What It Was Like to Be a Gay Businessman in Japan

 A Personal Perspective

My gay story begins after graduating from the University of Illinois in 1980, where I entered my family’s elevator service company. Over the next seven years as the controller, our employees gradually came to know I was gay and I would say their understanding was very liberating. This was at a time when American society was actively discussing what it is to be gay.

Due to a lifelong interest in Japan, I left my parents’ company and in January 1989, at the age of 32, I entered Nippon Motorola in Tokyo.

I was excited to be in Japan and starting a new path in my career. However, as I began to socialize with people, I realized that being gay in Japan at that time was very negatively viewed.

japanese-businessman-picFor example, during the first several weeks when I would go out with groups of co-workers, I was continuously pressed as to why I wasn’t married or asked if I had a secret girlfriend. A few of the men who got drunk would stare at me with unsettling curiosity, and in front of everyone blurt out, “Steven is an okama,” in which “okama” is “faggot” in Japanese. After two of these humiliating experiences I refrained from group get-togethers and went back into the closet for several years to come.

In 1992, I established the first foreign-owned debt collection agency in Japan. One of my customers was Sumitomo Bank and I became very friendly with the then-executive vice-president, Mr. Egawa. He and I would go out once a quarter for dinner and a night on the town.

One evening in 1996, he asked me very directly, “Steven-san, why aren’t you married?” After a pause, I explained that I was gay and attracted to men.

Although he was shocked, for the next few hours, we talked about “what it is to be a gay man.” For the first time since I had arrived in Japan, I spoke from the heart to a Japanese person. As we left the restaurant, Mr. Egawa said: “Steven-san, I’ve never experienced such an honest conversation before with another human being.” He hugged me as we said good-bye.

So after seven years of being deep in the closet in Japan, I decided that I was not going to be there anymore.

While operating my collection business, I joined several business organizations. One group that appealed to me in particular was The Small and Medium-Size Business Friendship Association. I attended their weekly meetings and lively discussions, and I made many friends. Gradually I came out to several people there, and their responses were, overall, very accepting. I suppose this was due to the fact that, like them, I was just another businessman trying to make a buck.

During my time in Japan, I did not know other gay men or women in my situation, especially Japanese. Although LGBT individuals are everywhere, I think they were still very much in the closet.

By the time I left Japan in 2005, all of my good friends and close business associates knew I was gay and I felt it did not make one iota of difference to them.

Subsequent to my departure 11 years ago, I’ve read that awareness and acceptance of LGBT ideas and rights are advancing quickly. The equivalent of civil unions are now allowed in Shibuya and Setagaya wards and many major Japanese companies are now recognizing the importance of making sure their human resources policies and procedures include provisions for their LGBT employees.

As Japan’s society continues to be impacted by the positive LGBT changes taking place throughout the world, the LGBT community in Japan will also continue to contribute to making Japan one of the world’s leading countries.

Steven Gan established and operated the first foreign owned debt collection agency, Advance & Associates, in Tokyo from 1992–2004. As Steve promoted debt collection throughout the country, he became known in the business community as “The Debt Collection Evangelist.” He single-handedly introduced the benefits of implementing effective credit risk management strategies. 

Steve recently wrote the book “Making It & Breaking It in Japan – My True Story of Songs, Sins, and Solitary,” which recounts his 15-year journey in Japan and includes some of his harrowing debt collection experiences — especially those that involved collecting from the Yakuza (the Japanese Mafia).