Content Warning: Discussion of transphobia, dysphoria
Identity exists in a large, tangled mess of intersections that culminates into lived experience. Gender identity, self expression, and ethnicity are so intertwined that it would be hard to discuss one without discussing the others. As a Japanese trans man, all of these things have come into play in relation to my self-expression and identity. One of the things I found solace and euphoria in, as a teenager, was clothing. Clothing allowed me to express and present my identity as I knew myself, and was an early gateway to outer expression as a trans man.
Self-expression through clothing has always been a part of the LGBTQ+ community. The first image that may come to mind is the drag scene in particular, where Drag Queens and Drag Kings come together to express themselves in ways that are otherwise non-conforming to society’s standards. “Drag” or, specifically, crossdressing has existed in Japan since the 1800’s, with kabuki theater being a prominent example. In the 20th century the Takarazuka Revue was formed, which was an all-female theater group created in opposition to kabuki theater.
Self Expression Through Clothing and Boys Run the Riot
Blogger Bethany Siehl notes that modern day drag in Japan is now more inspired by films like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert or television shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race. It should be mentioned that while the drag scene was created by trans women, that the drag community internationally is not entirely comprised of trans individuals. However, self-expression through fashion and clothing isn’t limited to the drag community. In Vice’s 2016 mini-documentary about Japan, actor Elliot Page interviews a trans woman who works at a club where many come to crossdress. When asked if she thought non-trans people participating in crossdressing could be offensive, the woman responded by saying, “I personally find it absolutely positive, and consider it a form of self-expression that is not restricted by the concept of gender.”
One such manga discusses this intersection between self-expression through clothing and the Japanese trans experience—specifically, the transmasculine experience.
Boys Run The Riot (which has been licensed by Kodansha for Summer 2021) is centered on the experience of a Japanese trans man named Ryuu as he navigates his feelings of transness and struggles with social conformity while still in high school. After meeting Jin, a cis male high school student who is passionate about clothing, Ryuu is pulled into the world of fashion. It’s important to note that this manga is illustrated by Japanese trans man GAKU Keito, a newcomer to the scene, which sets it apart from other manga written about the transmasc experience.
While the series is still ongoing, early chapters of the manga keenly illustrate moments where Ryuu deals with feelings of dysphoria when contemplating wearing his school uniform. Within the first few pages, the reader is immediately made aware of Ryuu’s feelings towards strict cultural standards and gender norms often enforced throughout Japanese society. However, in the first chapter there are also moments of gender affirmation and euphoria when Ryuu is wearing clothing of his choice, and in the acceptance of Ryuu’s identity through Jin, who simply takes him for who he is.
After an emotional confession about his identity and feelings of dysphoria, Ryuu confides in Jin, telling him that “wearing clothes that I like is my way of hiding myself,” as a means of escape and to ultimately be viewed as his idealized self. Jin responds “To me, clothes are how you live as your true self, and how you express it.” From that point onward, Jin and Ryuu decide to make a clothing brand together. In later chapters the series continues to explore this idea of self expression through clothing and the euphoria it can provide for trans people.
Conformity and Self Expression
“The nail that sticks out gets hammered down [出る釘は打たれる],” is a phrase that is often mentioned in the early chapters of the manga, and one that many Japanese people are familiar with. While Japan is not an entirely homogenous society, social conformity is expected in some shape or form. Sticking out can often result in bullying or ostracization from peers. Ryuu’s experience is something I deeply relate to, especially as someone who had come out as trans during my formative years in high school.
I grew up in a weird gulf between my family. My youth was mostly spent with my Japanese mother, who was determined to put in me in dresses as often as she possibly could. Social conformity was important to her as a means to validate my identity in some way to my Japanese peers, as being bi-racial made navigating the space of my racial identity challenging and sticking out in any way tended to make things worse.
My American father, with whom I spent my later teen years, was more lenient regarding what I decided to wear but was still adamant on me embracing some form of traditional femininity. This meant that while I was able to cut my hair short, I was still prohibited from wearing a suit to prom. That didn’t stop me, however — a suit had been loaned out to me for Homecoming, and I had hid it away in the back of my closet. I ended up changing in the back of my friend’s Ford pickup truck.
Visual Kei, Androgyny, and Gender Euphoria
I used clothing as a means of self-expression when I couldn’t exist as the person I knew I was. I reveled in the androgynous styling and outfits of Visual Kei artists of the mid 2000’s. I bought items from Harajuku clothing store SEX POT ReVeNGe and wore them whenever an opportunity presented itself. The idea of a more androgynous masculinity didn’t seem so entirely out of reach to me when I looked at popular Visual Kei frontmen and band members. It was something that suddenly seemed possible; that men didn’t need to conform to the normalized Western standards of masculinity to be seen as a man.
Visual Kei was a movement within Japanese Rock music that could be compared to the Western Glam Rock scene. Band members would wear flamboyant costumes (sometimes even crossdressing) and makeup, achieving androgynous looks. Pioneered by the Japanese Rock group X-Japan, the scene grew to prominence in the early 90’s and mid-00’s, with bands like Dir en Grey touring with the likes of Ozzy Osbourne. Visual Kei’s introduction to mainstream Western audiences came through MTV and the explosion of Japanese pop culture via television and the internet, alongside tours pairing them up with traditional American rock acts.
This more androgynous way of dressing and styling also allowed me to wear what I wanted without intense scrutiny from either side of my family. At most, my father thought I wanted to look like something adjacent to a punk, and my mother was mostly only bothered by how “loud” some of the clothing was. But in public spaces, like conventions or the local malls, I could present as male without question from peers. Sometimes I would get the odd look, but for the most part people just accepted it.
Maybe this was due to the Orientalist conflation of Asian men (especially East Asian men) with being more “feminine” than white men. Or maybe it had to do with the time, as the Emo and Scene styling of dressing had emerged into the mainstream and teenage boys wearing eyeliner and nail polish wasn’t so uncommon. These more androgynous styles had become more common, and for a time were more accepted in specific circles.
No matter what the reason, Visual Kei offered itself as an avenue of self-expression, and similarly to Ryuu in Boys Run the Riot, I felt moments of euphoria when people would acknowledge or immediately perceive me as male. I hope that Boys Run the Riot will continue to explore similar moments of gender euphoria, and that it will further showcase how fashion can be utilized as an incredible tool for those moments. Using fashion allowed me to navigate spaces while comfortably identifying as myself. Even some ten years later, despite no longer wearing brands synonymous with Visual Kei, I use fashion to express myself as a trans man. I still utilize makeup, though not in the same ways, and pick choice pieces of clothing to present my personhood, and choose how to express my masculinity on my own terms.
Gender expression isn’t limited to a binary – men do not need to fit any society’s individual standards of conformity to be seen as men. And fashion is an incredible tool to use as a means of self expression and as a way to break the binary of what is and isn’t traditionally masculine.
Editor’s Note: This article was written, edited, and queued for publication before Elliot Page came out as trans. We forgot the actor was mentioned in this piece and originally published it using his deadname. This error has since been fixed. We sincerely apologize for this mistake and any harm it caused our readers.