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Posts Tagged ‘gender’

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything at all, and many years, in fact, since I’ve posted anything on gender. For those new to my blog, please understand that I am not a Gender Studies expert, and I am not looking for trouble. I am just one man, just a guy, just one individual, thinking through thoughts based on my own gendered lived experience.

A TikToker who lists their name as リア充爆破しろ recently released a few videos complaining about how, because the West views Japanese men as effeminate or emasculated to begin with, their hopes of passing as male / masculine in the West (or in the US in particular) are especially difficult, if not impossible.

There’s a ton to unpack or respond to here, beginning with why they should think of any kind of femininity or softness as “emasculating” – i.e. as a negative thing – rather than thinking of it the way I always have, as being a much healthier view of gender or masculinity. I’m not saying that I’m right and they’re wrong – this is my own personal view, based on my own inclinations. But, the idea that any sort of weakness, gentleness, femininity, softness to any degree, is “emasculating” – i.e. an embarrassment, an attack on one’s masculinity – is one of the very key elements, in my understanding, of what makes masculinity fragile, and therefore toxic. If men think they need to be constantly posturing, constantly making a conscious effort to act manly, to perform manliness, for fear that even the tiniest slip-up will be seen as a crack in their masculinity, that’s one of the key elements contributing to why men can’t or won’t deal with their emotions in a healthy way, can’t or won’t treat their male friends / colleagues / others in a kind and caring and emotionally engaging way, can’t or won’t treat women with proper respect.

But, that’s a whole other conversation.

What really interests me here is the notion that American and Japanese culture have fundamentally different definitions of “masculinity” to begin with. What is and isn’t considered masculine, or feminine, within standard, mainstream, American or Japanese society?

In a second video, this same TikToker points out that the American ideals of manliness, stereotypically, include large, broad, heavily muscled bodies, thick body hair, thick facial hair. They don’t quite get into it, but we could name numerous other attributes – a rough, tough sort of character or personality; being emotionally reserved; being interested in and good at particular activities (hunting, fishing, cars, handyman sort of stuff) over others deemed effeminate; and so forth. By contrast, the TikToker says, in Japan this sort of “hypermasculine” image of the big, muscular, hairy guy is actually associated chiefly with gay culture (as is the imagined hyperfeminine guy). According to their video, Japanese ideals of normative masculinity basically fall into four categories: the bishо̄nen, biseinen, kakkо̄i, and kawaii (lit. beautiful boys, beautiful men, cool, and cute), which they don’t really unpack (it is only a 1-2 min TikTok after all), but they do give examples from which we can extrapolate what the stereotypical “types” are like, with some of the key features including a slimmer, more lithe frame, less facial hair, more focus on looking beautiful / handsome / cute / cool in various ways.

(Of course, while this might characterize certain ideal “types” of men in Japanese society – that is, idols, celebrities, Japanese ideals of men’s beauty or gentlemanliness, I wonder – in another digression – about standard mainstream notions of masculinity as they pertain to the average guy, the salaryman. What sort of ‘masculinity’ does the balding, alcoholic, exhausted, suit-wearing, salaryman match up to; I’m not interested here in getting into any discussion of the continued prevalence within the home of conservative notions of highly gendered gender roles between the husband as provider and the wife as stay-at-home caregiver, etc. etc., but that’s a whole other side of “Japanese notions of masculinity” that is surely of some pertinence, even as I choose to put a pin in it for now.)

Thinking of the TikToker’s characterization of differing ideals of male beauty, or masculinity, this is precisely where I’ve always gotten stuck. To my mind, as an American, because of my upbringing and the social/cultural norms that I was raised with, I see these handsome/cute/cool men and I think that Japanese culture/society (and S Korea, and probably to a certain extent Taiwan and maybe some other places too but let’s not get into it) offers a lot more allowance for men to be more feminine or effeminate. I touched upon this in a post way back in 2013. But to the small extent that I’ve spoken with (or in the case of this TikTok, simply heard from) Japanese or Korean people speaking explicitly to this point, I get the sense that to their minds this isn’t femininity at all, but is simply a part of their Japanese/Korean conception of masculinity.

I so desperately want to unpack this, and get a better sense of what we’re actually talking about here. Of course, it makes sense that different cultures would have different conceptions of something as culturally constructed as masculinity. But just what is that Japanese or South Korean conception of masculinity, and how can we talk about it without shared, mutually understood, agreed upon ideas of what features or characteristics are ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine,’ ‘manly’ or ‘boyish,’ etc.?

