: I mean, here he was hitting on me in front of eight other people in public. How subtle was that? I’m not sure how I got out of it, but between Hiroko and me we managed to do so without sparking an international incident.
That night, an hour after we had been dropped off at the glamorous Shinjuku Hilton, to two separate rooms on different sides of the building, I got a call. It was Charles. “I saw a Denny’s a few blocks away. Meet me in the lobby in five minutes.”
I changed and we walked over to the place. It was huge, but it did have a takeout counter, and the usual Denny’s fare. I thought maybe all this was an excuse for us to talk about, well, you know, the problem. But no. He ordered in English from yet another cute guy behind the counter who spoke English back, and we sat and ate. “Thank God this exists,” Charles said. “The food was good, but I needed a bit more.”
Two nights later, he said to dress for “the clubs,” not Denny’s and we found ourselves plunked down by taxi about a mile away, in the middle of Shinjuku Ni-chome (“Fifth Fire district”), also known as the gay part of town. He’d been told about this small area, with most of the gay clubs and gay bars sited within a single, quite large, multistory block of buildings. Now we were looking for a sign in English to corroborate that we were in the right place. Another thing no one had told me about Tokyo is that there are signs in English everywhere—streets, billboards, even subways—possibly left over from the U.S. Occupation after World War II.
Despite this abundance of our language, real information in English is strangely unreliable. The reason: English is used not literally but rather used metaphorically in Japan, sort of the way we Americans use French. So, as an L.A. shop might be called Bathroom Boutique or La Belle Bowling Alley, a bicycle shop in Asakusa area was named Muddy Monkey Daddy; a teen hangout was called the Funky Baby Bootie, and fish snacks named Banana Cat Dad, despite a complete lack of that fruit as ingredient or flavoring.
So there we were on a street corner. Charles had just decided we were in the wrong place, when two humpy young Japanese guys in white A-shirts with leather thongs around their necks, tight black jeans and Doc Martens, saw us and rushed up. “Hi!” they said brightly. Very cute.
“Hi. Is Kinsmen nearby?” I asked, naming the club I’d been told gaijin were allowed inside,
One pointed to the lighted third-floor window where I could see figures and ferns. “My name’s Akita. Like the dog. What’s yours? This is Mitsuo. Are you guys rice queens? We’re white specialists!” I’d just absorbed this when Mitsuo asked Charles “Want to go to my place and fuck?” Well, that was an icebreaker. Charles was amused. He lightly took Mitsuo’s arm and led him away. “Let’s see Kinsman first. Okay?”
Akita and I joined them, all the while I was wondering about Dan’s endless circling and great subtlety. Really? After about a half hour, I found Charles and he said, “My friend Ted is here. We’ll all go somewhere else. Okay?” over the sound of the Clash. In clubs holding twenty guys or more, you pay a single drink fee as you enter and order right there. Afterward you can wander around as much as you like. Next to Ted, I located a young acquaintance from Manhattan, Benjy, friend of a friend who was living and working in Tokyo—and I let him chat with Akita while I looked around. When I began to move around on my own, I was hit on twice in ten minutes. First by a well-built guy my own age with a crewcut and in a nipple-revealing polo shirt, and then by a younger, punk duo, complete with spiked green and pink hair, who quickly catalogued for me their sex toys and how they intended using them on me. What with jet lag still hanging on and now two beers overtaking the thirty cups of coffee I’d needed that day to deal with meals and interviewers, I felt certain that if I didn’t get back to the Shinjuku Hilton soon, I’d wake up in some basement, wrapped in chains, perhaps decorated with cigarette burns. But Charles was ready to join Ted and Benjy and some Japanese guy for more club hopping.
Leaving my rainbow-haired suitors behind, I found a cab and returned to the luxurious Shinjuku Hilton. Awaiting an elevator in the lobby I noticed a young Japanese guy wearing a persimmon-colored linen suit, form-fitting white T-shirt, white shoes and dark glasses. Even before he took those off, I could tell he was movie-star handsome. The cheekbones were perfect, his complexion was the color of my favorite honey, his face was square, his lips just thick enough to be sexy, and his arms and chest tugged at strategic points of the jacket.
