Review of Asian Studies dangerous women: gender performativity in japan and the takarazuka revue

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The Takarazuka Revue (宝塚歌劇団)is a famous Japanese subculture and maintains a large, loyal fan base that gives it prevalence in popular culture. As an all-female theatre company, the Revue challenges gender norms by using female actors to play male roles as otokoyaku (男役).Through cross-dressing, these women inhabit transitional spaces between genders, and the action of fostering androgyny in the public eye creates an ethical dilemma in Japanese society (Robertson, 1991b). Through the course of this paper, we will see how the Takarazuka Revue has developed to match changing Japanese mindsets through history and been criticized for promoting “immoral” gender practices. Otokoyaku embody gender in a way that has been seen as “dangerous” by conservative Japanese society (Robertson, 1992, 56). Why is androgyny in gendered performance “dangerous”? What factors, unique to Japan, cause Japanese society to perceive it as such? Is “dangerous” negative? Moreover, why and how are Takarazuka performances and actors able to transcend socially constructed gender roles in the theatre, and how does this affect perceptions of gender in Japanese culture?
Living in Japanese society requires a certain amount of conformity in order to function in everyday life. In general, Japanese people operate with a distinct group mentality, and aberrations or distinctions are met with swift disapproval and attempts to “correct” the anomalies. The Japanese saying, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down” expresses this sentiment, which is intrinsically understood in Japanese culture. Women are particularly pressured to conform to societal expectations (e.g. marriage, having children, conforming to aesthetic ideals, etc.) and marginalized gender groups, who cannot find their place in Japanese society, also feel pressure to fit into pre-existing categories (Chambers, 2007). In Japan today, given the nation’s highly developed economic status, the built-up effects of suppressed desires and nonconformist ideas have given rise to the development of subcultures and alternative cultures that appeal to aspects of personality, such as fashion, music, or other personal interests (the degree of adherence to participation in subcultures – where an interested person falls on the spectrum of non-conformity– is up to the individual). Subcultures, as the name suggests, exist on the same plane as popular culture, but differentiate themselves in order to emotionally detach from the pressures of everyday life. Japanese theater has traditionally reflected gender expectations and limitations in Japanese society, and currently serves as a subculture which detaches spectators from society while re-enforcing gender norms at the same time.
The Takarazuka Revue (Takarazuka kageki dan 宝塚歌劇団) is a famous subculture and maintains a large, loyal fan base that gives it prevalence in popular culture. As an all-female theatre company, the Revue challenges gender norms by using female actors to play male roles as otokoyaku (男役). Through cross-dressing, these women inhabit transitional spaces between genders, and the action of fostering androgyny in the public eye creates an ethical dilemma in Japanese society (Robertson, 1991b). Through the course of this paper, we will see how the Takarazuka Revue has developed to match changing Japanese mindsets through history and been criticized for promoting “immoral” gender practices. Otokoyaku embody gender in a way that has been seen as “dangerous” by conservative Japanese society (Robertson, 1992, p.56). Why is androgyny in gendered performance “dangerous”? What factors, unique to Japan, cause Japanese society to perceive it as such? Is “dangerous” negative? Moreover, why and how are Takarazuka performances and actors able to transcend socially constructed gender roles in the theatre, and how does this affect perceptions of gender in Japanese culture?

The Takarazuka Grand Theatre (Takarazuka Dai Gekijou 宝塚大劇場) in Takarazuka Hyogo, Japan (宝塚兵庫 日本)
The Takarazuka Revue was started in 1914 by Kobayashi Ichizou, owner of the Hankyuu railroad company, in the small hot-spring resort town of Takarazuka, near Osaka. In an attempt to promote the use of his train lines, Kobayashi established the Takarazuka Girls’ Opera Training Association (Takarazuka shoujokageki youseikai 宝塚少女歌劇養成会), an all-female theatre company that eventually became the Takarazuka Revue and the Takarazuka Music Academy; the word “shoujo (少女)”, which refers to a young girl between puberty and marriage, was eventually dropped from the title, but shoujo are still important to the Revue, both as incoming students and as fans. (Robertson, 1998, p. 5). Future “Takarasiennes”, as the actresses were called (mimicking “Parisiennes” in reference to the French roots of the revue theatre style), would apply to the Academy in their early teens to be instructed in Western and Japanese theatre, music, and dance styles, and to eventually perform in the Takarazuka Grand Theatre, which was the largest modern theatre in Japan at the time. The students were assigned their “secondary-gender” (Robertson), which determined the roles they would play for the remainder of their career, during the second year of their schooling based on their physical attributes and natural talents.