Now, I know I’m complicating things by mixing up Japanese and S. Korean masculinities and not doing my due diligence to distinguish between them, but, if you’ll forgive me and bear with me… If I look at, for example, K-pop star G-Dragon in his “Crayon” video from 2013 – not particularly tall; slim frame; wearing eye makeup and I presume some sort of concealer/foundation; dyed and carefully styled hair; wearing Wonder Woman pajamas for part of the video, a cutesy little boy outfit playing on a rocking horse for one bit, and full-on disguised as a girl in a long blonde wig in another bit; not to mention the ample use of rainbows – I look at all of this and I see a man who isn’t afraid of looking boyish, girly, feminine, soft, and I want to talk about that, and interrogate it, but then my Korean friend says that all of that is just part of masculinity, and that he’s no less masculine, no less of a man, than anyone else.

Now, maybe we’re just talking at cross-purposes, but I’m trying to suggest that there’s perhaps – at least in some respects – something less toxic going on here. Is there? Maybe there isn’t. Maybe Japanese and South Korean masculinity is just as toxic as American masculinity, just in different ways, or in the same ways but just not in surface appearance / presentation. I honestly have no clue. Whatever minimal expertise I may have in certain aspects of Japanese history and traditional culture, I make no claims to know the private, complex, and diverse attitudes of people all across Japanese society. And, of course, I am all the more ignorant about S. Korea. But, just to hypothesize, just to pose the question, if Japanese and Korean men (and women) won’t judge each other harshly for presenting in a way that we as Americans would consider more effeminate; if Japanese and Korean men are able to relax and not have to posture so much to try to live up to some manliness standard; if their masculinity is therefore, as a result, less fragile, isn’t that something worth talking about?

Then again, perhaps posturing is still exhausting, it’s just that the standard is different? In a recent talk given online, Sharon Kinsella talked about many young men (teenage boys) in Japan now starting to encounter some of the same struggles with beauty standards that girls long have – on the one hand, we might see it freeing for boys/men to be allowed to want to look cute/pretty, and to experiment with hair styles, makeup, jewelry, without fear of the kind of homophobic or toxic masculinity bullying that their American counterparts may fear. But on the other hand, just as girls have experienced for generations, doing your hair and makeup is time-consuming, takes a lot of effort to learn to do right, can be stressful and competitive, and so forth. Knowing how to do your hair, makeup, etc. comes to be mixed in with standards of basic life skills, and a pressure to be at least half decent at it in order to not be seen as inept, immature, undisciplined. These days, at least for some Japanese young men if not others, there is a culture of seeing skill at hair, makeup, etc. as “leveling up” or “skill up” in a sense of personal improvement; young men who fail to put sufficient effort and discipline into their appearance are seen as ugly, undisciplined, perhaps in a way not dissimilar from how young women might be judged for not having the basic skills to maintain their appearance.

But, returning to my point from a little bit earlier, I find it very difficult to talk about these sorts of things if our baseline conceptions of what the words “masculine” and “feminine” even mean are different – it’s one thing to say that all of these elements are part of a healthy masculinity, that in Korea and Japan it’s more okay to be more soft / gentle / cute / pretty, and that it’s even okay to act or dress in overtly feminine ways sometimes (e.g. crossdressing as a joke, or even as a hobby, e.g. cosplay/crossplay/josо̄, which I’ll come back to) … But it’s quite another to deny that any of that is in fact feminine at all, and to not understand what one another mean when we talk about what is and is not “boyish” or “manly” or “girly” or [insert descriptor here]. To deny it – to have fundamental disagreements about what even is or isn’t “feminine” – means we might as well be speaking different languages. Hard to have a conversation if you can’t have a mutually shared vocabulary, and shared understanding of what those terms denote or connote.

These friends are brilliant people – far more well-read in Gender Studies, more insightful and critical and analytical than myself; truly smart people. But I felt sometimes like they didn’t even understand the premises of my question. Given their expertise, and their direct lived experience within the culture, perhaps it is my failing, my fault, for not being able to explain myself better. Still, their assertions that all of this, everything about the way that K-pop idols for example present themselves is all masculinity (including all the many aspects I might see as “feminine,” “soft,” or by whatever other term), … well, if that’s the case then, let’s talk about how it’s a different conception or construction of masculinity, but for some reason I never seemed to be able to have that conversation. I sorely don’t mean to dunk on anyone, that’s by no means the intention or purpose of this post, but certain friends seemed more interested in just taking it as given that they’re manly, perhaps (I’m not sure) implying that they’re just as toxic as any other men, that there’s nothing to admire about this, and that we should be asking different questions in different directions, e.g. how this is a performance for female fans, and how gay male fans and others outside of the explicitly intended audience receive it. That’s not what I’m interested in.

