Living Without Gender in Japan

Toman Sasaki is nothing short of a beautiful individual. A young Japanese man, Toman contours his delicate features with make-up, sports perfectly manicured nails, and often dons platform heels. It’s a look we might call feminine, but Toman would disagree. According to him, the concept of gender is unnecessary. And he’s not alone. Toman is one of many genderless danshi living his truth in Japan.

Gender bending fashion is nothing new in Japan. In fact, the genderless danshi movement can be seen as an outgrowth of the genderless Kei trend. It started when genderless models were featured in a Tokyo Girls Collection fashion show in 2015. Although the androgynous look applied to both men and women, it really took off for the genderless boys. The look included dyed hair, makeup, nail polish, colored contact lenses, and flashy clothing and accessories. A more unisex style for men may indeed have been inspired by anime (Japanese cartoons) as well as a slew of boy bands.

Whatever their inspiration, they’re drawing a discrete line between how one dresses and one’s sexuality. It’s a great lesson in the difference between sex and gender. In general, sex refers to anatomy, whereas gender is what a person knows themselves to be inside (whether that be male, female, genderfluid, or something else entirely). Both of these are completely separate from sexual orientation (who one is attracted to). It’s also important to look at the difference between gender identity and gender expression. The latter refers to one’s internal sense of self, and the latter to how a person outwardly expresses their gender via presentation, such as clothing, hairstyle, and patterns of speech, and mannerisms.   

For the danshi, their fashion choices have nothing to do with their sexuality, nor are they “trying to be women.” Many genderless models are straight. Those who are gay aren’t necessarily dressing that way because of their sexual orientation. Rather, they view their style as a way to express who they truly are as people. They are not bound by gender norms. It’s a rejection of traditional standards of beauty. They are redefining the definition of masculine and feminine, and defying that those concepts even need to exist.

I first learned of the genderless danshi through this excellent New York Times video: As this short film makes clear, the choices these young men make are not easy. In Japan, as in the United States, many people still cling to so-called traditional roles for men and women. The danshi are subject to shaming and judgement. However, they are also wildly popular, especially with young girls. Toman’s manager hopes that as they become more mainstream, more young people will feel empowered to live their lives true to themselves.

For me, the most striking comment that Toman makes is this: “If a person is living the way they want, that is manly to me.” Isn’t that when we are most successful? Most attractive? Happiest? When we aren’t forced to hide a part of ourselves for the “comfort” of others? I certainly think so. I applaud Toman and those like him who throw off the shackles of gender to live as their unique selves. Would that we all could be so bold and so brave.