Exploring Japan's 'genderless' subculture - CNN Style

Exploring Japan’s ‘genderless’ subculture – CNN Style

Jennifer Robertson is a professor of anthropology and history of art at the University of Michigan.

In the narrow alleys of Tokyo’s ultra-trendy Harajuku district, a growing number of Japanese men who self-identify as “genderless” are boldly broadening their sartorial and cosmetic choices. With faces expertly made up, hair dyed and stylishly coifed, eyebrows plucked and painted, they sashay from one indie boutique to the next.

Harajuku has become a catwalk for jendaresu-kei (or “genderless style”). Although women who dress in a more stereotypically masculine way may also identify as “genderless,” in Japan, the term jendaresu-kei more commonly refers to biological males who are neither interested nor invested in looking like “suits.”

Some, like celebrity model Ryuchell, insist that they are neither cross-dressing nor, necessarily, gay. Nor are they transgender in the sense of having a gender identity that differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.

Ryuchell (right) walking through the streets of Tokyo with his wife Peco.

Ryuchell (right) walking through the streets of Tokyo with his wife Peco.

What blogs and news stories on this genderless-male sensation often fail to articulate is that Ryuchell and his cohort have — whether consciously or not — separated sex (the biological body) from gender (the accessorized body). For them, a male body need not conform to a stereotypical manly appearance.

Matching colorfully patterned fabrics and fingernails with “kawaii” (cute) hats and purses, they signal a vibrant new masculine style. But they may also represent wider changes in the way male roles are perceived in Japanese society.

A history of plurality 

Until recent surgical advances, sex has been more or less fixed, while gender has been fluid and malleable. Dominant cultural conventions tended to limit biological bodies to two separate gender categories: feminine and masculine. But Japan has a long history of plural sexualities and gender-blurring practices, which today’s “genderlessness” closely resembles. 

From ancient to early modern times, individuals routinely pursued lovers whose beauty and charm were more appealing than their biological sex. These trysts — a key ingredient of classical literature — have been revisited in modern novels and comics. The contemporary “boys’ love” (or BL) genre, for instance, features both sexually explicit and romantic relationships between male characters. 

Feminine males and masculine females are common tropes in Japanese culture, usually in ritual or theatrical contexts involving cross-dressing. The onnagata (male players of women’s roles in classical Kabuki theater) and otokoyaku (female players of men’s roles in the Takarazuka Revue theater troupe) are famous outside the country for their gendered performances. 

Off stage, Japan is home to hundreds of cross-dressing clubs (like Tokyo’s famous Elizabeth Club) that are aimed at middle-aged, white-collar and outwardly straight males. Members enter an environment that helps them transition from businessmen to stereotypically feminine personas for the purpose of stress release, among other things. 

Blurring boundaries

These cross-dressing clubs and theater traditions still rely on mainstream conceptions of femininity and masculinity. But Japanese history is also filled with examples of pioneers who have blurred the distinction. A century ago, the spectacle of Westernized modern girls (or “moga”) strolling through Tokyo sporting short hair, slacks, culottes and flapper-like outfits, raised many an eyebrow. After all, most women wore kimonos in public.

Moga walking on Tokyo streets in 1928.

Moga walking on Tokyo streets in 1928.

Jeered on the streets and called “garçons” in the press, moga were dismissed as unfeminine. Criticisms were premised on a zero-sum view of sex and gender: If females were becoming more masculine, it meant that males were becoming feminized. Nevertheless, more broadminded urbanites, including artists, viewed the modern girls as avant-garde.

Today, moga would likely self-identify as genderless, in the sense that they rejected the traditional kimonos and chignons. And today’s genderless males also have historical counterparts in the Europeanized “high collar” (haikara) men from the turn of the 20th century. 

Fussy about their appearance, these metrosexual dandies wore facial powder and carried scented handkerchiefs. Invoking a familiar zero-sum equation, critics claimed that the “high collars” spent more time beautifying themselves than women did. 

Similar complaints were leveled against their more youthful contemporaries, the “beautiful youths” (bishonen) eulogized in popular illustrated magazines, their ambiguous gender and sexual orientations appealing to men and women of all ages.

Yusuke Devil.

Yusuke Devil. Credit: YusukeDevil

More recently, the term “herbivore males” (soshoku danshi) was coined to describe young men who eschew machismo, are fastidious about their appearance, and treat females as friends, not sex objects. Conservative pundits accuse them of being unmanly cowards. 

