• Tue. May 28th, 2024

Japan Subculture Research Center

A guide to the Japanese underworld, Japanese pop-culture, yakuza and everything dark under the sun.

Tokyo, by Dan Ryan

All photos by Dan Ryan

It was a little like the scenario in that Kinks song “Lola”, but only in passing. I met her in a little place called Seoul Bar, which is in a rundown section of northeast Tokyo called Sanya. At first I thought her was a him, and she sounded like a man but…


The lipstick should have given me a clue, but it was confusing initially, even more so because his, sorry, her English was pretty rusty, and my Japanese was horrible. She took an interest in me because I was American. When she was still fully he, he used to work for Americans in the ‘60s. Or the ‘70s, but doing what I never completely figured out. But we managed fitfully to communicate, and after a few minutes I thought he was a pretty interesting woman.


She’d had the money at some unspecified point in the past to start the process of becoming her true self, to transition from male to female. Her family, which might have included a wife and kids, never understood nor approved of what she needed to be. They disowned her many years ago.


However, it was obvious she was accepted in Seoul Bar, but also treated a bit like an oddity. When another bar patron took a schoolboy jab at her breasts, it bothered me. It was playful, but far from respectful. But it was nearly 13:00, in a bar in a crummy part of town, and everyone was drinking. So maybe my standards were unrealistically high. Hell, she even wanted me to take a feel of her tits. She was proud of them. I declined.


She was also proud of her hands, justifiably I thought, but seemed frustrated by lingering facial hair. My guess is whatever hormones she used to take had worn off some time ago. She also said she still had the male parts she’d been born with.


I left the Seoul Bar when the karaoke was about to start and went out to the shōtengai to take more pictures. After about five minutes, I noticed my ladyfriend walking in the same direction I was. She had bar-snack crumbs on her face, and in the outdoor light I could really see how worn and shabby-looking she was. Yet as she waved her hands around at my camera, her manicured nails were still noticeable, as were her few female bumps and curves. She looked more like a woman standing up outside than she had hunched next to me in a chair in the dark little bar we’d been in.


She and I walked together for a few minutes. She didn’t mind me taking pictures of her. In fact, she carried herself with a little bit of the vanity some women seem to naturally have, whether their looks entitle them to such vanity or not. But the fact that this woman, this shabby, incomplete woman, carried herself in this way instantly earned a small measure of my respect. It took, for lack of a better term, balls.


We came to a stop when she spotted a man she knew, a friend I suppose, a guy I had photographed previously. He was pretty goddamned drunk. But she wanted to go talk to him.


Like I said, she was proud of her breasts and not shy about playing with them in public. I didn’t ask her to do this. I don’t know enough Japanese to get that far. But she posed for me a few times out there in the street, and this is where her hands always ended up. You’ve got to roll with these things in some parts of Tokyo street life.


Then she walked over to talk to her friend. It was a short conversation. The guy in the gutter made a slow lunge for my ladyfriend’s crotch. Her response, as I barely understood it, was to offer to show the man that he would have gotten a handful of male goodies if she had let his fingers reach their target. This was a little bit too much for me, the idea that this incomplete woman was prepared to whip out her male equipment in the street.

So I walked away. But you know, I never even got her name.


Reporting and photography for this story was done in April, 2012.

Author’s note: This is an excerpt from my second Amazon Kindle photo essay book, “Tales from Seoul Bar: A Tokyo Panic Stories Mini-book”. You can buy a copy here.

Dan Ryan is a journalist, photographer, and poet. His work has been published by Scholars & Rogues, tsuki Magazine, Giant Robot, Kizuna, Jack Move, Zero Hedge, and Japan Subculture Research Center. You can see more of his Tokyo work at Dan Ryan’s SmallStories. He recently created a Kickstarter project to fund his next photo project in Tokyo. He lives in Brisbane, California.



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8 thoughts on “The Incomplete Transsexual—a photo essay from Sanya”
  1. Wow, that was just transphobic as hell. Please try educating yourself before writing about this kind of thing again. For shame.

    1. You should have looked it up yourself, but here’s a guide for journalists. http://www.glaad.org/reference/transgender

      Firstly, let’s start with the complete disregard of her preferred pronouns, and utter disrespect for her identity in just the first few paragraphs. Then references of “respect” when the writer can’t even avoid phrases like “incomplete woman”. Really?

      Dan needs to get a clue. All this, and he didn’t even ask her what her name is. Surely he knew enough Japanese to do THAT. There could have been so much written about her experiences, even in just the few short hours that they’d met, and all he can do is take the time to comment on facial hair. Pathetic.

      1. BT, I’m sorry you didn’t care for the way in which I referred to the transgender person in my photo essay. For the record, I did not spend a few short hours with her, I spent all of 20 minutes between the bar and the street that you see in the photos. But I submit to you that my photographs show a respect and a level of affection for my subject that I doubt you will see in the work of all but a few photographers who have spent any time with transgender people.

        As for the text accompanying my pictures, well, maybe I didn’t write the most politically-correct narrative. I cop to that. But I got the heart of the story, which was irreverent and booze-soaked and difficult due to a language barrier and the run-down, low-rent character of the Sanya neighborhood. And, if I may say, by focusing on the politically-correct particulars of gender terminology, you have completely missed the full substance of my photo essay. The substance being her sad story of not being able to complete being who she truly wants to be, but also her quality of dignity, which I could hardly of commented on if I were just some clueless hack taking happy snaps of someone I regarded merely as an oddity.

        Have a nice day.

        1. Dan,
          Thanks for writing the article and thanks for responding.
          I don’t think the article was disrespectful and I don’t think there is a manual for the correct way to right about subjects are not mainstream and sensitive.

  2. Tsk tsk what’s wrong hit a nerve? Sweetie you can’t write Nathalie. Try using your education to get a real reporter’s job and salary.

  3. well what do you expect from laddish, vanity sites like this one? It’s all about looking tough for the laaaaaaaaaaaadies in here.

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