You see, another thing no one had told me about Japan was how beautiful the men could be. Not anything like my stupid stereotypes. And not anything like the few Japanese guys I’d known in the U.S. These fellows were not only wonderfully individualized, many were taller than myself. Some were slender, but others were athletically hunky and worked-out, toting their gym bags everywhere. Busy as I’d been with my publisher’s book tour schedule, I’d already had time to admire a youth on the Green Line of the Tokyo subway dressed in faded Levi’s and a 49ers football shirt. The volleyball team I’d seen on TV was entirely male-model quality—and that young father at Daimaru department store had been boner-inducing butch! Even among the thousands dressed in the standard black suit, white tie and attaché case, were perfect physical specimens of Junior Executive.
“Etes-vous Français?” the persimmon-suited young men suddenly asked me. Not French but American, I told him. He checked a top pocket, then asked in English if I was Mr. ___? I wasn’t, I said. “Too bad. He’s my date for tonight. I wish you were him. Maybe tomorrow night?” he suggested.
The elevator arrived and we were joined by other people. He stood in front of me and he reached around and lightly held the front of my trousers. As I got off, he handed me his card. It read Samurai Escort Service. Scrawled on the back: “Miko—Call me Mike! Six inches. Your pleasure is my desire.”
The next evening was our publicity “event” at Yellow, a Roppongi dance club located literally underground and so starkly industrial in design that it made the ships in the Alien film franchise look like the most frivolous of froufrou. First the press conference: about six people in front of folding chairs laid out for two hundred. But among them were the pouty-lipped reporter from Japan’s hot news weekly and her cute photographer with his crotch-hugging jeans. He kept trying to get my eye for his lens by making faces at me suggestive of being orally molested. Very subtle, these Japanese.
Like everything on this trip so far, this event followed a pre-arranged set-up: Byakuba’s publicity chief, Kunio Fujiwara, would say fabulous things about my co-author, Charles, and me, then we would each make a short statement about our purpose for being in Japan, i.e. to promote our book, to help gays learn about safe sex, to be part of the new openness about sex that the country was beginning to enjoy. Then the dozen journalists would ask us carefully prepared and already screened questions. The only unprepared part was what we would answer, although, again, we’d already been asked these questions several times and pretty much had set answers by now.
Why so formal and ritualized? Because it was going to be on TV! Public TV! And because that’s how it’s done in Japan, where little is left to chance if it’s official. Only crazy game shows allow spontaneity to be seen and then for entertainment value.
Meanwhile, I could see our security team ascending the stairway to Yellow’s front door to meet and greet those just coming in. They moved slowly—their vision was kind of limited: the team consisted of two guys in fuzzy green and fuzzy yellow costumes that looked for all the world like giant condoms.
Although I asked several times through Hiroko, I never found out who had designed these curious outfits, why the condoms were colored dragon-green and banana-yellow, or why they were fuzzy. (Later I’d come to assume that everything meant to be attractive is fuzzy in Japan. Even dinosaurs are made fuzzy, like big sleepover animals.) The young men who’d been talked into getting into the nutty outfits were tall and cute: they were great sports, and ended up being a lot of fun. As Messieurs Condom One and Condom Two, they worked outside and inside the dance club, danced with people, handed out flyers for our book, and posed for innumerable photos and I guess were bouncers, too, if needed. At the end of the evening they insisted on being photographed with me and Charles. We, in turn, insisted they be photographed alone, with their costume tops off, so we could see their very prettily worked out and by then quite nicely sweaty upper bodies. Charles, I noticed, had by then socially melted toward the Japanese more than an iota.
Following the hour-long Q&A session, several hundred people suddenly appeared as though allowed into the club from a waiting lounge to fill up the empty chairs, mostly youngish men and women. Females were present in such numbers because they are self-acknowledged okoge, the sneering Japanese term for fag-hag (it literally means leftovers: more precisely the rice that sticks to the sides and bottom of the cooking pot).
