For an outsider, the genuses and phyla of Japanese fashion subcultures can be hard to keep straight. A random Harajuku sample could turn up Goth Lolitas sulking in Edwardian cupcake dresses; glamorous Gyaru with spray tans and blond hair; Mode clotheshorses in high-fashion labels down to the socks; Decora ravers collaged with a rainbow of plastic barrettes; sylvan Mori girls looking like forest nymphs — and all of these constantly dying off, fusing, or morphing to create new styles. How to categorise the recent blossoming of kawaii guys, with slender frames draped in pink, girly accessories, and pouting, raspberry-tinted lips? These boys belong to the newest Japanese style tribe, Genderless Kei. More than just men in makeup, Genderless Kei pushes traditional gender boundaries and sexuality in a country where neither topic has been up for much discussion. The trend has its roots as an offshoot of the Korean Ulzzang phenomenon. Ulzzang, which literally means “best face” in Korean, is a beauty ideal for both men and women that incubated among the picture-perfect idols of K-Pop. In the last few years, it’s spawned a mania across Asia for a pure and innocent look characterised by flawless features with a doll-like, elfin androgyny. The dandies of the Tokyo scene have absorbed and mutated that aesthetic a step further.
The Genderless Kei starter pack would include: a ‘90s Devon Sawa ‘do, dewy skin so white it glows, platform shoes, eye-popping colour contacts, instagrammable nail art, a mini backpack, and all things pink. Naopis, a model and fashion blogger for Nylon Japan with a platinum mushroom cut and a penchant for athleisure, says it’s all about putting ladylike colours on men. Though it’s a hue that Japanese guys have traditionally shied away from, pink is his favourite colour, “because it’s so loud and daring.” Japanese bloggers point to the influence of J.W.Anderson’s AW13 collection, which sent strapping male models down the runway in ruffled shorts, tube tops, and knee-high boots. Two years later, the Japanese designers behind Tokyo Girls created their own runway moment with their fall 2015 collection. Despite the brand's name, the show presented both male and female models in gender-swapping styles. Alongside women in edgy Boy London streetwear, the runway featured high profile male models dressed in pussy-bow blouses, fringed jumpsuits, and even a wedding gown.
Among their ranks was model Genking, the unofficial leader of Japan’s genderless trend. For him, gender fluidity is nothing new: “I’ve loved it ever since my mom tied up my bangs with a Hello Kitty hairband in kindergarten,” he says. In the last year, the “mysterious beautiful boy” (his one-time Instagram moniker) with an Andreja Pejic blond mane has risen from social media selfie star to full-fledged TV personality, and with his visibility, Genderless Kei has exploded into a Japanese media obsession. Despite saying that he has the “heart of a woman” and the fact that he is more frequently spotted in womenswear, Genking says that Genderless Kei isn’t about trying to be perceived as a woman. “I want to create a new kind of fashion platform in which I can be a men's model as well as a ladies' model,” he said in an interview for an Onitsuka Tiger lookbook last year. For him, gender-ambiguous fashion is most exciting in unexpected splashes — men who accessorise with one cute and girly item, or women who incorporate a cool and masculine piece. He points to Rihanna as a female genderless style icon in the way that she works (works, works, works, works) tomboy pieces into her street style. Toman, another Genderless Kei model and member of the boyband XOX, came to fame as a reader model for young men’s fashion magazines. The pink-haired Peter Pan lookalike, whose 2.5 hour intensive beauty regimen has been the fascination of Japanese talk shows, now also graces the pages of women’s fashion magazines — the same ones he personally reads for style tips. He and Genking say that they come across both male and female fans copying their hair and outfits. As Toman put its, “There are no rules!” because Genderless Kei is not about passing, but rather surpassing gender norms.
And while everyone’s talking about the men in pink, Japanese women seem just as eager to push gender boundaries. Lately it feels like it’s hard to find a Japanese women’s fashion editorial that doesn’t feature a “handsome girl” sporting some element of menswear: Katharine Hepburn trousers, athletic jerseys and baseball caps, and oversized silhouettes. In fact, the only difference between Genderless Kei boys and girls, says self-described gender-free model and dancer Ranma Yu, is that so far the Japanese media spotlight has only shone on the boys. She’s a former performer with the century-old Takarazuka Revue, a theatre troupe whose all-girl cast dresses in drag to play both the male and female roles. Her stage name is a nod to the popular character from the '80s anime Ranma 1/2 — as in half-boy, half-girl — which revolves around the hijinks and romances of a teenage martial arts fighter whose gender flips every time he comes in contact with water. There’s a niche for every obsession in the nation that gave us owl cafés and used-panty vending machines. But, ever the land of contrasts, Japan is still a country where tradition is treasured, and that often includes traditional gender roles. Japan ranks near the bottom on the World Economic Forum’s global gender gap index, with a huge disparity in earnings, parliamentary seats, and unpaid domestic work between men and women. And even if you discount the West’s image of the subservient geisha wife pouring tea for her salaryman husband (which is no longer much more than a cliché), division of the sexes in the social sphere is still real, and has consequences.