To be honest, I’m not positive what this line is supposed to say… something like “Beautiful men’s makeup lasts, continues to look good, even more so than women’s!” From an article on men’s makeup, including one man (lower left) who identifies as a “genderless man,” and who “even though he dresses as a woman, that doesn’t mean he wants to become one.” (女のコの格好はするけれど、女のコになりたいわけではない「男の娘」として活動するジェンダーレス男子。)

If in standard mainstream US notions of masculinity, men who wear makeup, who put more than a minimal amount of effort into styling their hair, men who wear pink or dress cute, men who dare to wear anything perceived as “women’s clothing” at all, are seen as deviating from, or even posing a threat to, those standard gender norms, and if societal pressures to not deviate, i.e. pressures to “be a man,” are intimately connected to the deeper problems of toxic masculinity, then what about these Korean and Japanese men, for whom dyeing their hair pink, wearing makeup and earrings, and behaving cutely and sweetly not only towards women but also towards one another in ways which American norms would rail against as unmanly and “gay”, are all far more societally acceptable and normal? Is there nothing at all worth saying about this?

With certain friends, every time I have tried to raise this issue – to try to suggest that from my vantage point, Japan and S Korea seem like safer, healthier, places to try to be a man, where one can be more beautiful / cute / stylish in certain ways without it going against social pressures and norms, inviting verbal harassment or even physical violence as it would in the US – those friends always bring it around to talking about American racist stereotypes about Asian men as effeminate – in other words, arguing that these men, who are slighter in build, less hairy, less afraid to wear makeup or dye their hair or reach for “cute” or “beautiful” rather than ruggedly macho aesthetics, are not in fact feminine or effeminate at all, that they are in fact totally masculine, and how dare I (or anyone) even begin to suggest otherwise? … So, rather than being able to get into an earnest conversation about different forms or conceptions of “masculinity,” instead we’re diverted into a conversation about racism and Orientalist stereotypes.

Or, they turn the conversation to how deeply homophobic South Korean society/culture is. And while Christianity is not nearly as widespread or powerful in Japan as in South Korea, homophobia is pretty strong here too. Of course, homophobia has relevance to this discussion, insofar as it is not simply a religious, societal, or moral aversion to the idea of men loving men, but is intimately intertwined with false assumptions about a linkage between sexuality and gender, i.e. a fear or hatred of male femininity, perhaps not only on an individual basis, but in terms of fear of some kind of societal breakdown, and of emasculation of the national body. There’s a whole lot to be explored in that direction, to be sure.

But, I still think it’s a distraction or a digression. On my previous post about K-pop and “Alternate” Masculinities, way back in 2013, a kind reader commented that “the reason that things that are considered ‘feminine’ in the west are accepted in SK is precisely /because/ SK is so homophobic, to the point where being gay wasn’t even considered a possibility until recently. Men in the states used to hug and kiss each other in the early 1900 in the states, where homosexuality was not talked about either. Acceptance of a feminine masculinity comes at expense of lack of acceptance of LGBT.” I think there’s a very strong possibility that they’re right here, that there is indeed something to be said about the way that homophobia and denial of the very existence of sexual or gender minorities – i.e. a general basic assumption that everyone is cishet – opens the door for a broader masculinity, in an ironic, backwards, and problematic way. That is to say, I can imagine that in some societies, because there’s a general societal assumption that no one is gay, therefore in an ironic, backwards sort of way, the stigma against looking or acting gay almost doesn’t exist. Men can be free to dress and behave in a wider range of ways (i.e. extending into what we in the US would consider effeminate) because there’s a general assumption that underneath those superficial behaviors, one is still a toxic male just as toxic + homophobic gender norms expect you to be. There is no risk of being perceived (negatively) as gay, because the possibility of actually being gay is so powerfully suppressed / denied. If you want to make some kind of argument like that, that homophobia in an interesting, backwards, sort of way, creates greater freedom of expression, I think there really might be something there, and I’d be interested to read more about it, or to explore it out in conversation.

If you just want to focus on how conservative and backwards and bad it is that South Korea (and Japan) are such homophobic societies, and … something about disconnects or difficulties in the intersection between K-pop fandom and the actual LGBTQ+ communities both in Korea and in the West, of course that’s serious and important in a social justice sense, and I would never seek to deny it. Homophobia and inequality and discrimination and so forth are, absolutely, major issues in S Korea and Japan. I have no doubt whatsoever that people who are genuinely LGBTQ+ in their sexuality or gender identity have a very hard time growing up in these cultures, coming out to their parents, being out in society, finding a partner… and my heart goes out to them. There’s a lot of progress still yet to be made, a lot of problems to be raised and addressed, to raise awareness of, to have sympathy towards, and to actively support activist efforts in that arena. Absolutely.

But that’s not the question I have been mulling over and seeking to raise for years, and which I am attempting to raise, if not to answer, in this blog post. The question at hand is, what is and isn’t considered “masculinity” in these two cultures? How can I, as an American, learn to understand how this is viewed within Japanese (or Korean) culture?

