The incomplete transsexual: a small tale from the Seoul Bar

by Dan Ryan

TokyoDay24 049 - Sharp
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…

TokyoDay24 051 - Sharp
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.

TokyoDay24 131
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.

TokyoDay24 132 - Sharp
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.

TokyoDay24 134
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.

TokyoDay24 080
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.

TokyoDay24 087
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 a way instantly earned a small measure of my respect. It took, for lack of a better term, balls.
TokyoDay24 088
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.
TokyoDay24 104 - Sharp
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.

TokyoDay24 107
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.

(Pictures taken on the shōtengai in Sanya, Tokyo in April, 2012)

Categories: LGBT, Photography, Race/Gender, World

Tagged as: ,

5 replies »

  1. A profoundly transphobic article, Dan. You should be ashamed of yourself disrespecting this woman who has obviously not had half as privileged a life as yourself.

    Mis-gendering her, highlighting her facial hair, and demonstrating an unhealthy fascination with her breasts was very unfair. Along with not even getting, never mind using, her name. Almost an attempt to dehumanise her?

    Until you examine your own motives for writing and photographing in this manner, YOU will be the one who is incomplete. Keep walking …

    • Oh please. The author is rather clearly coming to grips with his own unfamiliarity with this part of the gender and cultural terrain and acknowledges how outside the experience he is. He takes the subject on her own terms and the tone of the piece is strange and gritty, much like the life she leads. She’s human, he’s human, and this is an extremely honest and vulnerable take on one of those snapshot moments that move us toward greater understanding and empathy.

      Ultimately, she’s treated with the same honesty and respect that Ryan treats all of his subjects. Were he to do anything else it would be patronizing.

  2. there are real bigots out there. go find them and bang on them instead of this guy.

  3. Ms. Ryan, I’m sorry you didn’t care for the way in which I referred to the transgender person in my photo essay. 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 what you perceive as the “transphobic” particulars of my work, 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. I hope we’re not related.

    P.S. Thanks to Sam Smith and Otherwise for coming to my defense.