Last year a friend of mine asked me, since I’ve been chronicling the black experience in Japan, when I would get around to writing about the experience of black people in the LGBT community here. “We’re a minority of a minority of a minority,” he’d said.
I told him I was on it, but I wanted to do it right. What I meant by that was, I wanted to find the right voices from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community — people who were fully knowledgeable, representative and well-spoken as well as outspoken. And, fortunately, in my travels, I’ve come to know two such gentlemen. Though both are situated in Tokyo, they are from different generations and their tenures here in Japan are vastly different, so I was able to get some fairly disparate perspectives.
The first, a man by the name of Darien Alexander Williams, I met for the first time quite recently. He attended a Kwanzaa event I held in Yokohama last month. He’s a 23-year-old high school teacher from North Florida and has been living in Tokyo since August 2014.
“I came out when I was 14,” Williams says, “so virtually everyone in my life knows I’m gay. But things kinda changed a bit when I first came here. In America I was really confident and I didn’t give a damn if people found it uncomfortable, because America is my cultural space as well. But coming here, the cultural differences kinda put you in a space so as to not be sure if being gay is something that’s OK to share. Japan is a relatively safe place to be, so there’s no fear of anything bad happening to me. But I never know if I’m being an awkward person or not, so my sexuality has been tricky to navigate within Japanese culture.”
Williams is a blogger and has a YouTube channel where he discusses many aspects of black gay life in Japan, such as the fetishism he routinely experiences here.
“I’ve found fetishization to be one of the realities of dating while black and gay in Japan. Some people use it to their advantage and some people will protest against it,” Williams explains. “Many gay scenes in Tokyo are very focused on types. When you meet people for the first time, usually one of the first questions they will ask is ‘What’s your type? What sort of guy do you like?’
“There’s actually a glossary of gay terminology in Japan. There are words to describe if you’re into guys who are skinny, or bigger, or feminine, or macho, or bodybuilders … and a lot of people define their type as ‘black.’ That’s it, just ‘black,’ which ignores the whole spectrum of black humanity and all the variety and personalities that we have.”
As a result of the popularity of a recent YouTube documentary on being black in Japan, Williams feels that many black people considering making a move to Japan are being misled.
“Moving to Japan does not mean you’ve escaped racism,” Williams says. “There are so many black people and people of color who come to Japan, to Tokyo, and talk about just not having to deal with anti-black racism. Maybe … thinking that Japanese treat black people the same way they treat white people — especially in that video.
“But for me, anyway, it’s something that is very, very present here. It just looks different. It can look like a drag queen in blackface and an Afro wig, wearing a loincloth and vines, walking up to you, thinking she’s paying you a compliment. It can look like someone saying they’re attracted to you ’cause their type is ‘black’ but really stereotyping you and dehumanizing you. Racism just looks very different here.”
Nevertheless, there are good times to be had, Williams confesses, and Japan is much more laid back.
“Living in Tokyo is really, really fun, and very open, and I think the gay scene is much more liberating and relaxed than in America. Gender presentation, for example, is less policed here than in the States. You’ll see many Japanese men walking around with purses, and men have space to be more androgynous here than in the States. Basically, anything goes, especially in Shinjuku Ni-chome,” Williams says, referring to the main LGBT area of Tokyo. “There are over 360 LGBT venues in Ni-chome alone. So no matter what kind of queer you are, there’s a space in Ni-chome for you!”
I asked him if he was aware of any community-based or social groups LGBT people could join if they were looking for support or information on services. Williams explained that in Ni-chome there is an organization called Community Center AKTA that provides information on sexually transmitted infections and HIV prevention, LGBT life in Japan and so on, and that every Friday several AKTA volunteers (ranging in age from teenagers to 50-somethings) deliver condoms and pamphlets with sexual health information to 150 gay bars and clubs. This condom delivery activity also allows young LGBT people to meet LGBT adults, to communicate, exchange information and build an intergenerational network of support.
“I volunteered as a delivery boy a few times,” Williams says. “There’s also a newsletter that has a calendar of events, profiles of local gay or lesbian artists, musicians and other people of interest, upcoming events and that kind of thing. It’s in Japanese, though.”
Loren Fykes, a 47-year-old from Michigan, is an entrepreneur, consultant, researcher and LGBTIA (the I stands for “intersex,” the A is “asexual”) activist who has been living in Japan since 2007.
