1 Introduction: Mediating Dansō and Genderless

In “Dansō Cross-Dressing,” a YouTube video released in 2013 by VICE Japan, Tajima Yūsuke, chief editor of KERA, a women’s street fashion magazine targeted at teenagers, was interviewed.Footnote 1 Tajima thought Akira, a well-known twenty-five-year-old dansō (female-to-male crossdressing) model and artiste, appealed to KERA’s readers because they wear clothing that expresses their individuality (koseiteki na fashon) in their day-to-day life.Footnote 2 The camera cuts to Akira, who has followed such a “fashion” since high school. Decked in a loose printed white T-shirt, cream hoodie, and black sarouel (also sirwal) pants, Akira sported a trendy asymmetrical hairstyle with parts of it dyed blond (Fig. 1).Footnote 3 Akira reminisced how it all started out as a form of “play” (asobi): they would put on a wig and wear men’s clothing (otoko no ko no kakkō) to enjoy “boyish style.” Akira paused in mid-sentence at the word “dansō” before saying, “I guess it is dansō (dansō desune).” The camera cuts back to Tajima, who explained that dansō originally stemmed from Japanese history, such as the Takarazuka Revue, an all-women theater group. Tajima compared Takarazuka fans to KERA readers and pointed out that the majority of consumers were women and a small minority were men. These fans and readers, he added, tended to appreciate dansō individuals for their esthetic value.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Screenshot of Akira from “Dansō Cross-Dressing” (VICE Japan 2013)

This short documentary feature by VICE Japan, the Japanese arm of youth-focused digital media company VICE, introduces dansō through a series of interviews with Akira, their fans, and the people who work with them. The rest of the video frames dansō primarily in terms of beauty, fashion, performance, and historical tradition. In fact, any discussion of Akira’s gender identity and sexual orientation is assiduously avoided, which is surprising considering how VICE’s investigative journalism typically focuses on controversial topics. However, this lack of an explicitly “queer” discourse does not necessarily mean that it is absent in dansō. Here, I locate “queer” in a range of plural, excessive, and overlapping gender and sexually variant desires, practices, and subjectivities (Sedgwick 1994; McLelland, Suganuma, and Welker 2007). Moreover, Tajima’s and Akira’s attempts at defining “dansō” not only indicate how it means different things to different people, but also reflect the nonlinear flows of media that transform its meanings. The latter is what Nick Couldry has called “mediation,” expanding on Roger Silverstone’s (2002, 762) definition as the “fundamentally, but unevenly, dialectical process in which institutionalized media of communication […] are involved in the general circulation of symbols in social life.” For Couldry (2008, 380), mediation more broadly refers to how bidirectional—or, more accurately, multidirectional—flows of “production, circulation, interpretation or reception, and recirculation” of a specific aspect of culture or society in turn shape culture, society, and future iterations of media. As someone who does not himself practice dansō, Tajima draws on his knowledge of women’s fashion and Japanese theatrical tradition to characterize dansō as an esthetic form. For Akira, however, the practice began organically as an experimentation with appearance and evolved into something else before they consciously thought of it as “dansō,” taking this label from its mediation. Akira’s engagement with dansō renders Tajima’s apparently linear narrative more complex, opening it up for the viewer’s interpretation.

This chapter explores the mediation of androgynous bodies and styles in contemporary Japan by mapping the relationship between dansō and “genderless style” (jendāresu-kei). Dansō refers to gender-crossing practices usually by individuals who are assigned female at birth, whereas genderless is a mode of fashion emerging in 2010 which theoretically denotes styles that do not distinguish between genders but is not necessarily gender-neutral or without gender (musei or agender). Dansō and genderless are distinct but related formations of androgyny, which can be broadly defined as the intermingling of male/masculine and female/feminine, both contesting and maintaining (if in part) these physical and psychological states of being (Bem 1975; Singer 1976; Robertson 1998; Monden 2014). Such gender mixing is often uneven, contradictory, and even transitional, making it notoriously difficult to pin down but at the same time, full of potential for generating new meanings—something I am interested in mining. Specifically, I investigate how dansō individuals and genderless joshi (girls) have negotiated dansō and genderless by tracing their nonlinear media flows since the 2010s and analyzing how these categories might be meaningful for young individuals in their twenties living in urban Tokyo.

Much scholarship and media coverage have focused largely on josō (male-to-female crossdressing) and genderless danshi (boys) as compared to dansō and genderless joshi.Footnote 4 Of this literature, scholars have examined josō individuals in terms of transgender identity and dansō individuals as embodying “queer” subjectivity (Mitsuhashi 2006, 2007, 2008; Fanasca 2019a). In more recent news articles, critics and the genderless danshi featured have repudiated any connections between their practices and emasculation and homosexuality (Rich 2017; Robertson 2017, 2018). For instance, in a New York Times article, Japanese fashion scholar Masafumi Monden remarks that “how people look and their sexual identities can be separated to a certain extent” in Japanese culture, even as genderless danshi model Toman Sasaki claims his appearance initially invited questions on whether he was gay (Rich 2017). This suggests there can be multiple permutations of genders and sexualities where for one individual, gender presentation might be connected to fashion, whereas for another, their gender expression may be more closely intertwined with sexual orientation. This raises the questions: What permutations do genderless joshi—who are absent from such discourses—elicit? What do “dansō” and “genderless” index and how might they still be useful as labels for certain individuals?

Drawing on media analysis and ethnographic research, I argue that dansō individuals and genderless joshi embraced genderbending practices before retrospectively being named as “doing” dansō or genderless. In these media, they are often presented as fronting the dansō label or jumping on the bandwagon of the genderless trend. However, I want to take a different stance: these individuals first engage in their practices, construct their alternative identities and ways of being, and only subsequently become interpellated by other people as “dansō” and “genderless.” This hailing of dansō and genderless individuals through ideology by the media and the discourses they propagate accords them subjectivity (Althusser [1971] 2014). That is, they gain recognition in society precisely through their acceptance of these labels, which they are encouraged to take on and in turn propagate through mediation.