To take one example that’s somehow been on my mind lately, there is I suppose a growing popularity within Japan of the hobby of josо̄ 女装 – lit. “girl’s clothes,” meaning basically crossdressing. Sharon Kinsella identifies this as having gained popularity and some small degree of mainstream existence in the 2000s and especially in the 2010s, so I guess my own sense wasn’t mistaken. It’s fairly common within very particular contexts, e.g. school festivals or graduation parties, for boys to dress up as girls more or less as a joke, to put on a musical performance / dance number while dressed up as girls, and to laugh at the novelty of how good/cute – or how bad/awkward – the guys look in such outfits. That’s one piece of this, to be sure – you couldn’t do that in the States without people assuming you’re queer, or leaning towards queer, or something. And people will either verbally harass or even physically attack you, or they’ll be wonderfully supportive, but either way it’s still seen as outside the norm, outside of standard modes of masculinity, whereas in Japan, near as I can tell, it’s not seen as only something queer men do, it’s not seen as really all that out of the ordinary at all – it’s seen as just a costume, just a thing that’s done for fun, within particular contexts.

Indeed, even for those like the TikToker 1999abc5 (below), who engage in josо̄ more extensively, Kinsella writes that “most [who practice josо̄] described their cross-dressing as an amateur activity, like a hobby. … [Many don’t] like to see josо̄ from a gender perspective and only [focus] on fashion.”1

So, for someone like this, for those who are into josо̄ as a more regular hobby, not just for isolated events, I’m terribly curious:

(1) how common this is, or how niche,

(2) how it’s viewed by classmates, teachers, parents, general public folks on the street, as bizarre, deviant, etc., or perfectly acceptable – whether boys who dress up as girls are seen as queer/gay, whether crossdressing has the same sort of stigma as it does in the US of being associated with fetishism or sexual deviancy – do boys who engage in josо̄ get ostracized or made fun of at school? Are they seen as less manly, or not? Are they friends with the jocks or bullies or whatever you want to say – the manly men / boyish boys? Are they themselves jocks, bullies, whatever, with or without there being some conception of an incongruity there?

Is practicing josо̄ something embarrassing, to keep secret?

(3) in what contexts do people dress up? Do they dress up only in private, only with friends? Kinsella suggests that many do so in the way that certain sub-groups of (Western) TikTok and Instagram users do, dressing up chiefly at home, and chiefly in order to post photos, videos, or live-streams in order to appeal to friends and fans online? Do they crossdress in public, going out to cafés or clothes shopping or whatever in josо̄, and if they do, do they do so only in places like Harajuku, or just anywhere/everywhere? I know I’ve seen guys on the street from time to time, and even in, for example, the airport, so to some extent at least some people do dress in josо̄ just anywhere. How are these men viewed? Quite obviously I am sure there is the conservative element in society that will decry it, or simply not understand it, but, again, what do most young people think of it, or see it as? Is it like being goth/punk/emo? Is it more normal? More niche?

Kinsella is one of the few Western scholars who has investigated and written about this. But her scholarship goes off in different directions, and doesn’t actually address any of the questions that I’m most interested in. Not yet, at least; I must acknowledge that she is still in early or middle stages of her research on this, and while she gave a talk and published an article on this in 2020, there is supposedly a book and a documentary film on the way. So, I eagerly await those.

In the meantime, it’s definitely interesting and important to be made aware of the distinction between kawaii danshi かわいい男子 (“cute boys”) and josо̄ – i.e. that many boys/men use makeup, hair, clothes to pursue a cuteness that is still masculine, not trying to dress as or pass as girls. Through the work that Kinsella has shared thus far, we learn that even among those that do dress as girls, a lot of josо̄ practitioners don’t identify as gay, queer, or trans, and we get to read/hear a bit about how some see themselves as having a looser or more flexible gender, or a looser or more flexible masculinity, with or without identifying as “queer” or “x-gender” in the sense of the Western or international context of being LGBTQ+ // sexual and gender minorities. I thought it particularly interesting to hear how some otoko no ko 男の娘 (lit. “boy daughter,” or “a young woman who is a boy”) distance or distinguish themselves from more traditional notions of crossdressers, saying that their notions of cuteness, and of the appearance they want to embody, derives not from an imitation of, or aspiration towards resembling or becoming real girls/women in real life, but from a desire to embody a cuteness or look derived from 2D media (i.e. manga, anime, video games). This reminds me, actually, of some discussions I’ve read of the femininity embodied by onnagata – professional Kabuki actors specializing in playing female roles, who base their movements and mannerisms not on real women but on the onnagata tradition.