Changing expectations

The genderless males of today’s Harajuku district are either unaware of — or do not acknowledge — their predecessors. Instead, as Ryuchell explains, the inspiration for genderless style encompasses three modes of fashion: androgynous Korean pop groups; “visual kei,” a 1980s glam-rock genre featuring flamboyantly outfitted male performers; and the fashion of 1980s and 1990s America, which combined colorful clothing and accessories in unusual, eye-catching ways.

Like “herbivore” and “high collar” before it, genderless is becoming more than a buzzword. The trend of men eschewing Japan Inc’s navy blue suits is outlasting the fast cycles of the fashion industry. As a lifestyle, signs of genderlessness are also evident among men far removed from the Harajuku scene.

Ikumen (literally “child-rearing men”) may wear suits to work, but they are breaking with convention by insisting on spending more time at home with their children. This is partly thanks to the work of Fathering Japan, a non-profit organization that encourages men to become “smiling dads” who enjoy playing a more active role in their children’s upbringing.

The group’s increased visibility and growing network have gradually helped reduce the stigma around the role of house husband. In turn, zero-sum criticisms of role-blurring mavericks appear less and less frequently in the media.

To limit discussion of Japan’s genderless males to the Harajuku fashion scene is to ignore the velvet revolt against “suit masculinity” and all it signifies.

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The tallest building in the world, Jeddah Tower, is set to open in Saudi Arabia

The tallest building in the world, Jeddah Tower, is set to open in Saudi Arabia

Written by Andrea Lo, CNN

These are the images that show what will soon be known as the world’s next tallest building rising from the desert. When the 3,280-feet-tall (1,000-meter-tall) Jeddah Tower, in Saudi Arabia, opens in 2020, it will knock Dubai’s iconic Burj Khalifa off its throne as the tallest skyscraper in the world by 236 feet (72 meters). Construction of the landmark is estimated to cost $1.4 billion.

When CNN visited the site at the end of 2017, the tower was 252 meters (826 feet) high and already had expansive views of the kingdom.

Jeddah Tower: The world’s next tallest skyscraper

A tall order?

The tower will be the crown jewel of Jeddah Economic City, a commercial and residential project of 57 million square feet (5.3 million square meters), that will feature homes, hotels and offices, as well as tourist attractions.

But the project hasn’t been smooth sailing.

There have been various delays since construction began in 2013. Since November 2017, two of the project’s most prominent backers — Saudi Arabia’s Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, a prolific investor and businessman, and Bakr Bin Laden, chairman of Jeddah Tower’s construction company Bin Laden Group — have been caught up in the kingdom’s anti-corruption purge, which saw hundreds questioned on accusations of corruption.

Jeddah Economic Company, the developer behind the skyscraper, however, has confirmed to CNN that the project will be completed by 2020, as scheduled.

Al-Waleed’s company declined to provide comment to CNN, while Bin Laden Group couldn’t be reached.

A global landmark

While today the site is surrounded by desert, upon completion the tower will be the center of the Jeddah Economic City development.

“As of 2020, we’ll start seeing things: you’ll see the tower, you’ll see the shopping mall, you’ll see many other projects,” says Mounib Hammoud, CEO of Jeddah Economic Company.

Boasting a gross floor area of 2.6 million square feet (243,866 square meters) over 252 stories, the tower will also feature the world’s highest observation deck at 2,178 feet (664 meters) off the ground, with a 5,382 square feet (500 square meter) outdoor platform.

View from the tower, looking out to the surrounding desert.

View from the tower, looking out to the surrounding desert. Credit: CNN

Other facilities include a five-star Four Seasons Hotel and 97 affiliated serviced apartments, including seven duplexes. Offices will account for seven floors, where there will be four “residential tiers” that will include 325 apartments.

The elevators will reach a record height of 2,165 feet (660 meters), while the double-decker lifts that take visitors directly to the observation deck from Level 1 of the building can travel at 12.5 miles per hour. In other words, they can shuttle guests to the deck, accessed from the 157th and 158th floors, in 66.5 seconds.

We are creating an independent city … It’s changing the mindset of Jeddah.

Hisham Jomah, Jeddah Economic Company

“When you first arrive at the tower, you are already 20 meters above sea level,” explains Jomah. “Therefore, it’s like every floor is a different experience (in) that building.”

The developers believe Jeddah Tower will be a game-changer for the area, which has traditionally acted as a gateway to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

“Before (the tower) was here, this was not considered a place that people would live,” says Hisham Jomah, chief development officer of Jeddah Economic Company. “We are creating an independent city … so that you don’t have to leave here,” he adds. “It’s changing the mindset of Jeddah.”