This resonates with Dick Hebdige’s work on youth subcultures, where he argues that mods, punks, and rockers resist hegemonic norms through style which, while initially subversive, eventually becomes incorporated into mainstream culture through labeling and mass consumption ([1979] 2002). Although dansō and genderless are arguably not subcultural per se, following this line of thought, these practices become perceived as contained and no longer threatening to the dominant ideology because they are normalized by consumers. Yet, as Hebdige also points out, it is hard to draw clear lines between stylistic innovation and “commercial exploitation” of subcultures ([1979] 2002, 94). Like subcultures, central to dansō and genderless are style and consumption, which are highly visible elements often highlighted in the media. As the mediation of dansō and genderless is a nonlinear and multidirectional process, I would argue that individuals also capitalize on these labels as a means of sustaining their practices and attach different meanings to them than those intended by the media and other people.

By tracing how certain individuals become designated as and eventually claim dansō and genderless as their own labels, I am also interested in the relation between style and queer and transgender subjectivity. Fashion theorists have long observed that clothing is a highly productive site, from which new identities are constructed and embodied, genders and sexualities emerge, and evolving notions of femininities and masculinities surface, but also for the wearer to express their “way of being in the world” (Barthes [1962] 2013; Wilson [1985] 2003; Calefato 1997, 76; Entwistle [2000] 2015). Except for a few recent works (Geczy and Karaminas 2013; Steele 2013; Moore 2018; Reilly and Barry 2020), little has yet to be written on queer style, not to mention transgender fashion or that in non-Euro-American contexts. I wish to queer style by bridging the connections between fashion and gender and sexually diverse ways of being and by locating them in the Japanese context.

I contend that returning to the moment of pre-categorization allows us to rethink the potential for dansō and genderless to add to, if not transform, “queer” and “transgender” as critical terms of analysis. Peter Jackson’s notions of “pre-gay” and “post-queer” might be useful to consider here, which he formulates to refer to Asian erotic cultures and categories that predate the globalization of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) and “exist outside Eurocentric understandings of sexual and gender difference” respectively (2001, 7). Drawing on this, we might say that dansō is pre-gay for having had a long history in Japan, dating from practices usually by warriors and members of the royal family in the eighth century (Saeki 2009, 118). At the same time, dansō practices by young individuals in twenty-first century Japan—what I have elsewhere called “contemporary dansō culture” (Ho 2020)—are also post-queer for deviating from Euro-American models of queer. Yet, informed by market processes, these local gender and sex cultures also differ from premodern eroticisms (Jackson 2009). Extending beyond pre-gay and post-queer, dansō presents a nonlinear temporality, enabled by and fracturing from historical traditions but simultaneously subject to capitalist modes of production.

Placing dansō and genderless on a spectrum of androgynous bodies, I further suggest that genderless emerged as a modern iteration of dansō in the fashion world, both drawing on and departing from dansō tradition and contemporary dansō culture through the processes of mediation. Here, we might understand androgyny as an analytic. Roland Barthes’s theory of the dandy not just as an “ethos,” but more so as a “technique,” is useful to rethink androgyny ([1962] 2013, 62). As an analytical tool, the dandy’s embodiment of a distinctive style of clothing subtly reveals his non-normative ways of being (Vänskä 2014). Like the dandy, dansō and genderless individuals exhibit their distance and difference through their outward appearance from queer and transgender frameworks, which have emerged following the mid-1990s queer studies movement in Japan.

This is evident in the fashion industry, where designers and experts have embraced terms such as androgyny, “unisex,” “gender fluid,” “gender-free,” and genderless to describe clothing collections and garment styles. Since the mid-1980s, the terms “andorojenī” (androgyny), “ryōsei” (both sexes/genders), and “chūsei” (middle sex/gender) have been used in the Japanese media to discuss clothing styles that feminize men and masculinize women (Robertson 1998).Footnote 5 However, fashion scholars have posited that androgynous styles are not limited to “feminine” clothes for men and “masculine” garments for women, but are instead open to the mixing and blurring of genders (Monden 2014; Akdemir 2018). This unevenness of femininities and masculinities in the same body might be useful for rethinking the gender binary, particularly in queer theory and the growing field of transgender studies in a transnational context. Instead of beginning with trans or queer, returning to the moment of pre-categorization and the doing of dansō and genderless situated in a specific cultural and geographical context challenges the presumed linearity of Euro-American trans and queer studies.

Employing discourse analysis, I examined YouTube videos on dansō during the 2010s boom and on genderless joshi, such as “Dansō Cross-Dressing” and “i-D Meets: Tokyo’s Genderless Youth,” and their coverage in English- and Japanese-language magazines and newspapers, notably KERA BOKU, Garçon Girls, and The Japan Times. Covering the genderless phenomenon, “i-D Meets” was released in 2017 by i-D, a UK-based online magazine concerned primarily with street style and youth culture.Footnote 6 “KERA BOKU” is the name given to three special issues on dansō fashion released by KERA in 2011, 2012, and 2013, whereas Garçon Girls is a dansō-themed single-issue magazine published on the heels of KERA BOKU in October 2013. Japan Times is a major English-language newspaper based in Japan since 1897. My analysis of these media is supplemented by 14 months of long-term ethnographic research at a dansō cafe-and-bar called “Garçon” (pseudonym) in Tokyo between 2015 and 2017. Located in Akihabara, a haven for fans of anime, manga, and video games, Garçon employs individuals mainly in their twenties who practice dansō in their everyday lives and attend to patrons as waitstaff and bartenders.Footnote 7 My fieldwork involved interviews with and participant observation of Garçon’s employees and customers.

