Japan fan events have a history of banning male cosplay of female characters even as gender-bending characters have become more common in comic lore
It seems the golden age of cosplay has hit a wall, at least in Japan, of all places. Tokyo Comic-Con (TCC 2016) has reversed a ban on male attendees from cosplaying as female characters, which had caused an outcry when news went international. There had been no such ban in place on women cosplaying as men.
The announcement on Tokyo Comic-Con’s official site mentioned they would require people to mark their sex on their registration badges and appear to be concerned about men and women using the wrong bathrooms.
First reported by the Anime News Network, the official TCC site says it is “prohibited” for men to wear female clothing (男性による女装は禁止です), using the term “jyosou” (女装) which is often used to refer to cross-dressing, specifically men dressing as women. But the news is a big deal more because it has hit the local franchise of the Comic-Con brand, not because it hasn’t happened before. In fact, many Japanese fan gatherings ban men dressing as women, better known as “crossplay.”
Dr. Raz Greenberg, a comics and animation scholar lecturing about manga and anime at Tel Aviv University, reminded Geektime that Japan has a long, long tradition of men dressing as women in traditional Noh and Kabuki theater where actresses are not permitted. This incident appears to be a phenomenon of Japan’s cultural evolution.
“The recent demand by Comic Con Japan is interesting, given that Comic Con is a western brand fan event. Japan has many fan events of its own, including cosplay events; however, in banning cross-dressing (a ban which does not exist in Comic Con events in America) the organizers actually follow a common practice in Japanese events,” Greenberg explained.
In the meantime, not only have females garnered a lot more attention in Japanese entertainment in the modern era, but they have turned tradition on its head with crossdressing of their own.
“The modern, all-female theatre trope Takarazuka has women playing [male] roles, and is highly popular. The Takarazuka shows are credited with inspiring the themes of cross-dressing and gender-bending common in manga and anime.”
Photographer and columnist Naoko Tatibana, who is opened the Taiyodo cross-dressing studio in Tokyo, wrote in 2012 for Rocket News that, “despite all the exposure transsexuals and cross-dressers are given on TV and in magazines in Japan, men are forbidden from dressing up as the opposite sex at the one place you would think it would be most acceptable: cosplay events.”
“I assume in Japan, as is the case anywhere in the world, at least in 2016, has more freedom. But there are still fears of harassment . . .,” Nekori Yukito, an avid manga and anime fan who spends a lot of time on the cosplay scene tells Geektime. “But Japan also has a good number of celebrities whose shtick includes being men dressed as women, like members of the band Psycho le Cému or Ladybeard or Sailor Suit Old Man.”
Comics encounter gender-bending and race-bending more often than you might expect
The gender-bending of traditional comic book characters has become a common theme as comics and their live action spinoffs are experiencing an age of revival. The CW series The Flash aired an episode on Tuesday that featured obscure supervillain The Top as a woman, rather than as a man as the character was originally conceived. Newer comic iterations of Thor and Iron Man have seen those heroes pass the mantle onto younger, female heirs: Thor to Jane Foster, and Iron Man to Riri Williams.
Oddly enough, race-bending in recent iterations of comics and their spinoffs has proven itself far more controversial, at least to American audiences. The recasting of the Human Torch as a black character (played by Michael B. Jordan) in 2015’s Fantastic 4 set off a firestorm, while the use of a white actress (Scarlett Johansonn) to play anime character Major Kusanagi has brought up accusations of whitewashing both in the US and Japan.
The Flash, again, has been the most prominent and arguably most successful (as in accepted) attempt at changing the race of a major character by casting Barry Allen’s love interest Iris West (and relative Wally West) as African-American.
The new Flash film with a different cast from the TV series will also feature black actress Kiersey Clemons in the role, that after a campaign by fans to #KeepIrisBlack. Also prominently, Hispanic actress Zendaya will play Mary Jane Watson in Marvel’s upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming movie (possibly offending redheads).
As Western culture influences Japan, the country’s LGBT community has become agitated with other recent bans on cross-dressing (though men dressing as female characters is not considered an exclusive domain of gay cosplayers in Western countries).
“Organizers and institutions who imposed such a ban denied any such motive,” Greenberg explained to Geektime, saying that the ban is rooted in purely commercial (having middle-aged men unconvincingly as women not being a pretty sight for visitors) reasons, and in wishing to maintain order (men dressed as women using men’s room can cause panic/confusion).
“It can be argued, of course, that the event’s guests should simply overcome their prejudice, but this is in no way a case of a western event forcing its standards on Japan.”