“Building a tower of this kind, of this grandiosity, is really something I wouldn’t have thought I would do,” says Hammoud.

“Jeddah is going to be repositioned on the international scene of modern cities,” he adds. “You speak about downtown Dubai — and now we’re going to have downtown Jeddah.”

Rising power

Jeddah Tower’s construction fits into Saudi Vision 2030, a government plan that aims to diversify the economy in the kingdom and reduce its dependence on oil.

“Vision 2030 is the development strategy of the project … this is the instruction we have given to the architects and to the urban planners,” explains Hammoud.

Yet the ultimate goal is to raise the city’s status as a global power player.

The developers hope the skyscraper will put Jeddah on the map.

The developers hope the skyscraper will put Jeddah on the map. Credit: CNN

“The Egyptians, they built the pyramids. In medieval France, they built all these huge cathedrals and churches. And in modern times, they built New York, Chicago. So really, it’s a token of strength and ingenuity,” he says. “Like in every city: after money, after power, you want strength.

“After strength, you want to establish something, leave something for the world. And today, Jeddah is going to have a building which, many generations to come will talk about it.”

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The surreal world of Alex Prager

The surreal world of Alex Prager

Written by Leanne Mirandilla, CNN

Alex Prager’s work is meticulously staged. And yet, it captures the lucid moments of humanity found only in the most candid of photography.

Having first picked up the camera at the age of 21, the Emmy-winning photographer and filmmaker’s career sprung from humble beginnings — she used to hang pictures in her apartment building’s laundry room before exhibiting her works in actual galleries.

"Hand Model" (2017) by Alex Prager

“Hand Model” (2017) by Alex Prager Credit: Courtesy of Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

“I saw William Eggleston’s works at the Getty, and there was never any question in my mind about what I would be doing from that point on,” she said during a phone interview.

“But it took seven years before I felt like I’d hit my stride and that what I was imagining was actually getting onto paper.”

Stranger than fiction

The Los-Angeles-based artist has since secured projects with Hollywood heavyweights like Gary Oldman and Rooney Mara. In 2012, she netted an Emmy for her New York Times-commissioned video series, “Touch of Evil.”

This January, Prager will show new works, in an exhibition opening at Lehmann Maupin in Hong Kong. Simply titled “Alex Prager,” the show comprises seven new works that continue her ongoing interrogation of human perception by exploring the blurred boundaries between reality and fiction.

“I’ve always been interested in how your ‘reality’ can change depending on what mood you’re in,” she said. “I like throwing people off balance and making things a bit stranger than they expect.”

Prager has often produced this effect by playing with scale and form in post-production. But in “Alex Prager,” she has elaborated on these signature techniques with her first sculpture.

Titled “Hand Model (detail),” the sculpture depicts a woman’s outstretched hand protruding from the gallery wall. A reference to how the fashion and advertising industries unrealistically scale and crop images, the hand is seen again in the photograph “Hand Model” (which has been blown up in size) and in a second image, “Star Shoes.”

"Face in the Crowd" (2013) by Alex Prager.

“Face in the Crowd” (2013) by Alex Prager. Credit: Courtesy of Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

“Since the beginning, I’ve always been building my own sets and props,” Prager said. “Using them to change how people perceive the pieces is really exciting to me.”

This summer will also see the release of Prager’s first coffee-table book, a retrospective of her 10-year career. Titled “Silverlake Drive,” the book charts her photography and film work up until “La Grande Sortie,” a short film she created for the Paris Opera in 2015.

“After that (year), my work starts to need a new book, I think,” she said.

Crafting the candid

"See's Candies, Payless, Supercuts 1" (2015) by Alex Prager

“See’s Candies, Payless, Supercuts 1” (2015) by Alex Prager Credit: Courtesy of Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

Throughout Prager’s career, her work has been defined by a recurring subject matter: people. She has been known to use up to 300 models to achieve a single shot, often bringing in a combination of friends, relatives and models found through casting agencies.

“Sometimes I find people on the street or in restaurants,” she said. “I’ll walk up to people if I feel like they have something really special that sparks my imagination — the colors they chose to wear, or the way they styled their hair. There are reasons (why) people do these things before they leave the house. It’s a way of communicating who they are.”

"Untitled (Parts 1)" (2014) by Alex Prager.

“Untitled (Parts 1)” (2014) by Alex Prager. Credit: Courtesy of Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, NY and HK

Months of planning and conceptualizing can go into a single shoot. Prager’s sets are filled with props and costumes that help bring her hyper-realistic, dramatic visions to life.