In the rest of the chapter, I first offer a brief historical background of androgyny in the Japanese context, focusing on cultural translations of “dansō,” “genderless,” and other terms used for describing androgynous bodies in the media. Next, I discuss the mediation of dansō and genderless in the Japanese media as youth fashion and the potential of such styles for generating pleasure and new identities. Subsequently, I trace how mediating dansō and genderless provides meaning for young urban individuals as a way of doing, and how this contributes to critical frameworks of queer and transgender. Finally, I conclude by proposing new directions in research on queer style.

2 Contextualizing Androgyny in Japan

Androgyny in the form of dansō has had a long history in Japan, dating from practices in the eighth century—usually by warriors and members of the royal family—religious rituals, to literary and theatrical representations (Leupp 1995; Robertson 1998; Saeki 2009). Although the Japanese word “dansō” means dressing as men or wearing men’s clothes, it is mostly used today to refer to female-to-male crossdressing. This usage of “dansō,” and subsequent coinage of “ryōsei,” “chūsei,” and other terms as labels to describe individuals with assemblages, dissonance, or negation of feminine and masculine behaviors and appearances, came about because of mediation and medicalization since the Meiji period (1868–1912). It is also important to note that “queer” and “transgender”—transliterated into Japanese as “kuia” and “toransujendā”, respectively—as analytic did not emerge until the queer studies movement in Japan in 1996. Even so, as specific concepts rooted in the West, especially in the U.S., “queer” and “transgender” were taken up predominantly by writers and academics, but not so much in people’s everyday lives (Dale 2012). Tracing androgyny in Japan therefore requires a knowledge of its multiple, at times conflicting, localized terms for expressing individuals’ identities, practices, and demeanors.

With the 1872 ban on josō and dansō except in the theater, newspapers started to carry stories of individuals who either violated or were arrested for breaking the law (Pflugfelder 2007; Mitsuhashi 2008). Although this prohibition did not last long, josō and dansō remain stigmatized in the media. During the prewar period, the sexology (seigaku) boom, influenced by Euro-American sexologists, helped to propagate the vocabulary of androgyny in medical terms in the early 1920s (Frühstück 2003). Physicians and medical researchers published widely on hentai seiyoku (perverse sexual desire), which included issues concerning homosexuals (dōseiaisha) and crossdressers (iseisōsha), in various sexological journals and contributed articles to newspapers and magazines, such as Popular MedicineAsahi Shimbun, and Fujin Kōron (Frühstück 2003; Mitsuhashi 2008). They coined the terms “ryōsei” to refer to “someone with both female and male genitalia”—that is, an intersex person—or “someone with both feminine and masculine characteristics” in terms of behavior, and “chūsei” to describe a person who is “feeling not quite female/male, but somewhere in-between” (Robertson 1998, 50; Dale 2012, para 4).Footnote 8 Based on recent usage by online communities, S.P.F. Dale (2012, para 4) posits that we should also consider the word “musei” (no sex/gender), which might be defined as “neutral” sex/genderFootnote 9 and “a complete rejection of being gendered.”

From the mid-1930s, “dansō no reijin” (female-to-male crossdressing beauties) became a popular term to refer to masculine women and otokoyaku (male roles in Takarazuka) after Muramatsu Shōfu serially published his novel Dansō no reijin in the women’s magazine Fujin Kōron in 1932 (Robertson 1998; Muramatsu).Footnote 10 Scholars have discussed the problematic expressions of “dansō no reijin” and “otokoyaku” which, although describing individuals as “manly,” “masculine,” or playing the “ideal man” (risō no otoko), reinforce their status as “beautiful women” (reijin) and do not become or emulate “real men” (jissai no dansei) (Robertson 1998, 59; Oshiyama 2007, 33). These individuals do not transcend the gender binary but negotiate both femininities and masculinities in their appearance. For instance, observing Kikoshi, a now-defunct “Miss Dandy” (misu dandī) club catering to Takarazuka fans and “stereotypically feminine” women in the late 1980s, Jennifer Robertson (1998, 144) describes its employees as “offstage otokoyaku who live their daily lives as men.” This describes gender-crossing employees and their customers in quasi-heterosexual terms, reinforcing the gender binary and blurring the boundaries between gender-crossing as performance and everyday practice. Furthermore, scholars have also argued for us to think of otokoyaku as “asexual” and “agendered,” that is, not having any kind of sexual feelings and suspending the connections between the performers and sex, gender, and sexuality (Aochi 1954; Nakamura and Matsuo 2003).

During the postwar period, terms such as “dansōsha” (female-to-male crossdressers), “rezubian” (lesbian), “onabe” (shallow pot),Footnote 11dansō no reijin,” and “Miss Dandy” proliferated and circulated in the media to describe androgynous individuals in the entertainment world. This was congruous with the appearance of rezubian spaces and groups in the 1960s and ūman ribu, the women’s liberation movement in Japan in the 1970s. The mainstream media started using “rezubian” as a catch-all term to refer to all women-loving women and dansō bartenders, or masculinized women who work in bars dressed up in suits and ties (Sugiura 2007). This conflated rezubian with onabe, individuals who identify as “non-female,” engage in female-to-male crossdressing, and are sexually attracted to women, including transgender women (Maree 2003, para 2). During the 1970s, “onabe” became widespread in the media and embraced by individuals as an identity, especially for those working in the entertainment industry, such as bars and clubs.Footnote 12 “Miss Dandy” also became a popular moniker for “onabe” in the mass media between the mid-1980s and early 1990s (Maree 2003; Sugiura 2007).

