Like same-sex relationships, cross-dressing has a long history in Japan. The earliest written records date to the eighth century and include stories about women who dressed as warriors. In premodern Japan, there were also cases of women passing as men either to reject the prescribed confines of femininity or to find employment in trades dominated by men.
A century ago, “modern girls” (moga) were young women who sported short hair and trousers. They attracted media attention – mostly negative – although artists depicted them as fashion icons. Some hecklers called them “garçons” (garuson), an insult implying unfeminine and unattractive.
Gender, at that time, was thought of in zero-sum terms: If females were becoming more masculine, it meant that males were becoming feminized.
These concerns made their way into the theater. For example, the all-female Takarazuka Revue was an avant-garde theater founded in 1913 (and is still very popular today). Females play the parts of men, which, in the early 20th century, sparked heated debates (that continue today) about “masculinized” women on stage – and how this might influence women off the stage.
However, today’s genderless males aren’t simply weekend cross-dressers. Instead, they want to shatter the existing norms that say men must dress and present themselves a certain way.
They ask: Why should only girls and women be able to wear skirts and dresses? Why should only women be able to wear lipstick and eye shadow? If women can wear pants, why shouldn’t men be able to wear skirts?
Actually, the adjective “genderless” is misleading, since these young men aren’t genderless at all; rather, they’re claiming both femininity and masculinity as styles they wear in their daily lives.
In this regard, these so-called genderless men have historical counterparts: In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cosmopolitan “high collar” men (haikara) wore facial powder and carried scented handkerchiefs, paying meticulous attention to their Westernized appearances. One critic – invoking the zero-sum gender attitudes of the era – complained that “some men toil over their makeup more than women.” Conservative pundits derided the haikara as “effeminate” by virtue of their “un-Japanese” style.
On the other end of the masculinity spectrum were the nationalistic “primitive” men (bankara) who wore wooden clogs (geta) to complement their military-style school uniforms. Ironically, like their samurai predecessors – and unlike the foppish haikara – the macho bankara would engage in same-sex acts.
Japan’s ‘beautiful youths’
Probably the biggest contemporary inspiration for today’s genderless males are a spate of popular androgynous boy bands. Cultivated and promoted by Johnny & Associates Entertainment Company, Japan’s largest male talent agency, they include boy bands like SMAP, Johnny’s West and Sexy Zone.
There’s a term for the type of teenage boy that Johnny & Associates cultivates: “beautiful youths” (bishōnen), which was coined a century ago to describe a young man whose ambiguous gender and sexual orientation appealed to females and males of all ages.
Similarly, Visual Kei is a 1980s glam-rock and punk music genre that features bishōnen performers who don flamboyant, gender-bending costumes and hairdos. In its new, 21st-century incarnation as Neo-Visual Kei, the emphasis on androgyny is even more pronounced, as epitomized by the prolific career of the androgynous Neo-Visual Kei pop star Gackt, who enjoys an international fan following.
Since the word “genderless” is misleading, a better term might be “gender-more,” in the sense that young men – especially in Tokyo – are insisting on the right to present and express themselves in ways that contradict and exceed traditional masculinity. In the long span of Japanese cultural history, there have been many things that were – and are – new under the sun. But genderless males aren’t among them.
Jennifer Robertson, Professor of Anthropology and Art History, University of Michigan
This article was originally published on The Conversation.