But her work hinges on the element of unpredictability that her subjects bring to the shoot — an undercurrent of emotions and personal concerns that Prager cannot control. Nor does she endeavor to.

“It’s a hard balance to strike,” she said. “I think that’s why I still get nervous before these projects — because there’s always going to be that unpredictability. I need that to make the work good.”

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How I.M. Pei's Bank of China tower changed Hong Kong's skyline

How I.M. Pei’s Bank of China tower changed Hong Kong’s skyline

Juan Du is an associate professor at Hong Kong University’s Department of Architecture. This story was originally published in 2017.

This year of 2017 marks the 100th birthday of the renowned Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei.

From museums to business headquarters, Pei has designed many notable buildings around the world throughout his long professional career. However, according to the organizers of the recent “Rethinking Pei: A Centenary Symposium” held at Hong Kong University (HKU) Department of Architecture, and jointly organized by HKU, M+ and Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Pei remains one of the most celebrated yet under-theorized architects of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

The Hong Kong Bank of China Tower is one of his most famous works in Asia. As the bank itself also celebrates its centenary this year, it’s worth examining the building’s historical and architectural background to gain a deeper understanding of the architect who changed Hong Kong’s skyline forever.

Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei celebrated his 100th birthday in 2017.

Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei celebrated his 100th birthday in 2017. Credit: Getty Images

The Bank of China Tower

The Bank of China Tower was completed in 1989, a year the “New York Times” called “the year of I.M. Pei … the high priest of modernism.” For it was in this same year that Pei also completed the glass pyramid of the Louvre Museum in Paris, the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, the Creative Artist Agency Headquarters in Los Angeles, the Choate Science Center in Connecticut, and the Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York.

“To many people I.M. Pei has become the pre-eminent designer of modernist monuments of our time,” the newspaper wrote.

Pei was commissioned in 1982 by the Beijing-based Bank of China to design its headquarters in Hong Kong, but construction did not start until 1985.

There were many reasons for the delay. One of the biggest was the immense challenges posed by the location. On the surface, located in the political and financial nexus of the city’s Central district, the land parcel of 1 Garden Road seemed to be greatly coveted. However, this had also been the address of Murray House, the Victorian building constructed in 1844 by the British Royal Navy as officers’ quarters. It had been dismantled in 1982, due to the terrible legacy of its use as a prison and execution facility during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong between 1941 and 1945.

Murray House at its new location in Stanley, a town in Hong Kong, China.

Murray House at its new location in Stanley, a town in Hong Kong, China. Credit: lamlam/Imaginechina via AP

For I.M. Pei, the challenge of the site was not its past, but its present: the relatively small land parcel was surrounded on three sides by elevated roadways serving high-speed heavy traffic, meaning there was no possible public pedestrian access. Then there was its awkward trapezoidal shape and the fact the site also had a deep north-south height difference.

Pei and his associates spent nearly a year negotiating with governmental agencies to reshape the south side of the land plot. This allowed for the addition of an access way as well as a slightly larger building footprint with a straight north-south orientation. This was important to Pei as he wanted the tower to be oriented in the same direction as the other buildings in the area, and for the front façade to face the Victoria Harbor to the north.

Bank rivalry

Another challenge was the inevitable comparison of the Bank of China Tower to the neighboring Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Headquarters, which was also under construction.

A spectacular building generously funded, the architect Norman Foster was simply told to create “the best bank building in the world.” At the time it was also the world’s most expensive building, costing $668 million, in 1985 currency valuations. The Bank of China Tower’s budget was announced in the local papers — before Pei had started on his design — to be $130 million, approximately one fifth of the budget allowed by HSBC.
Bank of China Tower, from left, Cheung Kong Center, Bank of China Building, HSBC Holdings Plc headquarters, Standard Chartered Bank building and Prince's Building stand illuminated in the Central district of Hong Kong.

Bank of China Tower, from left, Cheung Kong Center, Bank of China Building, HSBC Holdings Plc headquarters, Standard Chartered Bank building and Prince’s Building stand illuminated in the Central district of Hong Kong. Credit: Lam Yik Fei/Bloomberg via Getty Images

China in the 1980s was not the global power it is today. Prior to its later economic boom, this was already an exorbitant amount for the Chinese government-funded Bank of China to spend.

In addition, the HSBC building had been guaranteed in perpetuity an unobstructed view of Victoria Harbor, under the conditions by which the bank had turned the land it owned in front of the building over to the government. The Hong Kong government had promised HSBC that no tall buildings would ever be built in front of its headquarters.

