AIDS and the Gay Community in Japan

Hasegawa Hiroshi

translated from the Japanese by Mark McLelland

This article originally appeared in Fushimi Noriaki (ed.) Dōseiai nyŪmon [Introduction to homosexuality], Tokyo: Potto shuppan, 2003, under the title 'Eizu to geikomyuniti,', pp. 136-39

  1. The history of AIDS commenced in 1981 when it was reported that reduced immunity had been observed among gay men in Los Angeles, America, who were suffering from Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. At that time it was not understood that this was the result of a virus called HIV and it was referred to by the acronym GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency). Subsequent research revealed that the same kind of cases had occurred in New York as well as California, and in 1982 it was reported that there were already over one hundred cases in other big cities like New York which were home to comparatively large gay communities. From this year on, the disease came to be referred to as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
  2. AIDS came as a shock to America's gay community which had come to maturity at the peak of the 1970s gay movement. Moreover, the conservative Reagan administration which had just been inaugurated ignored AIDS, considering it to be a disease which affected only 'special interest groups' such as gay men and drug users and to have nothing to do with 'decent American citizens.' The consequence was that US AIDS policy invited failure. It also resulted in an appalling situation for AIDS sufferers themselves who even lost their employment and housing due to discriminatory treatment. Under such circumstances it was, as you might expect, other gay men who extended their hands to offer assistance. Likewise, at a time when even the cause of AIDS was still not known and it was common for hospitals to refuse AIDS patients, it was homosexual medical professionals who pressed on and participated in AIDS research.
  3. In Japan in 1984, despite the fact that the Health Ministry had discovered that four of twenty-two Japanese haemophiliac patients who had received blood transfusions had been infected, this information was not released to the media; instead, in 1985, a Japanese homosexual man residing in the US was acknowledged as Japan's first AIDS patient. Only after this was a haemophiliac man identified as having AIDS. From these circumstances, it seems obvious that the Health Ministry and other health experts, by associating AIDS with gay men, were intent on diverting society's gaze from their own criminal negligence.
  4. However, in 1984 Minami Teishirō, the chief editor of gay magazine Adon, founded Japan's first organization for sexual minorities, ILGA (International Lesbian and Gay Association) Japan, which, from 1985, commenced activities aimed at homosexuals such as a telephone counselling service. Furthermore, in 1986 the citizen's group Association for Moving Lesbians and Gays (also known as OCCUR) was founded and has addressed problems to do with homosexual rights, including AIDS. However, despite their foresight, their activities were not well supported by gay men who, at that time, did not feel much of a connection with other men on the basis of their shared sexuality, and even though AIDS had been identified as an important issue, concern about AIDS was not widespread. This unfortunately shows the lack of maturity among the gay community. Nevertheless, through consistent effort these groups' activities began to bear fruit in the 1990s. Comparatively realistic impressions of gay life were presented in the 'gay boom' which took place in the general media at the beginning of the decade, and there was a movement toward gay people themselves discussing their own lives. Also at this time, following on from the publication of new gay magazines which gave a more positive impression of gay sex, the AIDS problem also came to be treated more seriously.
  5. In 2000 the Tokyo Lesbian and Gay Parade which had been temporarily suspended was successfully re-launched. Also, due to the efforts of Action Committee chief, Sunagawa Hideki, who had been running prevention education activities under the auspices of an NGO for AIDS awareness named PLACE Tokyo as well as other events staged by the group Gay Friends for AIDS, helped foster a growing awareness about AIDS issues among the gay community throughout the 1990s. Sunagawa's influence was extremely important in the staging of AIDS prevention events in the same format as other community events and it can be said that 'Voice' (a series of musical and dramatic performances which took place in Shinjuku Ni-chōme) was Japan's first successful example of a community-level AIDS prevention event.
  6. Also, in May 2000 preceding the Tokyo parade, MASH Osaka (Men and Sexual Health Osaka) staged a community event in Osaka's Doyama area (the equivalent of Tokyo's Ni-chōme) entitled SWITCH 2000. Up until this point, Osaka's Doyama had seen almost no community activities so, on top of galvanising community activism through such things as art and club events, SWITCH also established a fun environment for HIV prevention education and testing and provided the first Japanese model for an integrated AIDS prevention program. If we look at the history of these kinds of prevention activities which have taken place in the gay community, we can see how the community has become more active as gay men who previously resisted the idea that their sexuality was a way of life now recognise a sense of fellowship with others who share the same sexuality. Moreover, we can also see that it was through effectively treating AIDS as a common concern that the community began to develop such activities.