Interior of Grand Theater
Up until the establishment of new women’s theatre troupes in the 1920’s during the Meiji period, actresses had been looked down upon in society as immoral; this association stemmed from the original presence of women in Kabuki (歌舞伎). During the Edo period (1600-1868), the newly developed performance category of “theatre for the masses (taishuu engeki 大衆演劇)”, which Kabuki instigated to cater to lower classes, and of which Takarazuka is the most widely recognized and watched (Robertson, 1998, p. 5), was considered to be offensive and crude to the Japanese aristocrats, who preferred the more conservative and refined Noh () style of theatre. Women in the theatre were deemed to be immoral, and prostitution rings were led out of Kabuki theatres, causing officials to ban the presence of actresses altogether to preserve public morality (Robertson, 1991a). As a result, when acting was again offered for women, the occupation came with social connotations of licentiousness and the implication that actresses were “defiled women” who led “profligate lives” (Robertson, 1998, p. 7).

Modern otokoyaku and musumeyaku in full stage make-up
Accordingly, when theatre for women was again available the older word for actress, onnayakusha (女役者), was replaced with the more positive joyuu (女優) to quell word-associations with depravity. When Kobayashi established the Takarazuka Revue, he strategically titled the actresses portraying female roles on stage as musumeyaku (娘役) instead of onnayakusha or joyuu; musume means “daughter”, and when compared with onna or jo (both ), which indicates an adult (presumably more corrupt) woman, it connotes innocence, youth, and virginity: all feminine, moral characteristics acceptable for young women in Japanese society. Presumably, this also alleviated the fears of parents sending their daughters to become Takarasiennes at the Takarazuka Academy that their children would learn to be a proper actress under supervision and not subscribe to an immoral lifestyle. “Musumeyaku” implied that a shoujo would embody characteristics subscribing to culturally acceptable and expected female roles. The Meiji state-sanctioned “female role” for women in Japan, which is still influential today in social gender expectations, was the “good wife, wise mother (ryousai kenbo良妻賢母) ideal (Robertson, 1991a, p. 166). At the time, young girls were expected to get married early, to a man of their family’s choosing, have children, and embody the ideal submissive, faithful wife, and wise, caring mother while managing her household, in comparison to the male “loyal soldier” role. Many girls were locked into this role, but the Takarasiennes, who were and are forbidden to marry or date while still in their troupe, were able to bend around the task of marriage by portraying gender roles on stage. Before and during World War II, Kobayashi urged the Revue to put on performances in which the musumeyaku embodied the “good wife, wise mother” to propagate the ideal. In contrast, the otokoyaku were encouraged to exemplify the epitome of male behavior to enrich the “good wife, wise mother” role on stage (Robertson, 1992, pp. 48-49). The sentiment behind learning to characterize such traits is immortalized in the company’s motto: “Be pure, be righteous, be beautiful (Kiyoku, tadashiku, utsukushiku清く, 正しく, 美しく).

In order to embody gender, Takarasiennes needed to learn “stylized gestures or movements” (Ibid, 1998, p. 12) (kata 型) to signify gender. The “secondary” genders of Takarasiennes were assigned on the value of obvious physical, gendered traits, most notably height (at least above 5’5” [165 cm] for otokoyaku) and facial features. Once a gender was assigned, the student’s hair was cut, or styled into braids, depending on respective gender, and distinctive gendered kata were introduced (e.g. new methods for walking and singing in baritone registers for otokoyaku, and restricted, reserved movements and soprano register training for musumeyaku). A contrast between otokoyaku exaggerating “ideal” romantic, traditional masculine traits and musumeyaku’s over-feminine movements and super high singing voices help the otokoyaku to appear manlier. According to Judith Butler, this kind of conditioned gender-learning technique for portraying gender is rational because gender is performative and formed through the repetition of gender-specific acts. Our outward displays of behavior, which are performed through words and gestures by the body, signal our respective genders to others. When these signals are mixed, and the body displays gestures that do not match the initial perception of gender based in physical form, the politics of interaction with that individual changes; therefore, androgyny consists of “the surface politics of the body” (Butler, 1990).

