Teiji Furuhashi photo Tony Fong crop

Portrait of Teiji Furuhashi by Tony Fong

To conclude Sho Akita's International Curatorial Residency and facilitate further research into Teiji Furuhashi’s legacy, Visual AIDS has commissioned the first English translation of the artist’s coming out letter.

Teiji Furuhashi (1960–1995) was a founding member of the performance collective Dumb Type and an outspoken AIDS activist in Japan. In 1992, after spending several months in New York, Furuhashi returned to Kyoto and sent a letter to his friends and collaborators titled "LIFE WITH VIRUS," sharing his HIV status and reflecting on the stigma and morality surrounding AIDS. The letter prompted Dumb Type to develop a major new performance responding to the AIDS crisis in Japan, S/N, which toured to more than twenty cities throughout the 1990s. In May 2021, Visual AIDS and Normal Screen hosted the first online presentation of S/N, viewed by over 7,000 people, as well as a panel discussion with Barbara London, Bubu de la Madeleine, and Toru Yamanaka. A recording of the panel discussion is available here.

Furuhashi's coming out letter offers insight into his experience living with HIV, his belief in art as a means of action, and the stakes of his disclosure in Japan. Several years after Furuhashi's death, the original letter was published in the book memorandum – teiji furuhashi (Little More, 2000) and has been a central reference for critical writing about S/N, but until now the letter has not been available in an English translation.

Visual AIDS and Sho Akita thank Alfred Birnbaum, Hibiki Mizuno, Bubu de la Madeline, Yoko Takatani, and the Dumb Type office for their support of this translation. This project is supported in part by a grant from the Japan Foundation, New York.

Teiji Furuhashi's New "Life with Virus":
Celebrating My Announcement of HIV Infection

Translated by Alfred Birnbaum

To My True Friends,

I've known about this for several years, but my test at the time in New York was so dubious (as an uncertified foreigner I had to line up with all the homeless people) I didn't even try to believe it. Of course, during sex I've always taken the greatest care to make sure my partners know I have the virus.

Otherwise in everyday life I fooled myself and fooled everyone else as well. The reason being that neither I nor those around me were prepared to accept the fact, or so I told myself. For years after contracting the disease I was fine, so I lived on the side of the uninfected. Because in fact, I could deceive myself without any problem. But now as I bear up to the pain of shingles and ulcers, while my insides are at odds with the virus that is leading my immune system toward death, for the time being I have come to an awareness of what helped point me in the direction of life: a sense of mission, that I am alive in order to create things, that an attachment to life has somehow granted me time to embrace further possibilities and not let me do something as boring as dying without fully reciprocating the love I've received from my parents and true friends. Yes, that's right, I'm not allowed to end my life yet without showing due appreciation to my parents and friends.

These past few months I've been more keenly assailed by fears of my immune system giving up on me than by any actual medical complaint. Fears brought on by the prospect of immunodeficiency, the extreme alienation of knowing I can't even protect myself and despair that my body might utterly betray my mind, these are the hardest attacks I've humanly experienced. Likewise, I am aware amidst my pain that I am engaged—via every cell in my body—in a dialogue with my other viral self. Every night, fighting the darkness, despite my internal condition, in dreams my consciousness roams to places far and wide I've never been. And on those travels I've learned, even though my immune system cannot protect my flesh, no matter what shape my mind is in, just how important is my faith in true friends to protect me. By coming out I am trying to regain mutual trust with you which I'd left unclear until now. Not that I was fooling you, but let me now tell you this truth that I was at a loss for how to convey, as well as apologize. Please forgive me for seeing you as a friend yet not really trusting you. I now realize that any notions I once had of just quietly fading away from you was only a romantic fiction, or worse, a narcissistic act of egotism that would betray our friendship. Maybe I simply didn't have the courage to let you see me in a miserable deteriorating state. But just like the virus that unknowingly slipped into coexistence with my cells, you also coexist with my cells. That's what friends are, and the virus that will probably kill me is an even more passionate friend.

Until now I'd wandered about, not knowing what was or wasn't real, when all the while I'd stashed the solitary human reality of death in my pocket. I was barely able to bear the weight of that reality with all the creative compounds of unrealities I'd stuffed in there in the name of artistic expression.

If some cells are protecting my flesh, then creativity and love must be what are protecting my mind. I want to believe that imagination and love will let me tolerate everyone in the same way that my cells tolerate the virus.

I chose to tell you all in writing because I wanted to convey the exact same truth directly to everyone at the same time. I suppose I could have talked this over at length with each of you, but it would have made for some weird interview-like situations and taken a strange lot of doing to get a hold of people who weren't ready for it.

Most of all I wanted to avoid getting caught up in the perilous all-too-human foibles of talking to one or two people only to have others learn from someone else or let the word get distorted down the line. I wanted to tell everyone as fairly as possible.

It’s very likely having an HIV-positive friend will prove super trendy in Japan. Quite frankly, it's so topical that, sadly, a person might even assume a heroic stance by having an HIV-positive friend. A few years ago, having heard that a friend of mine was infected, I called three other friends to tell them. Before long rumors were flying everywhere and my friend ended up committing suicide. While at the time I had basked in a sense of superiority, like a reporter with a scoop, at that point I neglected what should have been the most important act—calling up that friend and sharing their pain in a meaningful conversation. I stole the one fleeting moment he might have had as a tragic heroine.