But, for all that Kinsella talks about the history of josо̄ in magazines and how it got sexualized, with certain terms getting coopted by the porn industry leaving crossdressers and gays to have to come up with new, less tainted, terms to refer to themselves, and new magazines and venues.. and as much as Kinsella talks about certain other angles, I don’t think she addresses the questions above, and I don’t think she gets at fundamentally the key questions of:

(1) how does the practice of josо̄, its acceptance or nicheness, attitudes towards it, etc. help us to understand how “masculinity” is understood, constructed, and performed in Japanese society today? And

(2) what’s the relationship between notions of masculinity or toxic masculinity and the practice of josо̄? What do josо̄ practitioners themselves have to say about the relationship between wanting to be cute/pretty/girly and perhaps wanting to distance themselves from or escape from norms and standards and pressures of masculinity that don’t suit them personally?

Are josо̄ practitioners just like other men? Is it just clothes, just a hobby, just for fun? Is it just a matter of superficial presentation? Or are they in some way internally – emotionally, or in terms of their personality or character – non-toxic, “good” men, of some sort? Is the practice of josо̄ in any way interconnected with a resistance against toxic norms of masculinity? During Kinsella’s online talk, a graduate student (I don’t know if it’s better to name them and give credit, or to leave it anonymous since I don’t have their permission…) raised the idea that for many men, masculinity seems to be a dead end, seems to offer no good answers. No guarantees of happiness or a good life. And so maybe embracing or incorporating or flirting/experimenting with femininity in some way might offer some kind of possibility of a different, happier, more successful, way of being? This is something that very much interests me. Let’s talk about how men struggle with, or against, gender norms; how boys might see being or becoming men unappealing; how they might question what there is to masculinity that’s not toxic masculinity. And how josо̄ might or might not be, for some of them, an attempt to find a way out. Kinsella, sadly, does not seem interested in addressing this – to the contrary, she goes so far as to compare josо̄ to blackface at one point, and to cultural appropriation, focusing as feminist discourse so often does on how men are a problem for women, rather than on how men are themselves human beings who face and struggle with their own gendered problems. [Though I’m sure there are plenty of exceptions and I’m not trying to call out all feminist scholars or get myself in trouble or anything like that. I consider myself a feminist, or at least an ally, too. I promise. Please don’t come after me.]

I’m sure there’s piles and piles of stuff one could read about Masculinity in Japan, starting perhaps with work by, for example, Sabine Frühstuck and James Welker. I sorely regret never having read almost any of this already, and for never having gotten into Gender Studies in any depth during my many years of grad school. But even so, I have to wonder what it is that I’ll find. If Kinsella’s pieces on josо̄ – and my conversations with various friends about K-pop – have been so off-target compared to what lines of questions/thinking I’m interested in, will these other scholars offer what I’m looking for, or will it be a wild goose chase of just continued disappointment? Perhaps there’s an opening for someone new (myself?) to take up these lines of inquiry, and to pursue it precisely along the lines I am myself interested in. But, of course, I have zero foundation of expertise in this, no experience or training in fieldwork, and plenty of work to do in my own Okinawan Studies corner…


  1. Sharon Kinsella, “Otoko no ko Manga and New Wave Crossdressing in the 2000s: A Two-Dimensional to Three-Dimensional Male Subculture,” Mechademia 13:1 (2020), 49-50.

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My blog post from last year, “K-Pop and an Alternate Masculinity” is one of my most-viewed. I guess it’s a really popular topic, not just because of K-Pop, but hopefully too because of interest in alternate masculinities and gender issues.

Left: Lee Taemin from the boy group Shinee, in last December’s Vogue Girl.

At least one commenter on that post was kind to take the time to explain that there’s another side to this – that despite the fashion and such within these music videos, and despite whatever we might be able to say about alternate masculinities (the beautiful, soft, boy who’s physically intimate with his friends, even while being cis-het, yet at least at the same time being quite different from the standard macho bro, or other “mainstream” versions of ideal masculinity as constructed within Western culture/society), this is not an indication of any level of acceptance of any gender identities or sexual orientations beyond cis-het in South Korea.

Meg Ten Eyck, in an article last week in Posture Mag entitled “Is KPop as Queer as it Appears to be?: Androgynous Fashion, Fan Service, and Boy Love in Korean Pop Culture,” explains out a bit more starkly, and in more detail, South Korean attitudes about LGBTQ and gender identities. And what she portrays is rather discouraging, even disturbing, saddening. Even those people who do identify as LGBTQ (how did Eyck find them?) don’t do so too publicly, and apparently coming out even to your parents is so taboo, so not thought of, that some of the people interviewed even laughed at the idea. Eyck writes:

Siwon Choi engages in graphic boy love fan service, including stroking and kissing his male band members while shirtless on stage and making out with fellow band members. Essentially Choi, and other artists are claiming that their androgynous style and boy love fan service is acceptable because it’s driving sales of their albums and merchandise. However, if someone proclaims their identity as a queer person and engages in the same behaviors, the majority of Koreans would not support them.

