Pronounced “otokonoko” or even “otoko no musume”, the moniker is a play of words on “男の子” (otokonoko) or “boy”. Japan has a long history of cross-dressing, and these otokonoko are geek-infused modern incarnations.
Otokonoko are not necessarily gay. They might be bisexual. They might be heterosexual or even asexual. Sexuality can come into play, of course, but otokonoko is about costume and expressions of femininity. And nerds.
Infused with an otaku sensibility, otokonoko eschew brands for geek street cred, taking inspiration from anime, manga and video games instead of the catwalks of Paris and Tokyo. In spring 2009, an otokonoko maid cafe called New Type opened in Akihabara. On weeknights, New Type holds multiplayer PSP gaming sessions and even has loaner units for PSP-less customers. The cafe has been so successful that it even opened an online shop that specialises in otokonoko garb. The shop stocks blouses, dresses, wigs and accessories aimed at otokonoko.
The use of the word “otokonoko” for cross-dressing became popular online a decade ago, but manga and anime depicted boys who look like girls for years before. Anime Andromeda Shun and gender-bender gag manga Stop!! Hibari-kun! featured pretty male characters who were often confused with females.
Historically, clothing is connected with rank and identity in Japan. Over a thousand years ago, royal edicts dictated what types of clothes and even what colours men and women of certain classes could wear. Clothing as a gender marker remains strong in Japan – so does the desire to break down that gender marker, yet at the same time preserve it.
It’s a contradiction, really. Historically, kabuki actors are all men, a tradition that continues today. For centuries, to depict female roles, Japanese kabuki actors have been dressing as beautiful women. Young males, called wakashu, played the onnagata or female role. Japan isn’t alone; English theatre during Shakespeare’s day was a male-only preserve, with young boys playing the female roles. However, as time passed, women entered English theatre. In kabuki, this never happened. Popular male actors continue to play female roles, and kabuki, like sumo, remains men only.
In sumo, women are not permitted to enter the sumo ring, or dohyo (土俵) and haven’t for over a thousand years. The reason is the traditional view that women were supposedly unclean, and thus, would violate the ring’s sanctity, requiring it to be destroyed. That tradition is well over a thousand years old. Compare it to how women a thousand years ago were treated in the West, and it seems in line with a kind of dunderheaded male thinking that knows no borders.
Today, you’d be hard pressed to find a Japanese male who thought women, as a group, were spiritually unclean. The tradition persists in professional sumo wrestling simply because it’s lasted so long. There are female amateur sumo wrestlers who are allowed to enter a ring; they just can’t enter the dohyo in professional sumo wrestling. The need to perserve tradition is why kabuki continues to be all male, with men playing the female roles. In pre-Westernised Japan, the back of a woman’s neck was considered attractive, and it’s often what a male kabuki actors displays.
Early Japanese literary works make numerous references to feminine-looking, young males; similar references are, of course, a trope found throughout Western literature and are not unique to Japan. What is unique is how mainstream culture has embraced the blurring of gender roles, while, at the same time, relegating it to the periphery of subculture.
In Japan, it’s not only men dressing as women. In the years before the war, the all-female Takarazuka Revue musical group was famous across Japan and featured female actors in male roles. The troupe is still popular in Japan, and even did a musical version of Ace Attorney a few years back. During the post-war years, Japan got a female cross-dressing superstar, Akihiro Miwa. Escaping the atomic bombing at Nagasaki, Miwa made his way to Tokyo, where he sang in cabarets. Miwa’s beautiful voice and good looks helped him make the leap to feature films. His most famous role was in Kenji Fukusaku’s 1968 motion picture Black Lizard, which was based on a stage play by his love, the brilliant (and troubled) right-wing writer Yukio Mishima.
Miwa was and still is a famous cross-dresser, existing way before the otokonoko first appeared. In his youth, Miwa cut a stunning, stylish figure in women’s wear, but Miwa famously said that he was half-man and half-woman – hence his decision to combine a masculine name “Akihiro” with a feminine one “Miwa”. Now in his mid-seventies and sporting bright yellow hair, he’s still iconic in Japan and still dresses in drag.
Japan doesn’t have laws against homosexuality. Its culture hasn’t been impacted by conservative interpretations of the Bible. And it hasn’t outlawed, say, sodomy, yet legal protection from discrimination is still lacking. Gay people aren’t as accepted as they are in the West. It is changing, and the country is gradually becoming more aware of various lifestyles. Miwa transcended this. He has voiced characters in children’s anime, including Howl’s Moving Castle and Pokémon: Arceus and the Jewel of Life. He even appears in potato chip commercials.
For a generation of drag queens and cross dressers, Miwa became an idol. Younger transgender personalities, such as transgender make-up artist Ikko or cross-dressing singer Peter, appear to be cut from the same cloth that Miwa was: they’re brand-conscious and fashionable. This is different from the otokonoko, and owes more to the streets of Asakusa than Akihabara.
In 1979, a cross-dressing saloon called Elizabeth Club, billing itself as “cross-dresser’s paradise”, opened in Tokyo’s Asakusa, allowing men to wear women’s clothes and make-up. Customers could simply dress up and chat with other cross-dressers, eat a snack or have their picture taken. Elizabeth was successful enough to launch branches in Shinjuku and Nippori.
Otokonoko combine cross-dressing with cosplay. As otokonoko started becoming known at the turn of the century, it was manga artists and game developers who latched onto the phenomenon. Games such as Guilty Gear featured otokonoko-type characters, like Bridget, a young male bounty hunter who dresses like a nun. Bridget has since become an iconic character and a favourite for female and male cosplayers alike. The ability to straddle both the masculine and the feminine is why Bridget has such a wide appeal.
Comedian Yakkun Sakurazuka has made a career out of telling quips while dressed as a tough schoolgirl. When I interviewed Yakkun a few years back, he said that he picked the 1970s-style tough schoolgirl outfit, because it was empowering, and he always felt flattered with women said he was cute. Last week, Yakkun began appearing on a new channel on Nico Nico Douga, Japan’s most popular video site, dedicated entirely to otokonoko.
Magazines, such as WAaI! boys in skirts, not only appeal to otokonoko, but attempt to introduce the subculture to a wider audience. The first issue of WAaI! introduced cross-dressing game characters from titles like Cross Days and Atchi Muite Koi (NSFW), and the publication even bundled a complementary pair of large-sized schoolgirl gym shorts for readers to don.
Last fall, 29-year-old Nanami Igarashi, who is technically male, made her manga debut, explaining the subculture and why she became an otokonoko. Igarashi, whose mother is a famed manga artist and whose father is a well-known anime and video game voice actor, started out in a boy band. Articles published last fall talked about how Igarashi began secretly wearing clothes and make-up from girlfriends.
With more and more otokonoko characters popping up in video games such as Namco’s [email protected], the trend continues to inch its way into the mainstream. Japan is in many ways more open about sexuality than the US, but in many way still very traditional, not providing transgender individuals with protection from discrimination. Japan finds it easier to put its cross-dressers on stage or television, than, perhaps, to comfortably pass them on the street.
What Is Japan’s Fetish This Week? is a regular, obsessive look at the trends and topics, from mainstream to niche, that catch Japan’s fancy. WIJFTW alternates bi-weekly with its sister column,What Is America’s Fetish This Week?
Top photo: Yakkun Sakurazuka/PR