The number of okoge in Japan seems to rise yearly, based on the readership of magazines that pander to them and by the growing sales of gay male novels translated from the U.S. Gay author Noriake Fushimi admitted, “My career would be nothing if it weren’t for women fans. They send letters, gifts. My flat is filled with gifts from women. I wish guys were as loyal,” he added, sadly. “Or as interested.”
That night at Yellow, Fushimi received flowers, and a teddy-bear from various okoge. Looking at Noriake, who by the way, flirted with me almost as boldly as he had before—I could see why the girls adored him. With his round face and round eyes and button nose and pink cheeks and not quite pageboy cut, he was as cute and fuzzy as a stuffed toy.
A look at June or any of the other popular magazines and illustrated books that cater to young women exhibit exactly what they’re getting off on. Two handsome young men fall in love—after common macho attitudes have kept them apart for a while. A young woman, usually the closest friend, sister, cousin or even former platonic girl friend of one of the two men, is brought into the picture by her friend’s need to confess his guy-problem. She then promptly sets about helping the two young men get together. The final scene of the okoge novel shows her going off with the two men as their most intimate confidante. Sometimes, instead of a happy ending, in these novels, tragedy strikes. One of the two men goes far away to school, or he gets very ill, some even die violently. And so the sympathetic young woman is left to try to comfort the abandoned male lover. This then provides the pervasive sense of the fragility of love and of life—mono no a-ware—the fleetingness of all things: that the Japanese simply eat up. And of course it’s most often done in up-to-date, dramatic anime comic-book style. The long excerpt from my memoir Men Who Loved Me ended up being perfect for that market.
At Yellow, one of the more outré places that younger Tokyoites appeared in their most rebellious costumes (baggy trousers, oversized shorts and enormous high-tops), it was difficult to tell if men were straight or gay. They dressed alike and acted indistinguishably from each other—except when doing something obvious like French-kissing a girl. Body ornamentation was big: tattooing and body piercing. One trendy okoge was going around upstairs showing off her cute blond-dyed gay boyfriend’s double scrotum rings, standing him up on a sofa and pulling down his Calvins. “See!” she crowed, as Hiroko, my translator, covered her mouth with a fluttering hand, ironically, like a geisha with a fan.
Yellow’s DJ, Patrick, an American who’d become more famous after contracting HIV and going on radio and TV to talk about it, played a hot program including disco hits of the late ’70s—Thelma Houston, Earth, Wind & Fire, KC and the Sunshine Band—I guess in honor of the oldsters, me and Charles—along with current hits and house music.
After a while, I found myself dancing with a really good-looking blond American, Rob, and his boyfriend, Akira. Around us, guys were dancing with girls, with other guys, and with okoge. Often an okoge would fix up two guys, dance with them a while in a threesome, then take off—just like in the illustrated novels. It happened to me and to Charles, who then stopped dancing to take photos: mostly, I noticed, of the condom boys.
Suddenly Rob was alone, telling me Akira had to go to work. We danced a while before I was pulled away for yet another group dinner—the largest so far of the trip. Rob put his phone number in my shirt pocket. When I got to the Chinese restaurant I read, “Two-way? Three-way? Either way, call tomorrow!”
The next day, the group hit several enormous bookstores in the Ginza and Asakusa, and Charles took me aside and confessed, “No matter what I do or say, they love me! I tried being quiet and they kept feeding me. I tried being mean, and they were apologetic and again began feeding me. I have to admit, Felice, I don’t know what to feel or what to do.”
I wondered if he’d ended up the previous night with four Japanese guys in his oversized bed at the hotel as I had, not knowing any of their names. He looked kind of guilty. So…maybe? What I didn’t tell him was that, without meaning to, he was fulfilling a particular Japanese role: the big, rough, incomprehensible, hairy foreigner: the gaijin of myth and of bedtime stories told to scare children. He literally couldn’t do anything wrong.
