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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.