Within the climate of Japan’s 1950s-esque gender norms, it might seem unlikely that a trend like Genderless Kei would be embraced. And in some ways, Japanese clothing does reflect typical gender conventions: Only in the last few years have a small number of public schools, where uniforms are mandatory, started to offer female students the choice of pants. Just like in the West, though, gender-bending fashion has gone in and out of vogue throughout Japan’s long history. There are examples of cross-dressing as ancient as the female shirabyoshi court dancers, who wore trousers and carried samurai swords, and the elaborately coifed and painted beauties of kabuki, who have always been played by men. Then there are fads as recent as the turn-of-the-century “Miss High-Collar” look, when schoolgirls combined men’s hakama, a kind of kimono-pants hybrid, with European boots — not to mention the heavily made-up male visual-kei rock n’ rollers of the ‘90s, with their Labrynth-era David Bowie hair and flamboyant costumes. However, some believe that Japanese society might be more open to a trend like Genderless Kei because of the way that both Japanese men and women value fashion, says Masafumi Monden, author of Japanese Fashion Cultures: Dress and Gender in Contemporary Japan. He argues that, as a contrast to the West, being fashion-conscious does not undermine Japanese men’s heterosexual masculinity. On the contrary, it can enhance their desirability. The preferred male aesthetic in Japan is “reasonably fashion-minded, slender, with smooth skin, nicely done hair, and well-kept eyebrows.” Monden explains that the Western world’s “assertive, overly confident kind of masculinity” is visually conveyed through an emphasis on an (apparent) lack of interest in fashion or appearance. Justin Bieber or Zac Efron’s transformation from squeaky-clean, boyish figures into “significantly more macho, ragged selves,” Monden suggests, is a great representation of a more Western conception of male maturity. What’s more, “fashion/appearance and sexuality are not always tied together as closely in contemporary Japan as they are in many Western cultures,” says Monden, so cross-gendered fashion choices aren’t a sure-fire way to draw one’s sexuality into question. Genderless Kei is the zenith, then, in a trajectory that has always allowed a Japanese guy a little less hesitancy to make feminine sartorial choices, and a Japanese girl a little more freedom to dress "like a man."
So celebs like Toman and Genking aren’t just playing along with Japan’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy when they say that the trend doesn’t necessarily imply that the wearer is queer. One of the most influential faces of the trend on social media is Ryucheru, a “kawaii boy” with rosy cheeks, cherubic curls he adorns with a rainbow of '80s sweatbands, and glittery accessories hand-collaged with Lisa Frank stickers. He and his girlfriend Peco-chan are Harajuku’s Kimye, a hetero teen fashion power couple whose kissy-face selfies show up as often on Ryucheru’s Instagram feed as throwback clips from Totally Hair Barbie commercials and Teen Witch. Genking, on the other hand, made waves when he came out as gay on live TV last year. But he’s just as quick to distance his look from his sexuality. “Genderless Kei is about appearance. [Being] transgender is about gender,” he says, implying neither has to do with sexual orientation. It might be this distinction that makes Genderless Kei such an impactful style statement. The words “unisex fashion” inevitably conjure images of drab, shapeless basics, a standard which recent attempts at gender-neutral fashion, such as Zara’s much-maligned Ungendered collection, have mostly failed to rise above. These pieces fall flat because they’ve been scrubbed of their gender signifiers, which might be all that retailers think their markets can handle. (Because if the average American guy actually wore one of those frilly J.W. Anderson skirts, he would almost certainly risk his manhood.) But if that’s not quite the case in Japan, then the opportunities for genderless expression through fashion can be taken to the next level. Genderless Kei doesn’t rely on unisex styling, but playfully seeks to remove the gender labels from traditionally gendered pieces. “Once upon a time a man was a man and a woman was a woman. Now we are free to wear what we want,” says Toman. At the same time, Genderless Kei’s separation from an overt statement about sexuality might actually make it a safe, subtle way to express one's personal politics. The explosion of gender-fluidity in Japanese fashion does seem to reflect a generational desire to shift away from the traditional. Genking idealizes the U.S. as a more open and accepting society. "I think that if Japan could become a country like that, it would be overflowing with even more amazing people!” he says. Naopis points out that even though having a Genderless Kei look doesn’t mean that you’re gay or trans, there are undeniably many identity minority groups represented among the Genderless Kei style tribe. “It’s just that it’s still a difficult thing to easily come out in Japan,” he says. It would be a mistake, then, to dismiss the impact that Genderless Kei’s popularity could have on the social visibility of those who feel oppressed by the country's traditional mores. “To reach an era when, regardless of gender, women and men can enjoy fashion and beauty, means that it’s becoming a more comfortable environment for sexual minorities. That’s a good thing,” he says.
Monden points out that currently it’s easiest to spot Genderless Kei among celebrities and fashion insiders, whose fame generally gives them more leeway to dress flamboyantly. But with the Japanese media making "genderless" into a buzzword, Genderless Kei just might have the crossover potential of once-niche trends like kawaii and Visual Kei. If that’s true, we’ll have to wait a few seasons to see what kind of trickle-down effects the mainstreamification of Genderless Kei could have on acceptance and equality in Japanese society, especially for gender-nonconforming people like Genking and women like Ranma Yu. To her, Genderless Kei means “self-expression.” Not just a fashion trend to leap upon and then leave behind, “it’s a symbol of my individuality.”