This certainly complicates the issue, and I’m not entirely sure what to say. Can we really not, as a society (as any society, American, Korean, or otherwise), have a more pleasant balance, accepting alternate gender identities and sexualities in a fuller spectrum? In the United States, LGBTQ rights, equality, continue to make progress, and to find growing acceptance (though of course some very serious problems still continue as well), even as the kind of things we see in K-pop remain almost entirely absent, and suppressed, excluded, from mainstream pop culture; and meanwhile, in Korea we see guys on TV, in music videos, in posters, etc., with all kinds of soft, sweet, baby faces, wearing makeup and jewelery and fashion and dyed pink hair, caressing even kissing one another – but any actual, real, admission of queer identity is all but unheard of, and all but unaccepted. Here’s hoping that both of our societies can get it together and see some expansion of acceptance in the coming years.

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Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I saw this post today on RocketNews24, entitled ““Breaching the laws of equality” – Has Japan’s preferential treatment of women gone too far?”, and wanted to share it.*

Really, this whole post is just by way of sharing a bunch of different gender-related links (and webcomics) that I’ve come across in the last couple weeks. My friend Leah, over at The Lobster Dance, and I had spoken briefly about how there doesn’t seem to be any good Japan-centered gender blog, doing for Japan what The Grand Narrative does for Korea, and what Sociological Images does for, well, a much broader range of topics and geographical/cultural locations. I’m not sure if my ramblings, in this post, are really the best place to start for my part in this “project”, as it’s more just my own personal thoughts, rather than any proper academic-style analysis, but it is a start. Even if my own words may be a bit too rambling, or even misguided, I hope you will find the links valuable and interesting.

Returning to the subject of the RocketNews post, many of the busiest train lines in Japan have for years already had “women-only” train cars (beginning in 2001), where women can escape the threat of chikan (groping), and apparently, there are now beginning to be established, here and there across Japan, women-only cafés, women-only spaces in co-ed university libraries, and the like. Plus, the ladies’ day discounts at the movie theatres. And some people, such as a lawyer quoted in the RocketNews post, are beginning to question whether this is not in violation of legal (and, indeed, constitutional) requirements for equality. Personally, I’m not so interested in the legal aspect, as I am the cultural impact, the homosocial spaces and homosocial experiences that these spaces represent. What kind of space is a women-only space? How is it arranged or decorated or managed? How does it feel to be there? What kinds of activities and interactions occur there? What kind of experience, or atmosphere (fun’iki), is enjoyed in these spaces? I have to admit, I do not know, as I am not permitted access to such spaces. But, I think I can pretty safely assume that at least some of these spaces to be much more pleasant places than male-dominated spaces; less aggressive, less combative, less confrontational, less rough, more classy, cleaner, prettier, more comfortable/luxurious in certain ways. Sounds pretty nice.

In discussing such spaces, though, first, of course, we have to be clear that these spaces are not created purely to give women some kind of advantage, purely to give them nice things and thereby create an inequality. Women-only spaces are, generally, created in the name of protecting women from men, who are, as a group, as a whole, seen as a threat. Whether it’s the groping on the trains, or simply being made uncomfortable and distracted from one’s work because of men leering in the library, there is a feeling of a need to escape. And I certainly won’t argue that there is no such threat, because, unfortunately, this is the society we live in – whether in Japan or in the US – where far too many men think it’s perfectly okay to leer, verbally harass, grope, or worse. And that leads to a society full of women who are wary of any and all men, at least to some extent. And, while it’s an unfortunate state of affairs in general, and terribly frustrating for myself, I don’t blame the women for feeling this way.

I’m not a woman, and there may be all kinds of social pressures or social frictions that women experience from one another, which I don’t know about, but, I can only imagine how wonderful it must be to have female spaces to, presumably, feel comfortable in. Places with an atmosphere more attuned to your tastes, comfort, whatever. This of course doesn’t go for all such women-only spaces, but at least some are explicitly described as “far more luxurious” than the corresponding co-ed spaces.1 And, for my female readers, in case you were unaware, accurate or not, most men romanticize female homosocial interactions, and imagine all female-only spaces to be quite clean, fancy, comfortable/relaxing, compared to male or co-ed spaces. I lived for years under the apparently misguided impression that women’s bathrooms typically had nice comfy couches, and were generally much cleaner and more well-appointed than men’s.

