You are on page 1of 8

Male Beauty in Japan

One of the many things that piqued my interest while I was studying abroad in Japan was

just how effeminate young Japanese men are. There is a phenomenon similar to it in the United

States, dubbed “metrosexuals,” but here it is at not nearly the same scale as it is in Japan. The

United States also does not have a history of arts in which cross-dressing is not only the norm,

but encouraged. For this research paper I sought to understand just how this feminizing differs

from metrosexuals, and why this new breed of men in touch with their feminine side is safe from

the stigma of homosexuality.

First, what is a metrosexual? In his article defining the trend, Marc van Bree uses two

definitions: “a dandyish narcissist in love with not only himself, but also his urban lifestyle; a

straight man who is in touch with his feminine side,” and “a young man with money to spend,

living in or within easy reach of a metropolis – because that’s where all the best shops, clubs,

gyms and hairdressers are. He might be officially gay, straight or bisexual, but this is utterly

immaterial because he has clearly taken himself as his own love object and pleasure as his sexual

preference” (van Bree p). The main part of these definitions is the concept of narcissism. In the

United States, this is not something out of the ordinary, but in the group-oriented Japan,

narcissistic individuality is an alien concept. Although the qualities are shared, something is

different about the trend in Japan.

Japan has a history of feminized men in the arts. Both traditional theater styles of Noh

and Kabuki have been male-dominated, much like Shakespearean theater, but unlike the latter,

the Japanese forms not only had the male actors dress up like women, but they basically lived

their lives being the opposite sex and were known as onnagata (“form of women”). As Maki

Morinaga states:
“When they came into being in the seventeenth century, onnagata modeled

themselves on wakashu in the relatively prestigious warrior class. Wakashu,

literally “young people,” were the junior partners in male homosexual

relationships, which had had a long tradition in the warrior class. Warrior

wakashu, at least up to the time when onnagata came into existence during the

seventeenth century, were characterized as robust and adolescent male

homosexual practitioners who were diligently learning warrior manhood from

their senior partners. Starting from this “military masculinity,” onnagata

eventually reached artistic perfection in the eighteenth century, when they were

considered a reification of ideal femininity.” (np)

In feudal Japan, masculinity was interlinked with the homosexual practices of the warrior class.

Yet the onnagata not only embodied masculinity, they also embodied the essence of femininity, a

phenomenon that does not have an equal in the West. The more recent phenomenon that has my

particularly interested is that of visual rock. Visual rock has its roots in the Western glam rock of

the 1980s, but unlike that genre has continued even until today. Visual rock in Japan is

characterized by feminized bands composed of all young men who dress up like women (long

hair, makeup, skirts), and play for audiences that are at least 90% female.

I have used the term “feminized,” but Laura Miller believes that what we are seeing

among young Japanese men is not feminization but rather a change in thinking that allows

beauty to become a component of masculinity. Critics of the trend disagree, stating that male

focus on beautification is a sign of the loss of male power (126). Japan is even more of a

patriarchy than in the United States, therefore this is a legitimate concern, but Miller does not

believe there is anything to worry about. This narcissism is obviously not unique to Japan, and is
in fact a direct response to how men form identity in late-capitalist societies. Consumption,

coupled with the subsequent beautification, is a way for men to self-objectify themselves in order

to make themselves attractive to the opposite sex. The feminized man is what they believe to be

what women desire (127).

What women desire, Miller claims, is the antithesis to the oyaji (“old man”) stereotype of

the 1980s. Between the 1950s and the 1970s, masculinity was defined by the west, and promoted

through such hairy stars as Sean Connery and Charles Bronson (133). These were the men that

entered the time of economic wealth, but in order to gain that wealth, they had to sell their souls

to corporate companies and they were in turn de-eroticized. The image of men in this period was

the balding, mustached man wearing a business suit, too busy at the office to be a significant

factor in his own family life. At the time it was the norm, but after the economic bubble burst,

Japanese women began rejecting this stereotype and started favoring clean-shaven men not afraid

to put pride and individuality into their looks (127). Men today not only shave their faces and

chests, but also their legs, armpits, and arms as well, all driven by the female desire for non-hairy

men (133-135).

Japanese men indulge their depilatory and other desires at esute (from the Japanese

pronunciation of “aesthetic”) salons. Esute salons offer services that address a myriad of

problems that the self-conscious young man may have, such as skin, body hair, and body weight

problems, but depilation is by far the number one service (129). These salons use advertising that

exploit the need to “feminize” as a means of attracting women, and the advertising refers to the

effect the beautification will have on said women. Each esute salon is different, some catering to

young males of high school and college age, middle-aged professional men, or even specifically

gay men. One of the biggest, Dandy House, has a mostly female staff (130), and their
commercials that I saw during my stay in Japan reflected the typical esute approach to attracting

men to “feminization.” These commercials show a scruffy older man, rock icon Keisuke Kuwata,

attempting to mimic the suave actions of a beautified younger man in order to woo a woman at a

fancy party. He fails, obviously in much need of the services Dandy House has to offer. One

commercial even shows his attempts at this new masculinity being misconstrued as gay,

implying that there is a way to beautify correctly.