Although onabe did not completely replace previous terms, such as dansōsha and dansō no reijin, the media used all three terms interchangeably to refer to lesbians, crossdressing bartenders, and same-sex relationships between women.Footnote 13 For example, in “Patterns of nights woven by dansō no reijin,” an article in Asahi Geinō—a tabloid magazine known for its sensational stories—Yōji and Kōji, two “otokoyaku toshite no onna” (women in male roles), were interviewed about their experiences working in an onabe bar, their dansō practices, and their love lives with women (Sangoku 1973). Spinx Konatsu, the bar where Yōji and Kōji worked, later turned into an onabe and okama (deep pot)Footnote 14 “mix bar” and their customers were both men and women. When asked why men would patronize the bar, Yōji explained that since they were “women on the inside” (onaka wa onna), they could entertain customers as either gender, depending on what the situation called for (Sangoku 1973, 66).Footnote 15 Yōji’s answer seems to suggest that as an onabe, they could be fluid in terms of negotiating femininities and masculinities, which references ryōsei and chūsei individuals.

In the contemporary period, terms for androgynous bodies, practices, and identities, such as “seidōitsuseishōgai” (Gender Identity Disorder; henceforth GID), “toransujendā” (transgender), and “ekkusu jendā” (x-gender), emerged in the mid to late 1990s. GID originated as a medical term for individuals who believe they belong to and can “physically and socially conform with the opposite sex” and has been diagnosed by two or more doctors (Taniguchi 2013, 109). Subsequently, with the legalization of sex/gender reassignment surgery (SGRS) in 1996 and the televisation of a female-to-male (FTM) transgender character in the popular drama, 3nen Bgumi Kinpachi-sensei (Mr Kinpachi, 3rd year B group; henceforth Kinpachi-sensei), in 2001, GID entered public discourse (Taniguchi 2006; Yuen 2011). In 2003, the Act on Special Cases in Handling Gender Status for Persons with Gender Identity Disorder, or GID Act, was passed, cementing the importance of GID in the Japanese social imagination.Footnote 16 As compared to “toransujendā”—referring to individuals whose gender is different from that assigned at birth—GID is more readily embraced by Japanese people as an identity while also being a medical diagnosis, regardless of their intention to undergo SGRS.Footnote 17 While this accords visibility to GID and trans people, it has also resulted in marginalizing individuals who do not see themselves as “sick” or wish to undergo SGRS (McLelland 2004; Lunsing 2005).

In the late 1990s, “x-gender” surfaced among individuals living in the urban areas of Kansai and in printed, visual, and online media, referring to “a gender that is neither male nor female, or, depending on the definition, both” (Dale 2012, para 1). In rejecting the gender binary, x-gender might be thought of perhaps as a more modern interpretation of musei, without completely excluding ryōsei and chūsei. Mostly used in the local Japanese context but framed within a global transgender discourse, “x-gender” can be considered a sub-category of “transgender” and a parallel for “genderqueer” or “gender bender,” which have become prevalent in other cultural contexts (Dale 2014, 270–271).

More recently, in the 2010s, “genderless style” (jendāresu kei) came into use in the fashion world to depict the merging of feminine and masculine styles to form an androgynous look. This was likely inspired by U.S. and Europe-based leaders of a global fashion industry. Scholars have observed how in the contemporary history of fashion, certain androgynous figures such as the (black) dandy have been significant as sites for crossing and shaping gender boundaries because they embody queer, racial, class, gender, and feminist politics in the “lived experience of dress and appearance” (Barthes [1962] 2013; Wilson [1985] 2003; Miller 2009; Geczy and Karaminas 2013; Paulicelli and Wissinger 2013, 14–15; Vänskä 2014; Akdemir 2018). In the Japanese context, Monden (2014) argues that Lolita fashion can be subversive for transforming fixed ideas of what an androgynous appearance looks like—that is, one often based on men’s clothes.Footnote 18 Although androgyny indexes a combination of femininities and masculinities, men’s garments are usually privileged in the fashion industry, revealing inherent gender inequalities. This is more apparent for genderless joshi (girls), who sport short hairstyles and loose fit pants, but perhaps less so for genderless danshi (boys), who wear makeup and skirts. Despite the moniker, genderless individuals do not engage equally on the fashion “playing field” (Negrin 2008, 147). By depicting genderless danshi as heralding the fashion trend, the media have created the impression that “genderless” refers only to genderless danshi. This invisibility informs my focus on the mediation of female-to-male embodiments in Japan.

3 Fashioning Genderless

In the YouTube video “i-D Meets,” Nakayama Satsuki, a genderless joshi model, declared “Ever since I started dressing this way, I have a lot more fun (tanoshii), and I feel a lot more free (jiyū).” The nineteen-year-old, who sported a short cropped black hair with a long fringe, was clad entirely in black in an oversized top, Adidas hoodie, and three-quarter culottes with matching black sneakers (Fig. 2).Footnote 19 Nakayama also wore minimalist accessories, such as black ear studs, a large gold-plated chain with a triangular steel pendant, and a silicone ring with a triangle cutout, which an extreme close-up was careful to show. Nakayama explained that what inspired her to adopt genderless fashion was an androgynous South Korean model whom she admired for the latter’s cool (kakkoii) appearance.Footnote 20 It was only later that she realized this model was a woman. The camera cuts to a video of Nakayama on the runway and cuts back to her browsing what appears to be unisex clothing on a rack. Nakayama maintained she did not dislike being called “genderless joshi” by other people. The camera cuts to three photographs of her as a model, one in a black suit, one in a pinstripe suit, and the last in a casual outfit of oversized long sleeve top and striped culottes. Nakayama reiterated that she felt happy to be labeled as genderless joshi but what surprised her was how quickly she was categorized as one.