Okay, I'm not as eccentric as he was, but still it could be hard for me to think that total strangers might only know me by the label "infected." Though of course I know these things do happen. I won't voice any unrealistic lines about absolute secrecy. Spreading the word is the whole reason for coming out, exactly why I decided to come out. Though if this open declaration were to cause someone to feel a rift in our mutual trust, that would be more serious to me than having my last thousand immune cells reduced to only a hundred.

I still can't bring myself to tell my relatives. We still aren't ready, and probably never will be. It's especially difficult now when both of my parents are ill. That and the fact that they lost an older brother of mine in a traffic accident twelve years ago would complete my guilt were I to deal them the fatal blow. If I did it to them at this worst moment — just thinking about it reminds me of the limited ways we can ask forgiveness. If apologizing were all there was to it, I'd do whatever it takes, but how could I be sure to apologize to one and all before I die? So for the time being, I have to make sure that my relatives don't hear this from anyone else. Actually, I'd rather you not tell anyone but those you can trust.

That said, has the art I've insisted on doing up to now been an effective means of expression? If not, then what would have been? Such nagging doubts are a dead-end; the very question of objectifying my position in the art world gets me and my artworks nowhere.

I always wanted to do everything first-hand. Not just to get word of things and try them out analytically by proxy, but to always be there on the spot and experience them for real. The only way I know to get over my curiosity is to push myself out there. My cells only retain hard-won finds. Though can an artist be an active player in the world, or merely a commentator? The image of the artist as a curmudgeon safely ensconced in his cynicism, or nothing more or less than a craftsman—both options strike me as pathetic. Likewise, TV news and hearsay just seem to agitate us and stir up futile commotions.

No, I wanted to get out there on every battlefield and brave all the bombs.

Was there any other way for me to confirm my existence? If I did nothing, if I achieved nothing, there would have been no point to existing at all. People quite naturally pursue their personal affairs, love lives, and human relations first-hand. As an artist, however, I felt I needed to be an active first-hand player1 in more than that.

While eternally curious boys and girls who never assume an active role invoke the lifelong spell of virtual reality, just how many persons are there who confront the true reality before their eyes? Do we cease to be boys and girls the moment we embrace that reality? If those boys and girls who lag behind the real world correspond to the image of the artist who can't play an active role, then I had to grow up somehow. Words like "freedom of expression" seem so irresponsible and outdated to me. An artist can't just talk about love, he has to be love itself. And maybe he has to pay an incalculable price for that.

Very well, then, how exactly to wrap this up? Beyond my own physical problems, there are tons of social and economic issues to be fought. Having lived thus far in a special little bubble I'm not up on the peculiarities of Japanese social constructs, but obviously I'm going to run into various problems. First of all, I need to educate the doctors who have come to the defense of my body. Not medically of course, I mean educate in the mental sense. No doubt they're earnest and expert in their fields, but the social dimensions of this disease are just too big for them to cope with. It's hard enough for them just to deal with the remedial aspect, so maybe that's the best anyone can expect.

Still, at the very least, they have to face the fact that I was not infected via blood products like some hemophiliacs here, but through sex like most of those infected in the West — and homosexual relations at that. Like Onizuka-san2 says, unless the doctors and the rest of the public take a good hard look at the realities of sex that modern Japanese society has tried to cover up, they'll never get a handle on this disease. The virus renders meaningless any distinction between man-to-woman sex, man-to-man sex, woman-to-woman sex, socially approved sex or unrecognized sex. Heterosexuals, homosexuals, and bisexuals alike have to bear unflinching witness to how the virus is tearing down any such distinctions and with them the droning undertones of modern Japan's ugliest sexual mores. AIDS is the last counter-culture. It's already laughing at us if we think it's a mere disease. That portion of the national budget earmarked for AIDS should not be used to give perks to pharmaceutical companies developing new drugs, but rather to root out the deep-seated ills that underscore modern society.

Which brings us back to the question of art. I do think art can be an effective means of healing the underlying mental ills that we who live in modern society must inevitably deal with. I'd like to believe that I was not wrong in choosing art as among the fairest means of influencing the human mind. I'm glad to have taken this path and really grateful to have friends with whom I could create things.

By the time word about AIDS got around enough to educate everyone, the information was of little use to me. To think that I might have avoided infection is to deny all my ideas and history of love. I got hit by a bomb, but by no means do I regret having been on the battlefield. Maybe I wanted to be right up there on the front line.

Since contracting the virus this atheist has come to believe in something like a God. I seem to be alive by grace of my own God dwelling in my cells. Even so, I believe my mind can control that God. I myself am still the one in charge of me. If my body can no longer defend me, then my mind must. I will remain sane until I die.

So this will not be the end but a new beginning for me. Even now, when I close my eyes, I can hear the loud rush of blood flowing through my body. This sound that I never noticed until now continually awakens me to the existence of my new self.

Thanks. Let's meet again.

—October 11, 1992 Teiji Furuhashi


[1] Tojisha refers to the person directly involved in an event or action, often used in news reports or crime dispositions.

[2] Tetsuro Onizuka has been a vocal AIDS activist and LGBT advocate in Japan since the 1990s.

Teiji Furuhashi photo Tony Fong

Teiji Furuhashi