Before I could come up with anything, one of the suits who’d particularly attached himself to Charles had come up to us with a copy of one of their hundred monthly magazines, this one for bear-lovers, titled Hercules, and he was asking in comprehensible enough English if they could get Charles to pose for it. Charles looked at it, shrugged, and told the guy “McDonald’s! Take me to McDonald’s. Right away!”
As it turned out, I was the one who would pose for a magazine. It was the doing of the book critic for Japan’s Esquire magazine, which resembles our older (but not the current) version, an oversized, thick paper, premium photographic and arts monthly. She had translated my June magazine piece and she had gotten a Master of Fine Arts at Tokyo University writing about “classic gay male authors of the United States—including you!” She turned up at lunch and dinner and, distracted though I was at all of these events, she and I managed to get a half hour alone to talk. Unusual for this trip, she was almost middle aged, aristocratic looking (like a noblewoman from a Hiroshige print), quietly dressed and serious, with perfect English: we hit it off wonderfully. Even so, I was surprised when Kurihara told me the next day that instead of the morning meetings, after our typical group breakfast, I would be photographed for an article in Esquire.
I was worried about leaving Charles on his own. “Will you be okay?” I asked. His reply, “I’m going to meet some AIDS activists and then some people from their Psychology Today.” “You’re sure? I can do this another time.” “Go! Go!” he said. “This is part of the trip I really want to do.”
Charles was friendly, dare I say jovial, when I saw him later that day for our group lunch and meetings. He’d made sure the activists and medics joined us and he did all the talking, adding, “Right, Felice?” But later on, he worried me again when he said, “I’m still trying to get us into a bathhouse. It’s very difficult for foreigners. I’m determined. This better happen!”
I thought maybe Rob, the American teaching in Yokohama, would know. That evening I phoned him. Bathhouses? No problema: He’d get me and Charles into the hottest one in Tokyo. Bars? Name one. Despite this, however, when Rob came into Shinjuku on the train that night to join us for another good dinner, after he and I hit one nearly empty club we spent that night and the next morning working out whatever kinks might exist in my king-size hotel mattress. Rob said that while he and Akira had been lovers for three years, Akira would be in Osaka a few days to meet his planned fiancée.
Unlike Dan and Martha, Rob was completely unselfconscious about being a gaijin in Japan. He came from rural Montana and had never been in a city bigger than Helena when he arrived in Tokyo during a stint in the U.S. Navy at the age of eighteen. He immediately fell in love with a Japanese man—only his second gay experience—and then with Japan. When his tour was over, Rob went back to college in Montana for two years, enough to get credits to teach English as a Foreign Language—the one job he’d discovered that would instantly allow him entry into the country. He taught in a posh boys’ school in Yokohama, where he had a sizable-by-Tokyo standards apartment (sixteen mats by ten mats) and a good salary. Rob’s Japanese, unlike Dan’s classical and Martha’ nearly flawless usage, was, he admitted, practical, matter-of-fact, and about as pretty as that of a fried-fish vendor.
Practical too was Rob’s knowledge of Tokyo’s gay spots: the hottest men’s room on the basement floor of a particular department store; the best dance clubs and on what nights; the tiny and very gay Shinjuku Temple Park with its own cruisy toilet. He also showed me which of the locally brewed ginseng “pep-tonics” in their tiny vials—mostly sold at fruit stands—were effective for a night of dancing or of sex; where to get the biggest and cheapest glasses of beer; which of the many packaged sweets were the best (Japan is the snack capital of the universe; American brands are infantile by comparison); and in general how to have a good time. He imparted this to me in between sex and at a breakneck pace. Rob loved Tokyo, and I noticed that Tokyoites—notoriously blunt and businesslike—responded to Rob not as a gaijin, but as a blond, white-skinned Japanese.
Meanwhile I had another message when I got back to the hotel that night. From Kurihara, it read: “A car will pick you up at nine a.m. for your photo shoot for Esquire.” But…hadn’t that already happened? That guy who’d photographed me in my hotel room?