I wish I could spend time in luxurious spaces. Well, of course, I can. In fact, I went out with some guys to two really fantastic bars in Shibuya just the other day. But, those are not male-only spaces, and outside of the fact that we were drinking beers, I’m not sure there was much of anything we were doing that was really particularly macho or “masculine.” And if they were more truly “manly” spaces, I can’t imagine I’d want to spend time there. Not because of anything having to do with a desire to pick up girls, and the resulting need for there to be women there; this whole idea of the “sausage fest,” with the implication that one wishes there were women there so that one could hit on them, is disgusting. But, rather, because just like women need a space free of masculine energy and the male gaze, so do men, crazy as that might sound.

I have for a very long time found standard expressions of masculinity unappealing, and lately, have begun to find them especially repulsive. Anything and everything about machismo, or “dude-bro” culture, is just… disgusting, and I want to have nothing to do with it. But, then, what does that leave? If there is to be an alternative American masculinity, one that rejects machismo and dude-bro culture, what are its defining characteristics? Who am I to be? What am I to strive for?

I recently came upon the above quote, and felt it describes better than almost anything else I’ve ever come across before, how I feel – how I have felt for a very long time. (If you’re interested, please take a look at the Kickstarter for the documentary from which the quote & image is taken.) Not to make light of the very serious harassment, and worse, that far too many women suffer every day – not to say that what I experience is comparable at all, but, simply to put that aside and talk about this interconnected but other phenomenon, I absolutely feel this anxiety almost every day. I have very few friends with whom I feel I can truly be myself, without having to worry about what to suppress, how to behave differently, in order to behave masculinely enough for those around me. Which is crazy, because I am sure that quite often, they are simultaneously worried about me thinking them manly enough. We are each of us, constantly, worrying about whether we are living up to the standards of the men around us – are we being manly enough? Do the other men (or, women, for that matter) around us think we’re failing or lacking in some respect? It’s crazy, and it’s stupid, because while there may be those meatheads who genuinely believe in and aspire to normative modes of masculinity, a great many of us are simply performing masculinity for the benefit of fitting in with those around us – whereas, if we all just dropped the act, and were more honest and genuine with one another, that anxiety might lessen, and our relationships with other guys might become that much closer and more meaningful. Yet, all too often, we can’t.

A Hawaii-themed pancake café in Narita City. I wish I had gotten a picture of the three young ladies enjoying fluffy pancakes covered in mountains of sweet whipped cream and fruits, lightly chatting and enjoying themselves, so as to better illustrate the Hawaii-themed café as a particular flavor, or atmosphere, of young women’s homosocial space, for which I’m not sure there’s a male equivalent.

The equivalent, the turn-around, to women-only spaces is not men-only spaces. I don’t want the sports bar, or watching the game and drinking brewskies in the “mancave.” And I don’t want the pretentious “old boys club” or businessman’s bar. And I certainly don’t want the frat house. Actually, I’m not really sure I want a men-only space at all. Because it’s not about escaping from women; it’s about escaping from expectations of manliness. … I’m not sure what I want, I guess. Except that I think I want whatever it is the women have. I think about the stereotypical “ladies who lunch,” or the girls going out together to a parfait place or a Hawaii-themed café2, or a cat cafe, or any number of other types of establishments clearly aimed at girls going out with their girlfriends… I look at these interactions, and I feel like there is a freedom there, to be yourself, to do what you want, to be a woman with other women, to put aside your everyday life, and your everyday mask, and to experience something just a bit elegant, just a bit cosmopolitan, in a kind of fantasy space, as if you’ve been transported to Waikiki, or to an elegant little teashop in Victorian England. Of course, now that I spell it out that way, of course, there are plenty of men-and-women-both-welcome places in all kinds of styles and atmospheres, where one can enjoy such an experience, whether it’s a fancy brunch place or a theme restaurant, to a classy Japanese restaurant with all the furnishings. But, even so, thinking about these women’s homosocial interactions, I cannot help but feel that we men are failing, or lacking, somehow, somewhere. That the women know how to have proper social relationships, proper friendships, and further that they know how to enjoy themselves, how to live the good life as it were, in whatever small ways, with their luxurious cafés and luxurious recreational activities in general, that seem classy, and cosmopolitan, and cultured, while somehow avoiding the obnoxious pretension all too often inherent in more male-dominated spaces, such as the businessmen’s bar. Maybe the solution is simply that I need a group of female friends to adopt me into their group and invite me along with them to the cafés, to brunch, whatever. Because as much as I have enjoyed some very good times with other men, at nice cafés or theme bars, having wonderful academic conversations, and whatever, it’s not the same. Is it?

This is not a proper way to end a blog post, I know, but, frankly, I just really don’t know what else to say. There is no conclusion. I barely even know what it is I’m looking for, or whether I’m even looking for it. I don’t know what the conclusion to this topic is, or if there even is one. The above are just some thoughts I had, and I’m still trying to work them out, what I think, what I feel, about all of this. It remains unfinished.