  7. It is important to point out that when MASH Osaka staged SWITCH 2000 it was not simply a matter of blending AIDS awareness with community events, but it also brought together and fostered cooperation between medical professionals, researchers, administrators and other experts from outside the community. At the centre of this was Ichikawa Yoshikazu of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare's research group for socio-epidemiological studies. Despite the fact that Professor Ichikawa is heterosexual, he has assisted with community activism from the sidelines, has offered criticism on the effects of that activism from the standpoint of a researcher and set up systems to liaise between the bureaucracy and medical authorities. Professor Ichikawa was among those researchers who, in 1996, under the auspices of the Health Ministry's HIV/AIDS epidemiology research group, conducted research by collecting and examining used tissues and condoms from the trash cans in the city's cruise spots and was fiercely criticized by the community for this method. However, Professor Ichikawa subsequently made a major contribution to various prevention activities supported by a loose network of groups from within the gay community which was established after the MASH Osaka and MASH Tokyo events, such as the Rainbow Ring Project which cooperated to distribute condoms. Professor Ishikawa, through dispensing with a binary gay/hetero perspective, and stressing a community or client-centred approach was able to acquire a perspective similar to that of a community member.
  8. Moreover, due to his fervent efforts, in 2002 the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare's Division for Counteracting Disease set up the Investigative Committee for AIDS Prevention Countermeasures for Sexual Contagion among MSM. More than half the membership of this investigative committee is made up of gay people themselves as well as other members of the community concerned with AIDS prevention. This was an epoch-making event, not just for AIDS organizations in Japan but also in terms of the history of the gay community. It is not the case that gay people such as ourselves live together on an isolated island but rather we live alongside a large number of non-gay people. Once this is understood, it is important that society become more tolerant toward gay lifestyles. However, our community is not yet mature and we are still faced by various problems. Since what we call the gay community is not a small, separate island, it is extremely important that we work together with understanding straight people.
  9. Individuals from America's gay community who had been fighting AIDS were able to use the skills they had developed to help those non-gay groups such as women, young people and drug users who subsequently fell victim to the virus and on account of their contribution to a general AIDS policy, gay people were able to bring about a more tolerant society. Also it can be said that the appearance of AIDS and AIDS activism had a largely reinvigorating effect on the maturation of the gay community which seemed to have temporarily stalled. In order to bring about a world in which we can live as we wish it is not only necessary that bonds within the community should be further strengthened but it is also important that we build relationships with as many understanding non-gay friends from outside the community as possible.
  10. AIDS appeared on the scene in 1980 and subsequently a large number of people have died. If we take a look at the American gay community, the number of people who are now in their fifties and sixties is extremely few. It was the case that twenty years ago unsafe sex was widely practiced since the cause of AIDS was not well understood, little information was available and discrimination and bias against gays was still deep seated. However, since 1996, numerous types of medication have appeared; a treatment named HART has been developed which suppresses HIV within the body and retards the spread of the disease. On account of this development it can be said that the meaning of the disease called AIDS has changed dramatically. It has shifted from a fatal disease to a manageable condition.
  11. At present there are around seven thousand individuals infected with HIV or living with AIDS in Japan and it is said that more than half, about four thousand of these people, are gay men. Among them, due to medical treatment, most are able to live out their lives and to work, carry on personal relationships and enjoy their sex lives much as before. In the case where HIV infection is diagnosed before the onset of symptoms, it is possible to recover one's health even after an outbreak of disease and that state of health can be maintained. However, it is not so simple as to think that becoming infected with HIV is no longer a problem. For instance, there is a big difference between the way that different individuals respond both to the HIV virus and to medication. While some individuals do not experience symptoms of the virus for a long period of time, others experience symptoms comparatively quickly and while some people respond well to HIV inhibiting medication, there are others who do not. Furthermore, there are some individuals who cannot continue taking medication due to the severe side effects and even among those who do continue with the medication, many have to put up with side effects such as fatigue and diarrhoea. The trouble is that HIV infection cannot be totally prevented at present and patients must continue to visit the hospital at fixed intervals on a semi-permanent basis. 'But in the meantime, won't a permanent cure be discovered?' Whether or not some people think this, it is dangerous to be optimistic without reason. Even though more than twenty years have passed since the HIV virus was discovered, effective medication is still limited. There are also cases in which the medicine turns out to be bad for the patient and the therapeutic procedure falls apart. To this extent, HIV is not a pleasant disease.
  12. Recently, there are those that use this phrase in relation to AIDS: 'It's a disease that's hard to die from and hard to live with.' After all, we have to continue living with AIDS for the time being. Yet, unlike the situation in the 1980s, we know the cause of the disease and are also aware of prevention measures. So, although we cannot make light of the disease, we shouldn't be overly afraid of it either. We simply need to face the facts.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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