When we first met the man known as Jiraiya in his hometown of Sapporo, Japan, Graham Kolbeins and I were under the impression that he was a travel-phobe, scared of flying, trapped in the North. I’d learn later that this was a misinterpretation of the fact that he had never traveled internationally, because when you’re as famous as Jiraiya, one would assume that not having a passport must necessarily be a deliberate choice, even if the result of a so-called phobia. Once we’d taken him on tour in America, we learned that Jiraiya has actually flown quite a bit throughout Japan, and in fact the idea of him being scared of anything is kind of hilarious in hindsight. As to why he had never been to America, he said simply that he hadn’t ever been invited or provoked to. Asked why wouldn’t he travel more in general, he said without blinking: “why would I? I have everything I need right here.” I ate a bit of humble pie at that. Indeed, why should I assume that anyone with a loving husband, dog, favorite bar, and stable work would want to see what else is out there?
Until I met Jiraiya, Sapporo was a bit of a mystery to me as a Tokyo-centric transnational who hadn’t ventured further north than Kanazawa. Hokkaido literally means “road to the Northern Sea” so who could blame me if I expected something closer to Svalbard. When we arrived at Sapporo central station, I saw something more like Atlanta. It is an industrious city with the contemporary architecture typical of an over-indexed working class. Very efficient, completely nondescript. What permeates the streets and gives it distinction is a strong whisper of nature coursing through the air, its Alpine barometer belying the concrete jungle that lights up every night for locals and the occasional tourist coming through on their way back from skiing and hot-tubbing. The locals are unbothered by their distance from the presumptive capital of Japan. As much as they feel they are an integral part of the monoculture, they are also able to distinguish themselves from the status quo. It all felt appropriately queer to me.
We came to Sapporo with an editorial objective: to meet, learn about and frame Jiraiya in the context of what we thought was his bubble. We learned that it was much more than that. Jiraiya iterated more than once that Sapporo was no second fiddle to Tokyo’s gay scene. He said its annual Pride event was a destination event for many in Japan and even continental Asia. He alluded several times to the vibrant Susukino, a red light district and relic of a bygone Edo hedonism. Jiraiya’s parents owned a “snack” in this very Susukino, a dive bar that serves, well…snacks. So you could say Jiraiya was raised in a bar that happened to be in heart of the Sapporo entertainment district, home to a vibrant queer scene. The gay bar was actually part of a sacred homestead for Jiraiya. It was shelter, it was school, it was sanctuary.
Many of the gay bars in Sapporo are contained in one tall building. Those familiar with Shinjuku 2-chome will know the template. This building was implicitly marked by an awning composed of fluorescent tubes arranged in the colors of the rainbow, though I was told this was a happy accident and not meant to be a flag. At the risk of psychoanalyzing, I think Jiraiya felt a responsibility to show off his hometown gay scene—his gay bars, the gayborhood, this hidden building, the nexus of a population of proud queer folk—because we were Americans from Los Angeles and New York, egregious about our being out. “We’re doing just fine,” was the impression he gave, and he was so happy to show us that building, insisting on educating us almost from the moment we stepped into the city.
So there we were, standing in the foyer of the building. After mulling over the light board marquee of business listings like a dinner menu at a Michelin-starred restaurant, he finally settled on the place he thought would be least bothered by my presence as a woman. Tucked away between the “fat bar” and the “twink bar” was the “olds bar” where we asked permission to enter and settled in for the night. I met our bar master, Rola (which I believe was supposed to be a transliteration of Lola). Rola, a beautiful gigantic Japanese man of Ainu heritage, identified as gay but also performed in drag and frequently spoke in female-identified declensions and idioms. We drank through the night, well approaching the morning, and laughed harder than I ever have. There wasn’t the requisite Japanese-ness of polite conversation here. No need for circumlocution, honorifics, no small talk. No need to pretend anyone there was anything other than themselves. It’s a tautology yes, but the gay bar patron knows that in a world of cultural subterfuge, “being yourself” is the backbone of identity, integrity and well-being.
