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The Barbarian and the Gay

STORY: 1998-1999—In 1998, my investment bank offered me a position heading up a group in its Tokyo office. I was reluctant to go, but it was the only way I was likely to remain on my career path, so I agreed to move there for several years.

Unsurprisingly, life in Tokyo was exciting, exotic, and exasperating all at the same time. I was still closeted at work, as was typical for most gays working in the banking industry then, and that created an additional challenge to my adjustment. While Wall Street wasn’t as homophobic as it had been when I first arrived in 1980, it wasn’t nearly as accepting as it is today.

Dating in Tokyo was difficult. I had never been around Asian men much and had little interest in them, so, during my first months in Japan I was mostly celibate. But, after living for a while in an environment where almost all the available gay men were of Asian descent, I began to grow more accustomed to their ways and open to the possibilities they represented.

Inevitably, I found some more attractive than others. As I later learned, that transformation is typical—after living in Asia for a while, most western gay men begin to find Asian men attractive. Some even stop being attracted to other western—or gaijin (as we are called). While I never lost interest in westerners, I did meet someone local.

Ken at work in the bar at Dragon Club.

Kenichi (Ken) Minami, was a good looking muscled 31-year-old guy, who opened the only Western-friendlyoff-hours, gay disco in Tokyo, Club Dragon (most gay clubs in Tokyo exclusively service Japanese men ). Ken was attracted to older men. He’d been bankrolled in his business by a former boyfriend. And, now, despite having no more than a high school education, he was earning more running his cramped disco in Tokyo’s gay Ni-Chome district than I was as a fairly senior American investment banker.

My boyfriend, Ken Minami (center), with my friends, Simon Roost Kirkegaard and Alfred Perry, at New York Bar in the Park Hyatt Tokyo in 1998.

I initially met Ken through an American friend who was interested in dating him and sought my advice on how to best meet him. My friend was very enamored of Ken and far too aggressive, to my eyes, coming across as desperate. Using my best Cyrano de Bergerac mentoring skills, I coached him on how to be more coy, while still showing interest.

My boyfriend with chains and his tattoos behind the bar at Club Dragon in Tokyo.

As it turned out, Ken was more interested in me than in my friend. After a bit of awkwardness, I started dating Ken and we remained together the rest of my time in Japan.

He spoke only broken English and I spoke almost no Japanese but somehow we managed to communicate.

Ken had been born in South Korea. His family, minus his father, had migrated to Japan when Ken was five. His mother and several brothers lived an hour away on the other side of Tokyo and the family met for dinner each week. Ken was financially supporting his mother and at least one of his brothers. Yet, none of them knew, or really wanted to know, what business he was in, because it would have meant confronting deeply held societal biases against anyone different, including gay men. As a result, the subject of my being introduced to his family was never broached.

Our biggest issues were cultural ones, such as how he looked at and treated the women in his life. In Korean culture, as he put it, it was expected the men might have to go to war at any moment. So, they were given primacy in eating at the dinner table, while their wives stood behind their chairs. I tried explaining why, as a gay man wanting to be treated equally in a stratified society, he should be especially sensitive to the aspirations of others, especially his mother, to be treated equally. But, my point never hit home.

Despite our differences, it was nice to have companionship, while I dealt with my stressful job and the challenges of living as a foreigner in Japan.

Ken was a good businessman, very friendly with his customers, regularly offering promotions, and exploring every angle for marketing his business . One channel involved filming soft-porn videos in his disco during off hours. At the time, films in Japan were legally prohibited from displaying pubic hair or genitals, so, in porn films, those areas were covered with a gauzy opaqueness, rendering the content somewhat innocuous. The videos were then marketed to rural Japanese gay men outside the metropolitan Tokyo area. As a result, when the “hicks from the sticks” came to visit Tokyo, they already knew of Club Dragon and were drawn to it.

Ken appeared in a couple of the films, himself. Yet, while you could call him a porn star, unlike many in that business, he had no ego about it, nor did he enjoy the attention. He was just doing it to build his club’s business.

On one occasion, Ken had scheduled a solo porn shoot where he would masturbate in front of the camera, while standing on a makeshift table. He asked me to attend the filming and requested I wear my business suit (business attire excited him). I arranged my schedule so I could be there to “lend a hand.”

Just before the shoot, he greased his body and we went into a private restroom together to get him prepared. I did my duty, making sure he was fully erect for the filming. During the shoot, I stood in a corner within his view and rubbed my crotch lasciviously, which I knew would turn him on.

Meanwhile, on the work front, my Japanese colleagues were proving impossible to manage, making my 12-hours-a-day job miserable. While I loved my life outside of work, my job was hell. Eventually, in an effort to marginalize me, some Japanese employees in the branch spread a rumor that I was gay, based strictly on the fact that I was single and had moved to Tokyo with two cats in tow.

The rumor got back to the vice-chairman of the bank in NYC which caused quite a stir, mainly because of the risk that I might sue the bank for the discrimination I was experiencing in Japan. Management approached me and sought assurances I wasn’t litigation-minded. In the end, I realized my time in the firm, in Tokyo, and in banking had come to an end and I was relieved when my company offered to relocate me back to NYC and provided me with a satisfactory severance package.

As all this was all coming to a head, Ken began pulling away from me to prepare himself emotionally for my leaving. I understood, but was sad to experience that distancing. We have remained friends over the subsequent 18 years. I saw him once on a trip back to Tokyo and another time when he visited NYC, but it has been some time since we were last in each other’s presence. We rely mainly on Facebook and Instagram to keep up on each other’s lives.

—Mike Balaban


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