Fig. 2
figure 2

Screenshot of Nakayama Satsuki from “i-D Meets: Tokyo’s Genderless Youth” (Kimura 2017)

This five-minute video showcases genderless fashion through a series of interviews with several genderless danshi, apart from Nakayama. As the sole genderless joshi to be featured, Nakayama stands out in the video. She also appeared wary about embracing the genderless label as compared to the genderless danshi, who seemed much more positive about what being genderless could do for them. Her response reveals the tension between wanting to creatively construct her own style and being categorized by other people as “genderless.” It was one thing for Nakayama to embrace practices of intermingling masculinities and femininities, but another thing entirely for others—complete strangers and outsiders—to label her as “doing” genderless. From the video, the notion of feeling “jiyū,” or having one’s own way, seemed to be an important contributing factor to Nakayama’s positive experiences of adopting androgynous styles.Footnote 21 For other people to intervene therefore contradicts meanings of individual freedom and perhaps also resistance embedded in such styles, particularly in Nakayama’s development of her apparently non-normative identity.

Similar to dansō individuals, in practice, the doing of genderless comes before the naming. Like Akira, only retrospectively did Nakayama self-identify as genderless, which came about as an androgynous body esthetic through mediation, or nonlinear flows of media, culture, and society. Toward the end of the scene, although Nakayama claims to be fine with the label, her reiteration of this statement demonstrates that she still has mixed feelings about embodying it. In addition to her reluctance for other people to determine her own identity and way of being, this may also be due to her desire not to fit into any category.

Nakayama’s explicit reference to an androgynous Korean model, who is later revealed to be Kite, as the key inspiration for her genderless practices is interesting. Instead of drawing on influences from within Japan—such as dansō—as her starting point, Nakayama curiously turns to those outside of Japan, namely fashion. In a recent interview with Oricon News, an entertainment news portal, Nakayama cites “genderless” models and artistes who are active in Europe and the U.S. but rare in Japan as influences (Kinuwa 2018). That Nakayama relies on international examples rather than local ones calls for a transnational analysis of genderless. This would entail not just looking at the historical context of androgyny in Japan, but also how the modern production of genderless relates to a different history of crossdressing and queer style in Euro-American contexts.

Similar to dansō, crossdressing in Euro-American contexts is mainly established in performance and entertainment (Ferris 1993; Clark and Sponsler 1997; Sedinger 1997; Rackin 2003; Flanagan 2008). At the same time, queer and feminist scholars have done ethnographic studies of crossdressing as identity and practice, particularly drag, camp, transgender, and homosexuality (Newton 1979; Garber 1992; Halberstam 1998; Rupp and Taylor 2003; Jacob and Cerny 2004; Suthrell 2004; Sears 2015).Footnote 22 Queer style might be defined as a “subset of grotesque forms of release” and “pertubation of social moral order,” but also involves LGBT individuals in fashion as models, leaders of street styles, and creators of “transgressive esthetic styles” (Geczy and Karaminas 2013, 22; Steele 2013, 9–11). In 1960s and 1970s U.S., lesbians embraced “anti-style”—an androgynous appearance that rejected both normative femininity and butch-femme roles—as a part of their feminist politics, which made waves in the fashion world at the time (Geczy and Karaminas 2013, 34–35). Building on these works, genderless is potentially powerful for transforming queer and trans critical terms of analysis through the embodiment of anti-style.

In a Japan Times article, which portrays Nakayama as “cashing in” on the androgynous trend, her self-identification as genderless appears to come from the impetus of “finding your own style rather than following trends” (Hernon 2017, para 16). Nakayama emphasizes the importance of fashion as a way of etching one’s personal style instead of imitating or taking into account what other people are doing. Nakayama’s anti-style can be said to be a rejection of normative styles—that is, what is fashionable at the moment—for the sake of fitting in. Indeed, in the same article, Nakayama clarifies that genderless fashion is meaningful for her not only because she enjoys wearing clothes in this particular style, but also because she feels comfortable in her own skin (Hernon 2017). While this can be read as Nakayama’s sense of confidence as the article claims, I would argue that her genderless practices are a powerful means of asserting an alternative, often non-normative position. Instead of her passively riding the genderless wave, it might be more accurate to say that she almost singlehandedly led the fashion trend and paved the way for other genderless joshi. In this sense, genderless is transformative as an analytic in perhaps similar ways that “queer” and “trans” might have for other people, cleaving to and from local and transnational forms of androgyny and moving across and in between genders through embodiment.Footnote 23 While genderless cannot be completely cut off from dansō and the historical contexts of androgyny both within and beyond Japan, it remains a powerful intervention for individuals, such as Nakayama, who embrace its subversive style, identity, and practice.

Having said that, we might wonder why Nakayama chooses to use a new label (genderless) instead of an already established category (dansō). This is compounded by the fact that at first glance, Akira and Nakayama appear physically similar. In the two YouTube videos I have discussed, Akira and Nakayama, who were both tall, slender, and fair-skinned, wore loose-fitting T-shirts and pants in monochrome tones with minimalist accessories and fashionable short hairstyles. Yet, Akira and Nakayama—and by extension, dansō and genderless—differ from each other through the “detail,” what Barthes refers to as the “‘next-to-nothing’, the ‘je ne sais quoi’, the ‘manner’” ([1962] 2013, 61). For instance, Akira wore sarouel pants, which are a unisex style of loose fit trousers and a popular clothing item among many dansō individuals and rock band members and their fans (Fig. 3). Sarouel pants were heavily promoted in KERA BOKU, featuring Akira as their model on the cover of all three issues. Indeed, Pikachu, a twenty-seven-year-old employee at Garçon I interviewed, told me they often wore sarouel pants with a black V-neck T-shirt in their everyday life.Footnote 24

Fig. 3
figure 3

Screenshot of Akira in rock style from “Dansō Cross-Dressing” (VICE Japan 2013)

