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Posts Tagged ‘joso’

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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