Next morning Kurihara phoned to say, “This is another. More serious. The editor wishes you to be in a feature of artists for the next issue. You will be photographed wearing sweaters of the great designer Yohji Yamamoto. It will require all of the morning.”
“What about Charles?” I asked. She tittered, “Oh, no. He has much to do.”
I found Charles as he was leaving and told him we’d be separated again that morning. He shrugged it off. Then came back and whispered, “Ted got us into the bathhouse. Tomorrow night.” His eyes twinkled for the first time this trip.
If you’ve seen Sofia Coppola’s film Lost in Translation, you’ll have ago of idea of the photo shoot. I was taxied to a studio where I had to change—right down to my underwear and socks (for a sweater shoot?!)—into what a stylist had chosen. I was given three different slacks and shirts, all of which fit me perfectly. In the studio, I was shot wearing sweaters that resembled clouds, or sculpture. One Nikon was set up on a tripod and, once the lighting and focus were established, three photogs came and shot me while I sat, stood, turned this way, turned that way, put a hand up, or down, or out, or whatever. Unlike in that movie, they spoke enough English so I knew what was going on, but they would suddenly stop and go off and confab together for long periods of time.
It was during the last and longest one of these breaks that someone else came into the studio. I’d been put in the third sweater, a café-au-lait-brown, floor-length, cashmere job with wooden buttons that I swear made me feel like Dietrich as the Scarlet Empress. I’d been photographed and then abandoned. I’d crushed onto my head a tweed fedora and sat on the photo=stage steps, my arms akimbo, waiting, waiting, waiting, when this stranger came in, stopped at the Nikon, yelled “Don’t move. Look at me!” and began taking photos for a few minutes.
The others came out and stood silent, and when he was done, they gathered around him. The instant shots taken were shown around and were deemed to be “perfect.”
He came over to me and introduced himself as the designer himself, Yohji Yamamoto. “The sweater looks great on you. And that hat!” When I told Yohji that the hat hadn’t been part of the clothing for the shoot and that I’d put it on myself, he said, “Of course you did. You’re an artist!”
He sat me back down, posed me as before and they took the photos he wanted with the official camera. One would appear in Esquire along with the other three pics already taken of me wearing other sweaters. But that special photo would soon appear in full-page newspaper and magazine ads, and finally on countryside billboards passed by bullet trains.
It was Yohji who explained that I’d be the third in a series of three “Artists in Sweaters” for Esquire. The others were Don Cherry, the jazz trumpeter, in town the previous week, and Luc Besson, the French film director, also a recent visitor.
After that day’s interviews and that night’s group dinner, as Charles and I were hanging out in Denny’s, I told him where I’d been. He looked startled. “No one asked me to model for a fashion magazine,” he said, sounding offended, and I thought, Here it comes, all of the week’s bad blood, finally coming out. Then he laughed. “They’d never have anything my size!”
“Sumo wrestlers are your size,” I said. “And they’re national heroes.”
He mused on that a bit and ordered something else to nosh.
Friday night I went out with Rob again and Charles went to the gay bathhouse with Ted and his Japanese boyfriend. They were out late enough that Charles was still groggy the following morning when we met early for the bullet train down to Kyoto. We had reserved seats in a first-class car and I soon found out what this meant when, in transit, I went through other cars looking for a bathroom. Smoke and smokers filled the other cars of the train. Chokingly. Noise and tumult and crowds too. Then silence, and another reserved car. Charles was awake and snacking by now, and he was full of tales about his bathhouse experience. This one sounded like a gayer version of the typical Japanese bath, until he said with some surprise, “In the States, I’d be ignored. Here I wasn’t at all ignored.” He looked contemplative, and I wondered how many Hercules magazine readers were present that night when Charles added. “Of course, a lot of the action looked unsafe.”
But something had happened, if not physically then emotionally, because Charles was completely with me during our two and half days in Kyoto, and if not fully a Japanophile, then he was at least comfortable, at ease, and pleased.