Comics from Sinfest.net, by Tatsuya Ishida.

*Before we go any further, perhaps a definition for “homosocial” is in order. Merriam-Webster gives the definition, in part, as “of, relating to, or involving social relationships between persons of the same sex.” The key thing is, if you’re coming across this term for the first time, it’s about friendly, social interactions, and is not talking about romantic or sexual relationships, or sexual orientation or preferences.
(1) Quoted from the RocketNews article, describing a women-only space in a university library in Saitama.
(2) One could write volumes on the appropriation and discursive imagination of Hawaii in Japan, and in particular, on vacationing in Hawaii (or just going to Hawaii-themed cafés) as a young women’s homosocial activity. I wonder if anyone has. I came here that day hoping it might be a proper Hawaii-style restaurant, as I was hungry, and in the mood for a mahi mahi sandwich, or miso butterfish or something, but all I found was dessert pancakes. Is that even a Hawaii thing? At all? I guess maybe in Waikiki…

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An example of “hotel hula,” performed not for a traditional or ritual purpose, but as a show for large crowds at Waikiki.

If you’re not already aware of it, Sociological Images is a wonderful blog, posting excellent, well-worded, well-thought-through comments on a variety of sociological issues, mainly gender/sexuality and racism/Orientalism. One recent post touches upon Orientalism and the male gaze as they manifest in the performance, consumption (watching), and development of hula; the post basically summarizes the three chief types of hula – traditional, contemporary, and hotel – and touches upon the impact of hula-for-tourism upon the image or understanding of hula more broadly, and upon the character, therefore, of the performance form. Another post, from a few months ago, talked about the use of the “hula girl” as a stereotypical image in the marketing of Hawaii as a tourist destination. I’ve barely said anything here – I definitely recommend clicking through and taking a look at these two brief articles.

Though focusing on feminist and Orientalism issues, both posts also touch upon or relate to issues of tradition and authenticity, and the difficulty of how to share traditional culture and make it visible and available to visitors, while at the same time maintaining the tradition. “Hotel hula” has developed into such a thing rather different from traditional hula, both in terms of its ritual significance, and its very sexualized & Orientalized image – this, in turn, has profoundly affected the attitudes and impressions of people outside Hawaii about what hula is.

A video from 1975, an example of the kind of “classic” image of tourist Hawaii that ties into how we continue to imagine the islands today.

Reading this, I thought of geisha as well; there are a number of places in Kyoto, and I would assume elsewhere as well, where one can go see geisha dances as a tourist. The more genuine, traditional context is to either hire a geisha to entertain as part of a very fancy/expensive private dinner party, or to attend Miyako Odori dance events; when I stayed in Kyoto three summers ago, I saw geisha performances in a hotel lobby, and at a culture museum. I think it’s great that these things are offered at a museum, as part of educating about the culture in a manner that isn’t purely static, and in a manner that seeks to be more inclusive, of not only objects and images, but of activities and performances as well. As for the hotel, well, I understand the desire, the demand – people come to Kyoto, and one of the chief things they associate with the city and desire to see is geisha dances, just like the hula performances in Hawaii.

But, who are these geisha who perform in such contexts? How are they, and their art, affected discursively by the context in which they perform? Even if the dances (and costume and makeup) themselves are perfectly identical to “genuine” traditional dances, nevertheless, when you’re performing for tourists, at a hotel or at a museum, that has a dramatic impact upon you as a performer, upon what it means to be a geisha. These dances take on a major part in the regular life of a young geiko or maiko, who performs at a hotel or museum X times a week, explaining her craft & lifestyle, getting her picture taken with one tourist after another, and who trains or prepares for such events, practicing her introductions and answers to questions, etc., as a museum staffer or tour guide would – a very different thing from other aspects of geisha training & everyday life.

Displays of geisha costume & dance, at the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts (Miyako Messe Fureaikan).

So, again, what does it mean to be a geisha when a lifestyle that once focused almost exclusively on life within the geisha house, on dance practice & other training, and on entertaining guests in elite establishments now includes commuting to a hotel or museum & coordinating with that institution when & how often and which geiko will go there, spending X portion of one’s days preparing for or performing for tourists, and preparing presentations or explanations of the tradition for viewers? Perhaps most importantly, geisha are in these contexts put on display in a sense, as museum objects, in a sense, removed from their cultural context of the geisha house or the fancy restaurant… what does it feel like to be on display for tourists? What does it feel like to be a cultural commodity, and what does it mean for the art to have it experienced and understood in this profoundly diluted way?

These are major themes in post-colonial studies, and I am sure there is a lot of Theory and scholarship out there on the subject… I look forward to hopefully discussing these themes in a seminar or otherwise engaging with these questions further.

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