Homosexuality in Japan is only slightly more accepted in Japan than it is in the United

States. In the Japanese mind, all entertainers are exempt from the same social norms as everyday

people, and this includes openly gay entertainers, but being openly gay in the normal world is

still something unheard of in the country. Homosexual entertainers tend to be of the flamboyant

variety, and shows such as Onee-Mans (a pun on the word onee-san, which means “older sister”)

fully exploit such talents. Onee-Mans is a show that consists of a panel of gay and transgendered

men who discuss fashion aimed at young women. The official website describes these panelists

as “men, yet not men, and more womanly than women.” One of the panelists, Shogo Kariyazaki,

was interviewed on what he thought about the current trend of male beauty, “There's no question

that men are changing the way they think of themselves in Japan. Even [businessmen] are

interested in beauty and looking their best -- either for their girlfriends or just for themselves. It

doesn't matter if they are straight or gay. We are simply not afraid to show our feminine sides

anymore” (Faiola np).

Not all young men in Japan are accepting of this new beauty trend. Miller interviewed

young males at universities and discovered that those who were against it used sexist rather than

homophobic thinking. They did not find the feminization wrong because it makes men seem gay,

but because it shows that the men in question have no pride in themselves and submit easily to a
women’s demands (137). This has some credence, since for many young Japanese women, the

old oyaji image is a symbol of the strong patriarchal values still present in Japan, and the

feminization of men shows the liberalization of its young people (138). In reality, the cause has

more to do with the marriage crisis in Japan than sexism. Miller states that “because of the

importance of heterosexual marriage for establishing adult male identity, young men must be

able to successfully attract wives in an era of intense marriage resistance among women” (127).

van Bree agrees claims this new metrosexuality is merely consumerism, an attempt by

companies to include men in the market for expensive clothing and beauty products (np).

Cosmetics in Japan have always been genderless, and even before this recent trend men

have preferred to go to salons for haircuts rather than barbershops (Miller 139). In fact, the entire

time I was in Japan I did not see one barbershop, and the majority of employees at hair salons

are, not surprisingly, young men. Another commercial I saw in Japan was for the company Labo

Labo, a company that markets facial cleansing products, which featured the cross-dressing

comedian Yakkun Sakurazuka. Yakkun was interviewed about his role in the commercial, and he

revealed that he uses such beauty products not only for his character of a wooden-sword-

wielding schoolgirl, but also for his clients, since he does women’s makeup for a professional

living. He claims that his makeup technique is to make the eyes look large because “women need

strong eyes.” When asked why he takes pride in caring for his face outside of his female

character, he responded, “I want to fall in love. No, that's a lie! I don't really. But definitely how

people see you is important" (TV Life np).

Current male fashion in Japan not only appropriates the once underground and

stigmatized gay culture, but also the Western norms of what beauty is. Ear piercing, body

piercing, and tattoos were once taboo, but are now being embraced in popular culture
(particularly the visual rock I previously mentioned). Even so, if a heterosexual man has

piercings, he is advised to wear jewelry that is “cute” or “sweet” to soften the look, otherwise he

may still be mistaken as part of the gay culture (Miller 144). Bleaching and coloring hair is the

most common form of beautification utilized by men and women alike. Many young Japanese

opt to dye their hair light brown instead of the natural dark browns and blacks that are

genetically common, and this can be construed not only as an acceptance of foreign beauty

standards, but also as another way to reject the oyaji, who are characterized by their close-

cropped black hairstyles. Tans on men are also considered masculine, since they symbolize youth

or an active outdoors life, as opposed to the unhealthy paleness of the businessmen who spend

their lives indoors. Also stemming from this hatred towards businessmen, Japanese women

express hatred for three things in men: short, bald, and chubby (146). Most popular young male

models, such as Mokomichi Hayami pictured on the right, are six feet tall or over, an extremely

uncommon height in Japan. Studies conducted at the University of Tokyo and the University of

St. Andrews in Scotland showed that women preferred men with feminine features for long-term

relationships, but preferred men with masculine features during the point in ovulation when a

woman is most likely to conceive a child (148).

Cosmetic surgery is also a very common modern practice in Japan. The face is the most

common site for men, such as the nose and the chin line, and for both sexes changing the eyelid

by adding a crease to make it appear larger is the number one surgery not only in Japan, but in

the rest of East Asia. If surgery is not pursued, then this same effect is accomplished using

makeup and a special glue to make a temporary crease in the eyelid (147). Many critics of this

new beauty trend in Japan believe that it is in fact a continued racist beauty ideology that implies

Asians are not pretty enough and they must strive to look more “Western” (149). Men, as well as
women, feel this pressure, and these new beauty norms are not a result of shifts in popular

cultural thought or changes in the understanding of masculinity and femininity, but rather

capitalist consumerism fueled by international relations that claim Western dominance over

Japan (148). Japanese men have always embraced their feminine side, but today thanks to

consumer culture they are indulging in it even more.

Works Cited

Faiola, Anthony. “Men in Land of Samurai Find Their Feminine Side: Marketing Fosters Shift in

Gender Roles.” Washington Post. Accessed 15 November 2007



Miller, Laura. Beauty Up: Exploring Contemporary Japanese Body Aesthetics. University of

California Press: Berkeley, 2006.

Morinaga, Maki. “The Gender of Onnagata as the Imitating Imitated: Its Historicity,

Performativity, and Involvement in the Circulation of Femininity.” Project Muse.

Accessed 2 December 2007


van Bree, Marc C.M. "The Metrosexual Defined." Marc van Bree: Cultural Affairs and Public

Relations. Accessed 2 December 2007 <>

“TV Life: Labo Labo shinshouhin CM ni Sakurazuka Yakkun toujou!” Accessed 15 November

2007 <>

You might also like