“I was raised black and taught white, so I thought I need to learn yellow,” the Harvard grad says when asked why he’s here. “The U.S. education system is Europeanized, and the history is whitewashed so you don’t learn much about African-Americans and other non-European cultures. You don’t even learn about the native Americans — just that we kicked their asses: manifest destiny, ‘This land is our land’ and that kind of thing. So that was my first impetus to learn something outside of the European, Judeo-Christian matrix. I felt strongly this need to understand another whole side of the planet that we learned nothing about in school.”
At 12, Fykes went on a life-altering field trip to see an exhibit about Chinese culture where he was first introduced to written Chinese characters.
“They told us that the characters came from pictograms,” he says, and proceeds to illustrate the evolution of the characters for ‘sun’ and ‘moon’ from pictogram to kanji. “Then they showed us that when you put the two symbols together, it means ‘bright’ or ‘tomorrow.’ And I was like, ‘Wow!’ My 12-year-old brain just exploded!”
From that point on he had his heart set on China. Back in the mid-1980s, Japan was all the rage, though. The Japanese bubble was expanding and everybody was saying Japan might even overtake the U.S. economy and become No. 1 in the world. By the time he got to Harvard, everyone was talking about Japan. So, he figured, if he was going to have a career and do something important, he should be focusing on Japanese instead of Chinese. He would eventually graduate with honors and win a graduate school fellowship to study in Japan.
Fykes is the founder of Fruits in Suits Japan (FinS Japan), a social networking and fund-raising organization of LGBTIA professional men and women in business, education, the arts and other fields.
I was curious how he was able to put together such an organization.
“Back in 2014 it was a rough year for me,” Fykes explains. “My business wasn’t doing well, and I was running low on money, so I asked myself some tough questions, like ‘What’s really motivating me?’ ‘What kind of impact do I want to have?’ ‘What do I care about?’ Then I remembered my identity — that I’m a gay man and I live in Japan — and that Japan is a country that still doesn’t have equal marriage, and still doesn’t have any protections for LGBT people. And there was no networking for LGBT professionals.”
There had been an earlier iteration of Fruits in Suits Japan, but when the gentlemen running the group left the country, FinS Japan was left for dead. Fykes decided to revive it. He polished it up, gave it a glamorous face-lift and tune-up, and turned it into a thriving success. And in doing so, he improved the lot of LGBT in Japan as well as revitalized his own life.
As far as support for gay black men goes, Fykes’ interests don’t end there. He shared with me some information on Da Bruthas, a group founded with the purpose of forging fellowship and communion among black gay men in Japan. Ron, the group’s founder, is an African-American who has resided in Japan for 31 years. Da Bruthas is an international group with members ranging in age from early 20s to early 60s, so it provides an opportunity for members to compare their experiences of living here in Japan and use each other for advice and guidance.
“When I first learned about Da Bruthas — about some black gay guys hanging out together — I wondered if I was going to enjoy it, ’cause it was clear that we were only getting together because we were black and gay,” he says. “But when I got there I felt I shared similar experiences with these guys, being black people. The gay thing is there but because you can hide it, you don’t have to deal with it on a day-to-day basis. It’s strong and we share it, but it’s not as strong as the black thing, something none of us can hide. So when black men come together, even though they’re gay, the black thing comes out. And it’s really fun, ’cause being black can be more fun than being gay!”
In closing, I ask Fykes if he has anything to say to gay black men thinking of making a move to Japan.
“The advice I would give to a black gay man is the same I’d give to a straight black man,” he says. “I’ve found that I have had more superlative experiences in Tokyo than I have had in any other city in the world — the best this and the most fun that, coupled with newness and fascination and discovery. In a country with so many rules and so much predictability, yet at the same time so much spontaneity and change, it’s like this chaotic conundrum of all these things happening at once. And that’s what keeps me here! If you wanna have those kinds of experiences, gay or straight, then Japan is for you.”
Williams’ YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/user/xypowerpop. Fruits in Suits Tokyo: www.facebook.com/groups/finstokyo. Black Eye appears in print on the third Monday Community Page of every month. Baye McNeil is the author of two books on life in Japan. See www.bayemcneil.com. Your comments and ideas: email@example.com