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Obituary: Facing illness and dismissal, teacher Grainger saw a chance to educate other expats

by Paul Mcinnes

Special To The Japan Times

Neil Grainger, who sadly passed away on Saturday, March 15, once said that he had crammed many lives into his 44 years. After being diagnosed in 2012 with a malignant melanoma and shortly afterward finding out he was also HIV-positive, he continued to fight for himself but also — out of consideration and a sense of justice — for others. This was a recurring theme in his short life.

Grainger, born in Smethwick in England’s West Midlands, was a lifelong West Bromwich Albion fan and continued to support them even when living abroad. He attended Bristnall Hall High School in the mid-1980s and went on to chalk up a diverse list of jobs in his 20s, including time as a greengrocer in the Lancashire town of Chorley, a barman in Spain and as a personal assistant in London.

His close friend Rob Orton, who first met Grainger in his flamboyantly named grocery, Tutti Frutti, said he was always fun-loving and looking for a new adventure. One day, out of the blue, Grainger told Orton he had decided to close his shop and study Japanese and Chinese. Grainger turned out to be a natural linguist and, having spent a life-changing year studying abroad at the Nagoya University of Foreign Studies, he graduated from the University of Central Lancashire in Preston in 2003.

The Englishman nurtured a deep respect for Japan, its language and people, and after graduation, he decided he would return to the country to work. After various stints teaching English in Tachikawa, western Tokyo, Grainger settled in Shinjuku Ward, working at Waseda University International Corp., initially as a tutor and later as senior tutor.

Grainger, an openly gay man, established Gay Friends Tokyo, which evolved into a very successful social group for the capital’s gay community that, according to Grainger, tended to be disparate rather than cohesive. GFT ran for several years and many life-long friendships were established through it. At the time of his death, Grainger was working on another attempt at bringing together the gay community, with a new social networking site called Gay Nihon, which centered around friendship, dating and information about gay scenes in Tokyo and other urban areas of Japan.

Generosity and selflessness came naturally to him, and in his role as tutor at Waseda University he would create, in his own free time, boxes full of supplementary material for his colleagues. This was in addition to posting an open invitation on the companywide messaging system for anyone who didn’t have family or close friends in Tokyo to visit his house for Christmas dinner.

On the night of the March 11, 2011, earthquake, Grainger invited anyone who was stranded in Tokyo to stay at his home in Ikebukuro. Many friends and strangers alike congregated there, with Grainger preparing an array of food, drink and sleeping bags. He was a deeply kind man who very rarely expected anything in return.

Subsequent to his controversial dismissal from Waseda University International, which was covered in a Japan Times article by Simon Scott on Oct. 21 last year, Grainger created the website www.sickinjapan.com, where he assembled valuable information regarding health care, insurance and medical treatment for the benefit of the foreign community in Japan. He also organized a “Yamathon” walk around Tokyo’s Yamanote Line in November to raise money for his own medical and living costs and — most importantly, in his eyes — for the Japanese Foundation for Cancer Research and the cancer patients’ information center at Nihon University Itabashi Hospital, where he was treated.

Grainger lived life to the full, and even in the midst of his illnesses, he was adamant that he had no regrets. He also wanted to publicize his illnesses and what he and his many supporters saw as his unfair dismissal by his former employers so that others wouldn’t be treated in the same manner.

Chris Arnott, one of Grainger’s friends, said, “He was a great cook, a big drinker, an even bigger queen, a film and football lover, a naughty smoker, a good teacher, hard worker and caring friend.”

His untiring kindness and perseverance, humor and love of life have had a profound effect on many. Near the end of his life, he was fond of quoting from “Cloud Atlas,” one of his favorite novels and films. One of these lines seems particularly apt now: “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops.”

Neil Grainger is survived by his partner, Kenji, and his parents and family in England.

Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • David Jenkins

    An absolute legend of a gentleman. I remember his first Christmas meal in Nakatsugawa. He was awaiting his supply of Bisto gravy from England. It was a gorgeous meal in the end and the drinks and party afterwards were so memorable. I will miss him, as will most of us who have had the pleasure to know him.

  • TO

    Thank you for the beautiful article. My condolences to his partner, Kenji, and family as well as the community of his friends.

    To read this article was a sad shock because, with good support from many, I could get a sense from the last year’s Japan Times articles that he was fighting valiantly on so many fronts. I live far away from where he lived, but the descriptions about his life touched me.

    Like I mentioned in my post to the October article, I hope something good and productive will come out to carry on his legacy in many different ways, especially because I have no doubt there are many many people like him – regarding job insecurity, mounting medical bills, non-normative sexual orientation/gender expression, etc.

    RIP

  • happyjapan

    RIP. He fought the good fight.