In between the site of the Bank of China and the harbor, there were already a few buildings over 70 meters tall blocking views.

One flying advantage

Despite these challenges, I.M. Pei noted that “the site had one important advantage.”

“Because it was located just out of the airport flight path, the new building was not restricted by the height limit imposed on all buildings to the north,” he told German journalist Gero Von Boehm in an interview published in 2000. “A tall building would permit us to overlook some of the most prestigious buildings of Hong Kong, with a panoramic view of the harbor and Kowloon beyond.”

Probably the most iconic shot of Kai Tak International Airport --a departing Cathay Pacific's flight captured in between the walk-up buildings in Kowloon City.
Daryl Chapman, a 40-year-old photographer, recalled, "That photo was taken in To Kwa Wan just at the entrance of the airport tunnel (now Kai Tak tunnel)."

Probably the most iconic shot of Kai Tak International Airport –a departing Cathay Pacific’s flight captured in between the walk-up buildings in Kowloon City.
Daryl Chapman, a 40-year-old photographer, recalled, “That photo was taken in To Kwa Wan just at the entrance of the airport tunnel (now Kai Tak tunnel).” Credit: Daryl Chapman

Recognizing that going tall was the only way to create a landmark at this site with his budget, Pei came up with an architectural tower design that was deceptively simple, expressive, innovative, and upon its completion, the tallest building outside of America and the fourth tallest in the world.

Instantly iconic

The instantly iconic Bank of China Tower was a stunning feat considering the constrained site, limited budget, and the unusually high structural demands of building a skyscraper in Hong Kong. Due to the region’s frequent typhoons, the wind load requirement was more than double that necessary for New York City and the “Windy City” of Chicago — 4.3 kilopascals for buildings of a height of more than 300m in 1983.

To use as much of the small site as possible, Pei divided the square plan with two diagonals, ending up with four triangular quadrants. To create the tapered tower, Pei shifted the four triangular sections so that each section reached a different height in sequence, ending with one single triangular shaft to mark the top section.

His intuition that the triangular sections would make good structural sense was verified by Leslie Robertson, his long-term collaborator who would later become the lead structural engineer on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York.

Robertson created structural details that gave the appearance of simplicity. His innovative “mega-structure” design was comprised of vertical columns, diagonal bracing, and horizontal stiffening plates, with unique joints to allow these components to work together as a singular three-dimensional system. This provided maximum structural and economic efficiency.

As a result, the tower would end up using less than half the steel of a typical Hong Kong tall building.

Feng shui forces

The initial design caused an unexpected storm of controversy. The most vocal critics of the building were, and remain today, the city’s feng shui masters. For neither I.M. Pei nor his client the Bank of China considered the Chinese philosophical system of harmonizing with the surrounding environment prior to or during the building’s design.

The seemingly sharp corners of the triangular vertical volume were described by the feng shui masters as akin to knife blades aiming at the building’s neighbors, namely the Government House, the Prince of Wales Barracks, and the HSBC tower. To this day, the building is still referred to by some as the “Vertical Knife.”

Workers put up Christmas lights on the bank of China Tower in 2002.

Workers put up Christmas lights on the bank of China Tower in 2002. Credit: PETER PARKS/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

However, the most severe of the criticism was on the cross-bracing on the tower’s façade. Traditionally, in Chinese culture, an “X” was used to cross out the name of someone who is to be executed, creating an association of that symbol with death. The building’s design was seen as a curse on the city of Hong Kong and its people.

Pei had not intended to offend public sentimentality, and after a consultation with Robertson, a decision was made for the horizontal members of the building’s structural system to be invisible to the naked eye. Only the vertical and diagonal structural members could be clearly read on the building’s glass façade. This way, the diagonals of the cross-bracing connected vertically and created large diamond shapes on the glass façade.

But when it came to the sharp corners that created the visual illusion of the tower being paper thin up in the sky, the architects stood their ground.

‘The most innovative skyscraper ever’

After the Bank of China officially moved into the tower in 1991, noted architect and critic Peter Blake visited the building and declared it to be “probably the most innovative skyscraper structure built anywhere to date.”

“It is, in the view of many who have seen it, the finest Modern skyscraper since Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building was completed over 30 years ago,” he wrote in the “Architectural Record.”

Nearly 30 years after the building’s construction, the Bank of China Tower continues to offer valuable lessons of architectural and structural ingenuity under tremendous constraints. Most importantly, the tower has become one of the most important cultural icons for the city of Hong Kong.

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