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Japanese Pop Star, Shinjiro Atae, Comes Out Publicly as Gay

At first, there was total silence. Then, there were shrieks, wild applause, weeping and shouts of “I love you!”

Fans of Shinjiro Atae, a J-pop idol who has been on a nearly two-year performance hiatus, had come to hear him talk about “the challenge of my life.” Standing onstage in a dark auditorium in front of 2,000 fans in central Tokyo on Wednesday night, he revealed something he has kept hidden for most of his life: He is gay.

“I respect you and believe you deserve to hear this directly from me,” he said, reading from a letter he had prepared. “For years, I struggled to accept a part of myself. But now, after all I have been through, I finally have the courage to open up to you about something. I am a gay man.”

Such an announcement is extremely unusual in conservative Japan, the only G7 country that has not legalized same-sex unions. Earlier this summer, the Japanese Parliament passed an L.G.B.T.Q rights bill but it had been watered down by the political right, stating that there “should be no unfair discrimination” against gay and transgender people.

In making a public declaration, Mr. Atae, who spent two decades performing with AAA, a hit Japanese pop group, before embarking on a solo career, said he wanted his fans to know his true self. He also hopes to comfort those who might be grappling with anxieties about their sexuality.

“I don’t want people to struggle like me,” he said.

Activists said they could not recall an instance when a Japanese pop star of his stature had publicly declared they were gay, because of anxieties about losing fans or sponsors.

“I think he has decided to come out in order to change Japan,” said Gon Matsunaka, a director and adviser to Pride House Tokyo, a support center for the gay and transgender community.

Mr. Atae, who began dancing with AAA when he was just 14, said he has been preparing for — and fearing — this public coming-out for years.

For most of his performing life, “I thought if I was found out, it would end my career, and so I couldn’t tell anyone,” said Mr. Atae during an hour-and-a-half interview the day before his announcement at the apartment of his elder sister in western Tokyo, where he sat on a lime green straw mat in a gray T-shirt and baggy black faux leather shorts.

The decision to open up about his sexuality, he said, evolved over seven years of living in Los Angeles, where he saw how freely gay couples could show affection in public and built an extensive support network.

“Everyone was so open,” he said. “People would talk about their vulnerabilities. In Japan, people think it’s best not to talk about those things.”

Gay and transgender performers who regularly appear on television do not talk explicitly about their sexuality.

“Japanese society is not a place where people strictly state their sexuality,” said Satoshi Masuda, a researcher specializing in Japanese popular music at Osaka City University. “Rather, it naturally comes to be known.”

Mr. Atae, the youngest of three children, grew up in a town between Kyoto and Osaka.

His mother insisted that he play baseball until the end of elementary school. Sticking with it, she told him, would teach him “gaman” — the Japanese word for endurance.

When he discovered a local hip-hop dance studio, the discipline became an instant passion. “I just thought: ‘This is it,’” he said.

His instructors encouraged him to try out for a new pop group. On a lark, he sent in a résumé and auditioned by video though he was still in middle school. After two weeks of training in dance, singing and acting in Tokyo, Mr. Atae was selected by the management company, Avex, as one of eight initial band members.

AAA debuted in 2005, with Mr. Atae, the youngest member, forgoing high school. He performed mostly as a dancer, and began appearing in TV series and movies.

His sexuality perplexed him. “It was a time when on TV, comedians would say two men kissing was gross,” he said. If anyone asked if he had a girlfriend, he just said he was too busy working.

AAA rapidly scored with fans, eventually recording eight top 10 hits on Billboard Japan’s Top 100 chart.

But as Mr. Atae wrote in a memoir, “Every Life Is Correct, But Incorrect,” published last year, “my mental state was in shambles.” He said he spent a period with AAA “stuck in a marsh of negative thinking,” frustrated that he was not as well known as other band members.

What he left out was that he was terrified that a gossip magazine or fans would discover he was gay.

In 2016, as some of the members of AAA embarked on solo acts, Mr. Atae moved to Los Angeles, where he attended entertainment business classes and studied English on his own.

But when he visited neighborhoods popular with the L.G.B.T.Q. community, he ran into Japanese tourists and expats, and feared someone might leak a photo of him at a gay club or out with a male date.

“I thought, everything is over,” he said. Then the long-ago baseball lessons from his mother kicked in. “I thought there had to be a way,” he said.

Gradually, Mr. Atae made friends he could trust with his secret. He began to plan his public revelation.

He would have to tell his family, his mother first. “It was the most nervous I have ever been in coming out,” he said.

“I was super surprised, and I had never imagined it,” said his mother, Suzuko, 66, who asked to keep her surname private to avoid harassment.

Although she supported her son personally, she balked when he said he wanted to go public. She was anxious about Mr. Atae facing online attacks or discrimination. Now, she said, “I am 200 percent supportive.”

On Wednesday night, his mother sat in the back row of the auditorium, across the aisle from her two other children and their families, crying as he broke down sobbing as he told the audience that he once “thought my feelings were wrong.”

Even as Mr. Atae started recording solo songs with lyrics like “Pretty girl, I still adore you,” he had started telling more people about his sexuality. His solo career has been modest, with no chart-topping hits.

To his friends, the news was often a surprise. But many, including fellow band members from AAA, showed up on Wednesday to cheer him on. “The word ‘diversity’ started becoming more common, but how to take in that word is still a very difficult issue in Japan,” said Misako Uno, 37, a member of AAA, in a backstage interview. “I want to be a good cushion” for him.

Writing his memoir, Mr. Atae said, was a way to soft-pedal his eventual announcement to fans.

“I figured it was not a good idea to just suddenly say ‘I am gay,’” he said.

Mr. Atae’s decision, he said, was not political. All he wanted, he said, was to “normalize” being gay.

On the day before his announcement, a stylist, a makeup artist, a publicist and several assistants trailed Mr. Atae during a photo shoot where he wore a Céline shirt and John Lawrence Sullivan trousers. He seemed relaxed, despite repeating how nervous he felt.

Coming out, he knew, would likely draw criticism. “Whatever you do, there will be haters,” he said. “I can only focus on the people I might be helping.”

After the announcement on Wednesday night, Miku Tada, 23, an art student in Tokyo, said her heart broke to think of how Mr. Atae had “struggled on his own.” But now, she said, “I think that he can have a lot of influence on other kids who may be feeling the same way.”

Reiko Uchida, 43, a housewife from Saitama, a suburb outside Tokyo, said that normally, she would be taken aback if someone told her they were gay or lesbian. But with Mr. Atae, she said, “I see him as someone whose personality I like and a person that I respect.”

The evening closed with a music video broadcast of Mr. Atae’s single, “Into the Light”:

“I spent so long being these versions of myself/

I forgot who I was, I was somebody else/

You give me something I’ve been missing my whole life/

I’m coming into the light.”

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Mohammad SHiblu

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