Nakayama, on the other hand, wore dapper suits and three-quarter culottes, which unlike the rock style of Akira is relatively sharper and more clean-cut (Fig. 4). For Barthes, the dandy’s detail, which includes his taste, attitude, and “discreet signs,” exhibits class distinction, singularity, indefinite “otherness,” and, some might even argue, homosexuality (Barthes [1962] 2013, 61–62; Vänskä 2014, 451). For Akira and Nakayama, the detail of androgyny not only expresses power and autonomy in a male-dominated Japanese society, but also the uneven mixing of femininities and masculinities. This can be seen in their reworking of dapper suits and sarouel pants—which originated as men’s wear and sites of hegemonic masculinity—into popular unisex clothing items in youth fashion culture. More importantly, the individual meanings Akira and Nakayama attach to their stylistic innovations not only distinguish them from each other, but also from those promoted in the media for mass consumption.

Fig. 4
figure 4

Screenshot of Nakayama in a dapper suit from “i-D Meets: Tokyo’s Genderless Youth” (Kimura 2017)

To further investigate these meanings, we might examine Nakayama’s and Akira’s expressions of genderless and dansō as “tanoshii” (enjoyable; pleasurable) and “asobi” (play), respectively, in the two YouTube videos. In “i-D Meets,” Nakayama’s use of “tanoshii” seems innocuous. As illustrated in the close-ups and extreme close-ups, Nakayama can be seen to take pleasure in wearing her favorite clothes and dressing in a certain style. This is closely related to Akira’s adoption of “asobi” in “Dansō Cross-Dressing” to explain how they got started with androgynous fashion that would later become known as “dansō.” Yet, “asobi” can also be a means, especially in its transgressive forms, for individuals to challenge certain social and cultural norms (Hendry [2002] 2005). For both Akira and Nakayama, this transgression entails prioritizing their “kosei” (individuality) over a collective consciousness to fit in with a patriarchal Japanese society. Play and pleasure are strong forces that drive androgyny as an analytic. Akira and Nakayama contest norms by playing with and deriving pleasure from different gender styles, which offer alternative identities and new ways of being and are sustained through mediation.

Originally deriving from their desire to experiment with “boyish styles,” Akira’s practices became couched as “dansō” six months after they first appeared in KERA in late 2009. For Akira, it was not until 2010 that contemporary dansō culture took off in mainstream circles, such as through fashion magazines, dansō idol groups, and dansō cafe-and-bars. Nakayama, on the other hand, became inspired by Kite to adopt a different look when the former was in junior high school in the early 2010s. As Nakayama’s appearance sharply contrasted the kawaii (cute) styles of other Japanese models, she became labeled as “chūsei” or “genderless” and began fronting the genderless fashion scene as the sole genderless joshi around the mid-2010s. While Akira’s and Nakayama’s experiences seem to fit into the subculture-to-mainstream paradigm, the emergence of dansō and genderless in these uneven and multidirectional flows of media and culture is also significant to note. As dansō and genderless both draw on earlier signs of non-normative dress and influence current and future formations of androgyny, these networks are more complex than they appear. The next section will attempt to map out these (dis)connections between dansō and genderless.

4 Dansō as Ways of “Doing”

In a Garçon Girls article titled, “True intentions (honne) of dansō joshi,” a group of six individuals were interviewed on how they started practicing dansō. Their reasons varied as such: Ren, who had grown up wearing boys’ clothes and playing with their elder and younger brothers, remembered crying in kindergarten because they hated wearing a skirt.Footnote 25 Similarly, Kazuya had always “felt out of place” (iwakan ga atta) in skirts and began wearing exclusively pants in their everyday life, which later became recognized as “dansō.” Mizuki did not consciously set out to do dansō but simply liked men’s wear. After cutting their hair short in elementary school, ASM began adopting “boyish clothing” (bōisshu na fukusō). For Yūto, interest in dansō started out with their older sister’s dansō cosplay (dressing as a fictional character). This developed more fully when Yūto went to all-girls junior high and high schools and a friend remarked they would look “cool” (kakkoii) as a man. While cosplay was also Aoi’s “impetus” (kikkake) to practicing dansō, he found female anime characters too “high-strung” (kyabikyabishita) for their liking and cosplayed as male characters instead. Moreover, after working at a dansō cafe, Aoi embraced a more “manly” (danseiteki) appearance and personality. Finally, ASM modeled themselves after the male protagonist in the shōjo (girls’) manga NANA, whereas Ren was inspired by the FTM character in the television drama Kinpachi-sensei. In particular, the “shocking” (shōgekiteki) discovery of transgender individuals deeply resonated with Ren.

By gathering these six individuals for an interview, Garçon Girls aimed to discover the “thoughts” (kangae), “real voices” (riaru na koe), and “true intentions” (honne) of those who practice dansō. Presumably, the article is pitched at readers who know little to nothing about dansō and might be curious to learn more about the lives of dansō individuals. Styled as a “dansō culture magazine” (dansō karuchā shi), Garçon Girls was published in October 2013 with talks of a second issue, which did not eventually materialize. The rest of the magazine predominantly covers dansō fashion, supplemented by features on and interviews with dansō cafes, dansō joshi (girls), FTM individuals, dansō idol groups like Fudanjuku, and SECRET GUYZ, a popular “onabe” or FTM unit. The article foregrounds each dansō individual’s response with seemingly scant narrativizing, in a way that appears to capture the truth about them. This question-and-answer format is similar to the YouTube video interviews with Akira and Nakayama.

