Japan's blurred genders: Embracing my New Half

Japan's blurred genders: Embracing my New Half

Tokyo's classiest drag show embodies much about the Japanese mix-and-match approach to history

Roland KeltsFor the casual sojourner, Japan’s gender lines can be tough to parse.

Young men sometimes brandish purses and sport skirt-sheathed jeans.

Young women strut through the largely crime- and whistle-free streets late at night in hot pants and stilettos likely to provoke unwanted catcalls or worse in New York or London.

But nowhere is the embrace of gender paradoxes more dramatic than in Japan’s so-called “New Half” shows -- dinner-theater spectacles combining the high-concept staging of Broadway with the glitz of Vegas, and the allure of beauty distilled into a largely transsexual group of performers.

I encountered my first New Half show several years ago in Osaka. A middle-aged housewife whose daughter had enjoined me to teach them both English offered a night out on the town to persuade me.

I went with them to a dimly lit club with a wink-happy bartender and a parade of beauties who danced, sang and high-kicked till midnight.

“Do you mean to tell me that they are all men?” I asked.

“Most of them,” she said. “But can you tell?”

A more recent visit to Konparu-za, a New Half show based in Ginza, one of Tokyo’s toniest neighborhoods, reveals that such gender-blending performances are not only thriving in Japan, they are also courting and attracting non-Japanese tourists and aficionados.

Konparu-za stages two 55-minute shows per night replete with a dinner set menu and unlimited drinks for a base price of ¥5,800 (US$73) -- cheaper than most Broadway extravaganzas -- and with tasteful Japanese salads and finger foods on site. It’s also possible to take in just the show for ¥3,000.

Maximum entertainment

Konparu-zaKonparu-za owner, Tomohiro Hoshino, promises "maximum entertainment."The show itself is a nonstop assault on the senses that nevertheless includes sophisticated craft and special effects.

A two-level stage elevates one group of singers and dancers while the others perform on the main floor.

A total of 15 entertainers, eight at a time onstage, change costumes an average of 15 times during a 19-number narrative, and part of the fun is deciphering not only who is male or female, but also which one is wearing what when they reappear before your eyes.

“Our goal is maximum entertainment,” says Tomohiro Hoshino, owner of Konparu-za and one of its two founders.

His boss, Yasuo Shigeta, was once one of the overseers of Tokyo’s most famous bubble-era dance club, Juliana’s, and founded their current entertainment company, Forest Fooding, nine years ago.

“We’re getting a lot of foreign tourists now because we’re on the Hato Bus Tour (Tokyo’s sightseeing bus service),” Hoshino adds.

“Our dancers and choreographers come from backgrounds at international places like Disney, so their performance styles are appealing to a diverse crowd.”

More on CNNGo: Thai drag shows, zip lines and fancy backpacker digs

Postwar roots

Konparu-zaIt's probably fair to call the show a celebration of paradoxes.The term “New Half” is also of global provenance, according to sociologist Mark McLelland, author most recently of “Love, Sex and Democracy in Japan during the American Occupation.”

“It all goes back to the 1950s,” he says, tracing the rise of a gei ba (gay bar) entertainment culture to the early postwar era, and the coinage of the phrase to one such bar in Osaka, Betty's Mayonnaise, in 1982.

Transgender proprietor Betty borrowed the loanword for mixed-race Japanese, “half,” and pronounced herself, “half man and half woman, therefore 'New Half'.”

The show I saw, “Future and Past,” was directed and choreographed by Coco, a post-op producer/performer and veteran of Tokyo Disneyland, whose demeanor combined stately elegance with an unwavering smile.

It was a gloriously campy smorgasbord of history and pop culture iconography: Pharaohs intermingled with Samurai, while song and dance elided easily into semi-earnest musical meditations on how we all got so mixed up -- East-West, Female-Male.

The audience, with only a handful more men than women, relished the playful hybridity, gasping and applauding each adroitly staged surprise.

The full effect was a celebration of paradoxes, something at which Japan seems to excel.

Paradoxes to the fore

Tufts Professor Susan J. Napier, a Japan Studies scholar and author, finds the ironies fundamental to Japan’s mix-and-match history.

“On the one hand you have in Japan a rigid demarcation of the sexes, passed down from Confucianism and perhaps Buddhism as well, but coming particularly to the fore in the Edo period,” she says.

A sign of Japan’s admirable tendency to embrace and even celebrate paradox.

“On the other hand, in that very period, you had the rise of the Kabuki theater, in which beautifully made up and attired male actors took on the onnagata (female impersonator) roles.

“An effective onnagata was often considered more feminine that a real woman because ‘she’ had studied what makes women feminine from a male perspective.”

“Japanese society has proven very adept at compartmentalizing between leisure/eros/entertainment and work/duty/family responsibility,” Napier adds.

“In fact, I have wondered if this compartmentalization is a strength in Japanese culture, allowing people a safe, non-judgmental space to explore other sides of their personalities and desires.”

Konparu-za distinguishes itself from its larger and more famous neighbor New Half showclub in Roppongi, Kingyo, by being more intimate and accessible.

A total of 80 seats ensures that the experience is in-your-face, regardless of your own gender or sexual proclivities.

The performers make the rounds of the dining room floor before and after each show to chat with customers and pose for photographs.

Shows change every six months and, like traditional Japanese festivals, invoke seasonal themes.

Underground escape

Konparu-zaBroadway is never far from mind in Ginza.The venue is tucked into a small alley off one of Ginza’s main thoroughfares, looking more like a basement jazz club in Kichijoji than a multi-tiered transsexual showcase.

You descend into a blue-lit stairwell festooned with gold tinsel bunting and glamour shots and just wide enough for the relatively lean to slink into the theater’s depths.

Once inside, a warmly lighted array of dark banquettes, chairs and tables entices you to settle into fantasy -- a respite from the charged fashion emporia and overcrowded restaurants above.

Despite the fashionable postmod fusion the name suggests, New Half shows are not really all that new in Japan, nor are glitzy gender subverting showcases like the Takarazuka revue, an all-female musical theater that has been serving romantic fantasy to its largely female fans since 1914.

But they are a sign of Japan’s admirable tendency to embrace and even celebrate paradox. Konparu-za is clean and safe, its atmosphere unselfconsciously joyous and playful -- the polar opposite of the seediness and hooded shame sometimes associated with Western drag or transgender shows.

The performers are proud of their skills, but not aggressive advocates of a certain cause or way of life. And as my mother-and-daughter escorts in Osaka knew, they deliver a bracingly memorable night out on the town.

Konparu-za, B1/F Konparu Building, Ginza 8-7-5,Chuo-ku, Tokyo; +81 (0) 3 6215 8593; konparuza.co.jp

Opening hours: Monday-Saturday, 6 p.m.-midnight; Sunday, 4:30 p.m.-midnight. Show times vary.

More on CNNGo: Forget Ginza -- Osaka is Japan's real class retail act

Roland Nozomu Kelts is a half-Japanese American writer, editor, essayist and lecturer who divides his time between New York and Tokyo. He is the author of "Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US" and the forthcoming novel, "Access."

He is also a columnist and National Public Radio Radio guest whose work appears in numerous publications in the United States, Japan and Europe.

Read more about Roland Kelts
CNN Partner Hotels