I’ve watched men flirt with each other, touch each other, openly invite each other to “five minutes in the bathroom” at these gay bars. People asked about the health of their loved ones, the loved ones their workplace colleagues didn’t know about. De facto husbands, boyfriends, pimps, johns, patrons, benefactors, overnight companions.
If my description of this encounter feels belaboured it is only because I want everyone reading to know exactly what it feels like to enter the sacred space of a gay bar like this. It is as much a refuge as it is a private club for members only, which is not some strange form of queer fascism but rather a feature of solidarity and a necessary measure for security. These are spaces where a person gets to gloriously manifest that existential tautology of “doing you” like it is nothing. Like we can almost take it for granted. Almost.
“Yes, this is who I am!” This is the tremulous kid in a bedroom trying on an identity they’re not ready to show their classmates yet. It is the private browser on a salaryman’s smartphone looking for a different kind of companionship than the one their boss knows about. Sometimes it’s the closet you walk into to hide, hoping only that maybe someone else is there. The thing is, there is always someone there. One never needs to be alone, feel in danger, or question their impulses at a gay bar.
There is no idiom for a “flaming gay” in Japanese, but Jiraiya understood that they could be fire, could be flame. We asked at one point whether there were incidents of explicit homophobia or hate crime in Sapporo, he said: all I know is that if anyone set this building on fire, the country would lose its biggest flame.
I am crying as I write this because I have struggled with how to reconcile with the feelings we all experienced in the literal wake of the massacre at Pulse in Orlando, Florida. On Sunday morning, I felt what many of us did: absolute. loss. I struggle with to write this because I want it not to overshadow or underscore the HUNDREDS of other tragedies engendered by hate at any given moment. I struggle with it because I know what it’s like to need safe spaces, particularly for those at an intersection of not just one but the multitudes of self that are abused by general society. Queer people of color know this abuse so acutely, so regularly. I struggle with my feelings, because I can’t do more. But frankly, I don’t know what I could do even if I had the resources. I’ve tried to manifest my compassion to the universe. I’ve tried to make what we do at MASSIVE matter just a tiny bit more this week. But everything has felt wrong. There is something horribly wrong with the world when someone enters a gay bar to celebrate in the privacy of their own gay company, to celebrate their otherwise disenfranchised and denigrated queer existence, by dancing, kissing, groping, fucking, laughing, loving and…There is just something horribly wrong with this world when kids are massacred for a tautology.
The first person I heard from on Sunday morning was Jiraiya.
“My chest hurts and I can’t feel anything. I hope your loved ones are safe. Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”
Jiraiya has felt this loss with a very specific poignancy. I am only speaking on his behalf because he is at a loss for words. He can only imagine but can intimately empathize with the pain that the victims and survivors are experiencing.
I am not sure what we can do, but we are going to try to figure it out with you all.
As a very small gesture of love, we want to help in the only way we know how. Jiraiya has dedicated an illustration in our care, which MASSIVE will put on merchandise—postcard set, poster, coasters, pins, magnets—sponsored in part by the generous contribution of Colour Code Printing. We’ll preview the products soon but its physicality is moot. This is all just stuff. It’s not legislation, it is not magic. But as always, MASSIVE hopes that our stuff can be a vehicle for attention, and now specifically, a vehicle for fundraising: all proceeds from the sale of this art will go to the victims and survivors’ funds and affiliated charities to end gun violence.
We will make another announcement with updates on where you can find these products IRL, and of course, list them on our online store as soon as they become available. If you are interested in carrying this merchandise, please contact us via email at massive(dot)mercy(at)gmail.
MASSIVE and Jiraiya along with all of our artists, want everybody affected by this monstrous tragedy to know:
You are loved.
You are loved.
You are loved.
May you continue to be loved.
May you continue to know love.
We love you.
I love you.
And most importantly, love yourself, family.
MASSIVE GOODS is a fashion brand, publisher, and creative agency representing queer and feminist artists from Japan.