Instead of one-to-one interviews, however, Garçon Girls’s group interview generates an interesting dynamic whereby the six interviewees tap into and feed off on one another’s experiences in an uneven process that shapes each person’s practices and meanings of dansō. On the one hand, Ren, Kazuya, and Mizuki describe their practices and clothing styles as a natural progression toward dansō. On the other hand, ASM, Yūto, and Aoi cite popular culture and the opinions of their peers as strong influences on their dansō practices. Despite their diverse understandings, these individuals have embraced dansō as an identity or way of being but perhaps more accurately, as a way of “doing.” Building on the mediation of dansō and genderless in Japanese media, this section explores androgyny as an analytic by looking at dansō and genderless as ways of doing.

For the six individuals interviewed in Garçon Girls, dansō might be understood less as one way of being and more as ways of doing. This impetus is similar to how scholars have argued for the use of “queer” as a verb and “deconstructive practice” for contesting normative terms and identities, such as white, Western, and colonial gender and sexual categories, and generating “a range of transgressive possibilities that encompass and surpass LGBT” (Blackwood 2008, 483; Hunt and Holmes 2015, 156). As ways of doing, dansō and by extension genderless are firstly located in individuals’ practices, which later become constructed as ways of being. To express how they got started doing dansō, individuals drew on style: clothing and hairstyles as everyday indicators. For instance, Ren and Kazuya harbored feelings of unbelonging and even hatred toward skirts and what they represent, whereas ASM cut their hair short and Mizuki had a penchant for men’s wear, which eventually led them to dansō as ways of being.

Yet, although they embraced the label “dansō,” which entails meanings of men’s clothes and dressing like a man, ASM and Mizuki did not feel the need to “become masculine” (otokorashikuyōni) or consciously “act like a man” (danseirashikuiyōni). As Mizuki explains, because dansō is a natural part of their appearance, they do not feel the need to go out of the way to be manly. Put another way, for Mizuki, dansō is not about embracing masculinity nor wanting to transition. Instead, their way of doing lies in uneven gender mixing, which is often couched by other people in terms of masculinity by default because it deviates from femininity. Later in the interview, ASM clarifies their aim as wanting to be “neither man nor woman” but “chūsei” and in this sense, they have no qualms about wearing both men’s and women’s clothing. Perhaps like other scholars have argued, the label “dansō” is in itself problematic because it does not break out of the gender binary (Robertson 1998; Oshiyama 2007).

Here, I want to take a different perspective: seeing individuals like ASM and Mizuki as actively constructing ways of being through their practices instead of trying to fit into a certain label or jump on the bandwagon of a particular trend. ASM and Mizuki assert their own positions by rejecting popular assumptions of dansō individuals as imitating or desiring to become men, which is similar to Nakayama’s adoption of “genderless” as wanting to carve out a different space for herself. In Nakayama’s case, however, this is motivated by a refusal of “dansō.” In the Oricon News interview, Nakayama said she felt uncomfortable about being labeled as “dansō,” which she did not identify with, nor did she want to be grouped together with Fudanjuku, the popular dansō idol group (Kinuwa 2018). For Nakayama, although genderless and dansō share a close relationship, they remain distinct categories. This (dis)connection from previous iterations of androgynous practices and subjectivities, including dansō, is important, I argue, because individuals are able to assert a different position for themselves. We might say that Nakayama resists dansō, which may for her be normalized in the media, and goes on to identify as genderless.

I would further contend that Nakayama’s genderless practices display her queer style. Unlike Akira and other dansō public figures, Nakayama does not shun issues of gender identity and sexual orientation. Even the six dansō individuals interviewed in Garçon Girls did not explicitly discuss such issues, whereas Nakayama faced questions of gender and sexuality head-on. Having played a minor role as a female bartender in the Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) drama Chūgakuseinikki (Junior high school diary), which aired in late 2018, Nakayama mentioned that there may be those who are questioning or troubled about their “seibetsu” (sex/gender/sexuality) (Kinuwa 2018). In the drama, Nakayama’s character, Aoyama Sarasa, shares an onscreen kiss with a bisexual “career woman” (kyariaūman) character, which was well received by viewers on social networking sites and was the basis of the Oricon News interview. Citing her own experience as an example, Nakayama urged other individuals who are like her to forge their own position. By exhibiting a queer sensibility, Nakayama’s rejection of dansō and traditional forms of androgyny in Japan in favor of genderless as a way of doing and being informs androgyny as an analytic.

Unlike Nakayama who came to identify as genderless, ASM and Mizuki retained the dansō label. This raises the question: Instead of other categories such as “GID,” “x-gender,” and “genderless,” why might “dansō” still be useful for individuals like ASM and Mizuki? Likely in the context of the interview and Garçon Girls, a magazine covering dansō culture, ASM and Mizuki felt compelled to use “dansō” to describe their lived experience. Moreover, that “dansō” instead of other categories has currency in Japan, due partly to its long history of mass entertainment and consumption, may have encouraged them to describe gender-nonconforming individuals who are assigned female at birth as dansō. To take one example, the same article mentions that Aoi and Mizuki work at Garçon to issho which, as Aoi describes, is a dansō cafe located in Akihabara. When I dropped by Garçon to issho in late 2015, I found out that Garçon to issho—now renamed “W’s Collection”—was not a cafe as reported in Garçon Girls, but a dansō escort service.Footnote 26 As a result, I was turned away as the service required a reservation for a specific dansō escort prior to visiting. Nevertheless, Garçon to issho/W’s Collection remains an establishment where employees are required to practice dansō for the job. Unlike Mizuki, who regarded dansō as a non-conscious practice, Aoi perceived working at Garçon to issho as instrumental for shaping their masculine demeanor and character. That is, Aoi’s labor as a dansō employee plays a large role in using “dansō” as a label for their way of doing. The job extends Aoi’s self-recognition as well as other people’s interpellation of them as “dansō.”