Kyoto is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Far from airfields or factories, it—like Rome—was declared an “open city” during the last world war because it looms so large in the national heritage of Japan, and so it was never bombed or strafed. In places, the details are so thought out and so perfectly rendered that literally the street gutters are beautiful. Parts of the city, upon the encircling ridge of hills to the northwest with its palaces and temples, were built as far back as the tenth century. In the flat central part are the justly famous, amazing-looking imperial palaces and villas, as well as many stand-alone castles of various nobles from the period of the Shogunate. While downtown is mostly Art Deco, pre-World War II—and I thought divine. Around the south and east are the newer, 1960s-1970s buildings.
We stayed in one of those: the unusually tall Hotel Sunroute, in a room so small the beds folded into the wall and to get to mine I had to go over or under Charles’s. But it was centrally located and the top floor was a giant, windowed, open room of decks, lounges, viewing spaces, and dining rooms, where breakfast was served from six a.m. to eleven a.m.
That meant that we’d get up early, have a big western breakfast, go wander the city, come back and have a second, lunch-like breakfast, then go out again. There, Charles was the perfect travel companion. At the largest Buddhist temple high in the hills, he said, “You’re a Buddhist! Ring the giant temple gong and I’ll film you.” I did. Another time, he said, “I promised my cousin I’d bring back kimonos for her.” So we shopped for them, and he found some gorgeous ones as gifts, while I found a mid-thigh, male version of a kimono: a black silk jacket, the silk lining painted with a scene of hunters shooting ducks in the sky over a marsh at dusk. Another time, Charles said he wanted art for his walls and we went to a shop he’d been told of. We sat around a huge, high, rectangular table that dominated the shop, filled with drawers, the drawers stuffed with art. While sipping tea we looked through them. I found two Meiji-era three-frame prints and whispered to Charles, “These are originals. All the rest are copies. Get these!” He pointed out that there were cigarette burns on one. “Buy these,” I repeated and then stepped outside so Charles could negotiate. They now have an honored place on his apartment wall in Manhattan.
We met geishas in full ceremonial dress and rice-powdered faces while walking along the Kamogawa River in the Gion of the Higashiyama District (made famous by novelists, playwrights and of course the many woodblock illustrations of kabuki actors and courtesans) while looking for a restaurant to dine in. One lady on high wooden clogs sent her assistant to me with a paper fan painted with her face, an advertisement that I doubly appreciated as it was hot and steamy that evening.
Back in Tokyo for another few days of book tour, we immediately discovered that we were featured on the back of Friday magazine, as well as on TV, and in the culture section of the Sunday edition of The Asahi Times. As we stepped out of buildings, local people recognized us and applauded us. Teenage girls and cute guys asked for our autographs. Our welcome was complete and heartfelt. The only dark spot at the end of that trip was the news that William Bory, Charles’s partner, had been hospitalized with another HIV opportunistic disease.
Charles left early, but I stayed on to complete it all, with yet another large dinner for the suits and for Kurihara (“I’m being promoted,” she confided in me—I guessed because of the success of our trip) and Hiroko, and to see Rob one more time for more fun and games.
We’ve never discussed that trip, Charles and I, in the years since. So many assumptions and beliefs were challenged for us. And so much good will was received by us. I’ve often thought of sexy Rob, living with a Japanese woman’s husband, even though the two men are the true lovers. And of course we’ve had mementoes of the trip around us for years: Charles’s Meiji prints in his Manhattan flat, and his cousin’s lovely and much appreciated silk garments. My own samurai jacket and Kyoto-given fan became the basis of my Halloween costume ever since (along with black panty hose, ink-black slip-ons, and a rented ceremonial sword: I’m a samurai warrior!), and once I was home for a month or so I received a surprise package from the Japanese embassy in America, containing the long brown cashmere sweater: a gift from Yohji Yamamoto, along with the copy of Esquire and a note. All proof that for the second time in my life, and once again without me at all trying, I’d actually been a fashion model.