When a 50-year-old Japanese man was diagnosed in 1995 with HIV, he decided to attend an HIV awareness group to learn more about the virus and what options he had for treatment.

He sat through an entire meeting surrounded by Japanese doctors, volunteers and other HIV-positive men and women, but he could not bring himself to talk about his condition. He was terrified of being exposed.

The man, who wishes to have his name withheld, subsequently moved to the United States and has been living in Los Angeles since 2005.

“In Japan, HIV is a very sensitive subject,” he said in a recent interview on how his life as an HIV-positive gay man has changed since moving to L.A. two years ago. “The number of people with HIV is so few. The community feels small and uncomfortable.”

In Los Angeles, however, he has found relief in the anonymity provided by a city that is home to more than 51,000 people with AIDS.

Additionally, a large network of HIV/AIDS clinics, education and counseling centers, religious groups and other resources provides daily support to people living with the human immunodeficiency virus.

“There is a community here in L.A. that wants to get together to talk about and fight HIV,” he said.

He does not work here and instead holds a temporary student visa that allows him to stay in the U.S. and study English. He is dating an HIV-positive black man and shares his apartment with several young Japanese students.

His happy life was briefly disturbed by a recent interaction with one of his female roommates. Upon learning that he is gay, the young woman immediately asked him, “Am I going to get AIDS from you and die?”

That reaction illustrates a troubling lack of awareness about HIV/AIDS in Japan, he said, and suggests some Japanese believe gay men carry HIV and can infect others even without direct contact. It was also hurtful, he said.

“HIV education in Japan has gotten worse in the last 10 years,” he said. “There is just not enough knowledge among young people.”

Jay Minoru Inae, a 56-year-old gay Japanese national, is also concerned about the lack of HIV/AIDS education and awareness in Japan.

Inae has worked as a counselor and facilitator with HIV/AIDS groups in Los Angeles for more than 20 years.

In 1995, he began working for a program jointly run by the Japan Foundation for AIDS Prevention and the University of Southern California that periodically brought Japanese doctors and nurses to the U.S. to learn how to work with HIV-positive patients.

However, conservative Japanese policies have led to budget reductions for many of these types of programs in the past decade, Inae said.

“My work is directly affected by Japanese politics. The budget for our program ran out after Ishihara took over,” Inae said, referring to Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara.

Inae believes that Ishihara’s conservative views toward homosexuality were to blame for termination of the program, and not that the need for training suddenly disappeared.

The group can now only afford two training programs a year, and Inae believes this is not enough to ensure Japanese doctors, nurses and dentists are properly trained in how to treat HIV-positive patients.

Inae’s work has also taught him that the lack of education about HIV/AIDS in Japan and the illusion of “freedom” for both gay and straight Japanese new to the U.S. can be a dangerous combination.

“Japanese who come over here feel so relieved from social and familial obligations in Japan that they spread their wings quite a bit. They start to play,” Inae said. “And it’s when they are all alone, away from their family and friends, that they take part in risky behavior.”

But getting helpful information and support to the at-risk and HIV-positive Japanese community in Los Angeles is not easy, according to Inae.

It is very difficult to get gay and HIV-positive Japanese men to open up to each other, the veteran counselor said.

“The Japanese people with HIV do not want to know each other. They feel the community is too small and they fear being exposed.”

According to the Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team, or APAIT, there are 128 people of Japanese descent with HIV in Los Angeles.

While that number is relatively low, Inae said the troubling fact is that the per capita rate of infection among Japanese is the second-highest in terms of L.A.’s entire Asian community.

For those who are willing to open up and talk about being gay or HIV-positive, however, the feeling of release can be rewarding.

It took the Japanese man with AIDS who came here in 2005 nearly two years to build up the courage to attend an HIV-positive workshop organized by APAIT. He said his experience there was worth the risk of others learning about his health condition.

The man spent one weekend in January sharing his experiences with other HIV-positive Asians and Asian-Americans.

“It was like an oasis for HIV-positive people,” he recalled. “It gave me so much courage to meet men who, like me, have been living with HIV for quite some time, but are still going strong and are happy.”

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