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Risk of HIV infection stalks Tokyo’s 2-chome gay enclave

TOKYO (TR) – Ko is a regular in the gay quarter of 2-chome, an area filled with small blocks of roughly 300 bars, clubs, video stores and small hotels in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward.

Of slight build and sporting long, wavy hair, the 23-year-old provides out-call (deri heru) SM services, typically dispensed in love hotels or residences, to homosexual men. Bondage, whipping and humiliation are among his specialties.

During an interview at a coffee shop at the edge of 2-chome, Ko explains that should sexual contact be requested, a condom is a necessity. “And if I have to touch inside a customer, I’ll use rubber gloves,” he adds.

Yet many men do not take such precautions — a fact that has made the gay community the largest growth population for cases of HIV and AIDS in Japan, reports the Japan Foundation for AIDS Prevention (JFAP).

Data released earlier this year by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare showed that the total number of new cases of HIV and AIDS recorded in Japan last year — totaling 1,452 — had actually fallen slightly compared to that of 2008, but JFAP says that last year’s outbreak of H1N1 (or “swine flu”) caused health centers to subsequently be overwhelmed and the results to be misleading.

Over the last decade and a half, however, the general trend of reported HIV infections and AIDS cases has been that of a steady increase. As to the risk in the gay community, the numbers speak for themselves: JFAP has found that 70 percent of new HIV infections last year were due to men having sex with men.

An organization affiliated with the foundation, Community Center Akta, managed by the group Rainbow Ring, operates out of a third-floor office in the heart of the area. “We established this center to actively work in the gay bars and the gay community in general,” says JFAP representative Yasushi Sawazaki.

Services include condom distribution and the publication of the monthly newsletter Akta, which offers a guide to events and information on centers that provide testing for HIV, the virus that leads to the condition AIDS.

To be in 2-chome is to see sex readily available, yet not quite as openly marketed as it is for heterosexuals within the nearby red-light district of Kabukicho. On a recent visit to the area near the Akta offices, one young man, in a pink shirt and smoking a cigarette in a nearby hallway, could be seen by passersby to be vigorously rubbing his groin area — an obvious signal that he is available.

Interestingly, Ko says that men are more cautious in the area’s “happening bars” — dimly lit rooms where one checks his sexual inhibitions at the door. He explains that there are two bars that are very popular and a total of roughly 10 in all of 2-chome. Usually, he adds, the establishments will have a theme that is descriptive of the clientele, such as thin, fat, muscular or Johnny’s (ジャニーズ, as shown in photo above), which refers to the Johnny’s Jimusho promotion company for young male entertainers.

“When people meet in a regular bar, we can see their face, see their reactions and note their overall feeling; we can kind of judge if they are safe or dangerous,” Ko explains. “But in dark places (such as a happening bar) we don’t have that information. I can see a nose or a mouth but not really an entire face. People who go to those places are much more careful about HIV.”

Though Sawasaki says that one encouraging sign is that homosexual men are very aware of their risk and are therefore more apt than heterosexuals to get tested, Ko believes that the negative connotation associated with HIV causes it to remain a taboo subject.

“It’s a hidden word,” Ko says. “If I say ‘HIV,’ then people will think someone around me has HIV.”

Note: The Akta Community Center is on the Web here.