This was true for Yu, an employee at Garçon who described himself as “not consciously practicing dansō” (dansō ishiki shiteinai). The twenty-one year old, who wore black full-rim eyeglasses and their undyed black hair in a short crop, reminded me of a South Korean boy band member. For Yu, practicing dansō as a non-conscious act meant that he ordinarily dressed in his favorite clothes—usually pants and a shirt—and kept his hair short on a daily basis. Although like Mizuki, Yu’s practices were non-conscious, he was simultaneously interpellated by everyone around him—society, his colleagues, and Garçon’s customers—as “dansō.” This would mean that even if Yu and Mizuki never thought of their practices as “dansō” before, they could not escape being interpellated by those surrounding them as such. Yu told me that only after working at Garçon did he begin to think of himself as a dansō individual.

In addition to peer pressure, I would argue that adopting the label “dansō” allows Yu to enter a certain discourse that many in Japanese society already understood, while attaching individual—often different—meanings to it. This has certain advantages, such as being able to quickly explain his androgynous body esthetic to strangers that lesser-known identity-based categories like “GID” and “x-gender,” not to mention “trans” and “queer,” might not have. As compared to “GID” and “x-gender,” which are embraced by a niche group of individuals, or “trans” and “queer,” which are taken up mainly by activists and academics, “dansō” still has critical purchase for people at the everyday level. This is evident in contemporary dansō culture, or the fracturing of dansō tradition since the 2010s to proliferate as fashion, idol groups, and in cafe-and-bars (Ho 2020). Moreover, precisely because dansō has been popularized by both young amateurs and professionals in mainstream entertainment and popular culture, Yu is able to capitalize on the label to sustain their practices. It is unsurprising then that Aoi, Yūto, and ASM found no conflict in modeling themselves after male anime and manga characters.

Curiously, Aoi and Kazuya were the only ones who discussed the “coming out” (kamingu auto) of dansō individuals, which references gay and lesbian identity politics and a specific discourse of the closet that is situated in Euro-American contexts. Responding to a question in the Garçon Girls interview about whether they wear men’s or women’s clothing, Aoi explained that although they typically dressed in men’s wear, some dansō individuals may wear feminine-like clothing in front of their parents because they have yet to come out. Kazuya, on the other hand, described how they had once come out to their father, crying out the words, “I can never live as a normal woman (futsū no onnanoko).” In both cases, coming out is simultaneously a confession and articulation of one’s nonconformity, but also one step further toward embracing dansō as an alternative identity or way of being, perhaps even to the point of institutionalizing dansō. Coming out constructs a dichotomy between dansō individuals, who are perceived as not “normal” for wearing men’s clothes, and a specific kind of woman who is normatively feminine by Japanese beauty standards.

In Japanese society, gay and lesbian individuals are generally reluctant to come out due to fears of discrimination and perceptions of sexuality and sexual orientation as a private issue, even to family and friends (Aoki 1998; McLelland 2000). While this is no different for dansō individuals, Aoi’s and Kazuya’s discussions of coming out reveal that dansō as ways of doing don’t necessarily translate into specific identities, which are interpellated as “trans” or “queer” and resonant with Japanese gay and lesbian communities. However, this doesn’t mean that dansō has no potentiality as an analytic. As we have seen in the case of Nakayama, genderless is powerful precisely for constructing an identity or way of being through style, which is (dis)connected from dansō and traditional forms of androgyny in Japan. Similarly, in enabling dansō individuals like Aoi and Kazuya to carve out a different space for themselves on the non-normative spectrum, their ways of doing intervene in trans and queer politics, particularly a specific brand of politics based on coming out.

5 Conclusion: Queer Styles

Examining examples of dansō and genderless in the media, this chapter has explored androgynous bodies, fashions, and practices in twenty-first-century Japan. I have argued that dansō and genderless transform and contribute to queer and transgender frameworks because of their emphases on style and ways of doing. Instead of coming out, or one’s explicit articulation of gender identity and sexual orientation, style is an important, if overlooked, lens for examining non-normative identities or ways of being. Queer style is embedded in individuals’ conscious practices of wearing (usually distinctive and innovative) clothing that challenges heteronormativity. For instance, dansō individuals don men’s apparel, whereas genderless joshi’s accouterment stresses a contradictory mixture of masculine and feminine styles. I also contended that dansō individuals and genderless joshi embraced such queer styles before constructing their alternative identities or ways of being and become subsequently labeled as doing “dansō” and “genderless.” Shaped by nonlinear and multidirectional flows of media, these organic and transgressive practices of dansō individuals and genderless joshi eventually become incorporated as street fashion and normalized as a commodity for popular consumption, thereby changing their meanings over time. This isn’t to say that we should take androgynous fashion like dansō and genderless less seriously. Building on Barthes who perceives the dandy as an analytical tool, we might think of androgyny as an analytic. Through style, particularly its tasteful embodiment through clothing, androgyny reconfigures femininity and masculinity by redrawing the lines demarcating the gender binary. In this sense, androgyny as an analytic generates new understandings and ways of looking at fluid genders and sexualities, especially those not yet contained by LGBT and queer frames of analysis.

New directions in research include better contextualization of queer style, especially as it relates to trans style both in the professional fashion world and street styles. Although there have been recent forays into discussing queer style, less has been written on trans fashion. Scholars might also focus on how queer and trans styles emerge and develop in transnational contexts. This is particularly significant for intervening in the global fashion industry’s Euro-American dominance and cultural imperialism. By moving away from Euro-American contexts and influences in queer and trans styles, we might be able to glean important insights into the diversity of such styles. Lastly, drawing on theories of transnational feminism and sexualities, it would be interesting for scholars to trace the cross-border, cultural, and historical flows of queer and trans styles. Notably, comparative studies of queer and trans styles would inform not only fashion studies and queer theory, but also transnational studies of fashion and sexual cultures.