Blurring the gender lines in Japan

Toman Sasaki, a model and pop band member, in a performance with his group in Kawasaki, Japan, last year.
Toman Sasaki, a model and pop band member, in a performance with his group in Kawasaki, Japan, last year.PHOTO: NYTIMES

TOKYO • With the precision of a craftsman painting a ceramic doll, Toman Sasaki blended foundation onto his fine-boned face, shaded the side of his nose with blush and shaped his lip colour with a brush.

After 40 minutes of primping in his tiny studio apartment in the Hatsudai neighbourhood of Tokyo, he peered into a hand mirror and gave himself a nod of approval.

Along with his manicured nails, bobbed hair and high-heeled shoes, the make-up made Sasaki, 23, appear more typically feminine than male, a striking choice in a society where men and women tend to hew strictly to conventional gender dress codes.

Sasaki, a model and pop band member who goes simply by Toman, does not regard his look as feminine so much as genderless. As one of a small but growing group of "genderless danshi" - "danshi" means young men in Japanese - he is developing a public identity and a career out of a new androgynous style.

"At heart, I am a man," says the petite-framed Sasaki, whose wardrobe of slim-fit tank tops, baggy jackets and skinny jeans evokes the fashion of a pre-adolescent girl.

The concept of gender, he says, "isn't necessary". "People should be able to choose whatever style suits them," says Sasaki, who has a large following as Toman on social media and regularly appears on television and radio programmes.

Young Japanese men are bending fashion gender norms, dyeing their hair, inserting coloured contact lenses and wearing brightly coloured lipstick.

Men such as Ryuji Higa, better known as Ryucheru, whose signature blond curls are often pulled back in a headband, and Genki Tanaka, known as Genking, who rocks long platinum tresses and often appears in miniskirts, have made a leap from social media stardom to TV celebrity.

"It's about blurring the boundaries that have defined pink and blue masculinity and femininity," says Professor Jennifer Robertson at the University of Michigan, who has researched and written extensively about gender in Japan. "They are trying to increase the scope of what someone with male anatomy can wear."

Sasaki said when he first began dressing in the genderless danshi fashion, people frequently asked him whether he was gay. He says he is heterosexual.

He said he wore make-up to conceal his flaws. "There are many things I'm insecure about. I don't like my face," he says. "But I also feel that who I am changes when I wear make-up."

Several men who consider themselves genderless danshi said in interviews that they did not see a connection between their appearance and sexual identities - or even their views on traditional gender roles.

"It's just that you use make-up and dress how you want," says Mr Takuya Kitajima, 18. Mr Kitajima, who goes by the name Takubo, said he believed men and women were fundamentally different despite any blurring of style distinctions.

"I think men should protect women and that principle won't change," he says. "Men are stronger than women and a man should work because the women are weaker."

But Mr Yasu Suzuki, 22, who organises events for other genderless danshi to meet their social media fans, said his explorations in fashion have broadened his views on sexuality.

In Japan, where a walk through a train station during the commuter rush highlights the dark-suited conformity of most males, young men disillusioned by corporate stagnation may be using fashion to challenge the social order.

"In my generation, women were jealous of men because they could work and do whatever they wanted," said Professor Junko Mitsuhashi, 61, who teaches gender studies at Chuo University and is a transgender woman.

"But in the younger generation, men are jealous of women because they can express themselves through fashion."

She adds: "Men feel like they don't have a sphere in which they can express themselves and they envy girls because they can express themselves through their appearance."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2017, with the headline 'Blurring the gender lines in Japan'. Print Edition | Subscribe