Language no problem for gallery pair

by Natsuko Fukue

Hitoshi Ohashi, 48, and Robert Tobin, 63, have been in a relationship for 20 years. When they first met at a bar in the Shinjuku district in Tokyo, Ohashi, a makeup artist, barely spoke English, and Tobin, an American professor in the business department at Keio University, didn’t know much Japanese. But they say language wasn’t a problem.

Now they live together in Meguro Ward with a 2-year-old miniature Schnauzer named Momo (Peach) and run an art gallery introducing contemporary Asian artists.

When and why did you come to Tokyo?

Robert: I came in 1989. I was a consultant for the U.S. Air Force and Navy (in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture; Yokota, Tokyo; and Yokohama) to help them downsize. I did the job almost for two years, but I met Hitoshi. They wanted me to go back to America or go to (South) Korea, so I quit. I really wanted to stay here.

Hitoshi: I’m from Fukuoka. I wanted to live in Tokyo, so on the occasion of my friend’s wedding here, I found an apartment and decided to move 23 years ago.

How did you meet?

Robert: At a bar in Shinjuku 2-chome.

Hitoshi: I’m not that outgoing, but that night I went there just because I didn’t have many gay friends. I wasn’t looking for a boyfriend. Then, Bob was sitting next to me.

Did you expect that you two would be in a relationship when you met?

Robert: I didn’t expect it. I think that’s one reason why it worked. And right after we met, Hitoshi left for one month to work in Osaka.

Hitoshi: I had just started working as a freelance makeup artist at that time, so I decided I would concentrate on my job 100 percent. I don’t know how we started our relationship. It was gradual.

But you didn’t speak much English back then?

Hitoshi: My English was limited to only “hello” and “goodbye.”

Robert: He’s very good with a dictionary so he was checking them and using some phrase books.

Did you have any miscommunication at the beginning?

Hitoshi: One time Bob asked me to come to Kitakurihama (near Yokosuka), where he lived, and he said we would meet at “31.” I couldn’t really understand the time in English, but I thought it was a strange time. Not 30, not 40 but 31. I even didn’t know how to ask why.

I went to the station, then saw a (Baskin-Robbins) 31 ice cream shop. . . .

Robert: But I didn’t feel like language was really a big problem.

Do you feel cultural differences?

Robert: Food, customs . . . all these things. I find them interesting. But it’s not just cultural differences, and there are Bob-and-Hitoshi differences, too.

Hitoshi: For example, I don’t like arguing because it’s embarrassing. Bob always wants to talk.

Robert: Hitoshi just smokes outside. . . .

Hitoshi: Arguing is not cool to me. But Bob said we have to clear things up.

So what do you do when there is a conflict?

Robert: We try to make a joke of it. If we have some argument, we have this technical rewind. Erase the argument and start over again.

Hitoshi: For example, if I said something bad to Bob and he’s hurt, I say, “I’m sorry! Rewind . . . then play!”

Robert: It works.

What happened after Robert quit his job for the U.S. military?

Robert: Hitoshi supported me.

Hitoshi: I was living in a small apartment at that time. Only the size of six tatami mats. I told my landlord he wanted to stay but only for a short time because he was looking for a new apartment. Maybe only a few weeks or a month. But a few weeks became a few months, then a year.

Robert: Then I got consulting jobs for Japanese companies that were going overseas. They came to our small apartment with a limousine in the morning to pick me up.

But I wanted to find a university job. Hitoshi recommended that I apply for Keio even though I was little bit older than the age limit.

How did you start an art gallery?

Robert: Six years ago I traveled in Asia for a month. After a lot of success in consulting and university, I needed a break. I went to galleries and met many artists there, and knew that was my life. I came back and said to Hitoshi, “We’re going to start an art gallery.” In five minutes he said yes.

I was always an art collector, and we always had art in our home.

Do your parents know you’re gay?

Robert: My family loves Hitoshi, but if I had married and had children, that would be the best thing for my mother.

Hitoshi: I think they know, but we have never been clear about the topic. They used to ask me why I wasn’t getting married every time they called. I asked them not to bring it up because I have a perfectly happy life. I’m 100 percent satisfied.

One time, Bob and I planned to go to Fukuoka. I did all the planning, and the day before, my father called and asked me to cancel the trip.

I’m close to my sister, so I told her my foreign roommate is actually my partner. She started crying and yelling. She said I should go to a hospital. We had no communication for about 10 years until I called her again to see how her sick husband was doing.

For the past 20 years, I also lost touch with my best friend because I told him I was gay. He also suggested I go to a mental hospital.

Robert: The most important thing is we’re happy.

Are you open about the relationship?

Robert: We try to live a very open, free life. We used to hang art at the American Club. I said, “Honey, lower that side!” I was a bit embarrassed for a second, but thought to myself “get over it.”

This relationship is the priority for me. Love is really worth developing.

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