The Japanese word kata, especially in the context of its use by otokoyaku and musumeyaku, brings to mind the contrary practice of Kabuki’s onnagata (女形) in terms of the portrayal of the opposite sex in theatre; why does female-to-male cross-dressing and androgyny in Takarazuka pose a “danger” to social norms, while onnagata have been practicing a similar technique in theatre for hundreds of years without the gender hierarchy unraveling (far from it)? It should be noted that this discrepancy is not the result of gender bias towards female androgyny, nor favoritism shown towards an older theatre tradition, but a difference in practice and essential application of gender for use in theatre. The kata (型) of stylized movement and the kata in onnagata (形), connote different meanings: while kata (型) refers to a style or form of movement in acting or a mold to fit into, onnagata’s kata (形) indicates the form or shape of a figure, as in a model. Additionally, the yaku (役) in otokoyaku (男役) denotes a duty, a role, or a service, indicating an obligation or a job (Denshi Jisho, n.d.). From these analyses of kanji, we can deduce the different approaches to gender interpretation present in these methods.
The fundamental difference and relationship between onnagata and otokoyaku can be compared to that of essentialism and constructionism. The onnagata uses a gender-specialized version of the Buddhist concept of henshin (変身) to form the basis of their performance: without studying real women or socially constructed gendered actions, an onnagata “becomes Woman, as opposed to impersonat[ing] a given female/woman” (Robertson, 1992, p. 50); however, the onnagata is not simply, “a male acting in a role in which he becomes a woman,” as that would imply superficiality to the transformation, but rather as, “a male who is a woman acting a role” (Ibid). In addition, the onnagata is expected to embody femininity in his daily life, and develop his performance of femininity based on generalized ideals of female archetypes, as an individual actor would not be able to aptly represent true femininity if he were allowed license to interpret; furthermore, it can be deduced from the kanji in onnagata (女 形), which I have previously analyzed, that onnagata are intended to be a model of female behavior for biological women to emulate. Onnagata draw their inspiration for their actions from traditional male ideas of female gender portrayal in Japanese culture, which are described as being essential to female behavior. By subscribing to these essentialist notions about gender to inform presentation and assuming a borrowed, “essence”, the henshin practice of onnagata distinguishes itself from the constructionist gender performativity used by otokoyaku for similar purposes; however, otokoyaku, while allowed creative license with appropriated gendered actions, is not intended to serve as a role model for real men, but is meant to reflect female desires and expectations for the sake of pleasing the fans and creating a transcendent theatre atmosphere.
Henshin is not applicable in otokoyaku interpretations because the constructionist process by which they interpret gender does not give credence to an internal essence, and she cannot, therefore, enact the male gender through translating essential masculinity; the performative gender of otokoyaku is projected, superficially, onto the body, (Butler, 1990) and she achieves the “male” gender, not through henshin, but by “’putting something on the body’ (mi ni tsukeru身につける) (Denshi Jisho, n.d.), in this case, markers of masculinity” (Robertson, 1992, p. 51). Therefore, an otokoyaku portrays masculinity because it is her duty (yaku, 役), and is not meant as an example for men to imitate; she is just doing her job, which is only significant as a gender interpretation within the confines of the theatre (Ibid).
One may wonder if this fact is solely an effect of the deviating interpretation systems by which onnagata and otokoyaku operate, or if the applicability of their respective gender performances to biological members of the sex portrayed is affected by the particular birth genders of the actors in each theatre method. I would venture to argue that the male onnagata are considered more seriously as gender role models because, as men, they are socially accepted to be hierarchically superior to women and are in a position to dictate the acceptable terms and acts that constitute feminine behavior in Japanese society. In addition, the male who cross-dresses as a woman for the purposes of art and embodying “correct” female behavior as an example is not considered to be a threat to the normative gender system because his actions do not jeopardize the current norms, but rather enforce them. In contrast, otokoyaku who freely interpret aspects of gender, with the result of creating androgyny within an already established gender role, are “dangerous” because they threaten to break away from traditional gender models and live in the spaces in between, or to usurp male power altogether by acting as men.
The socially imposed, repetitive, gender acts that enlighten the performances of Takarazuka is the result of conscious, constant observation of male behavior by otokoyaku and of dutiful performance of stereotyped, “male-identified” (Robertson, 1992, p. 51) fictional female characteristics intended to propagate traditional female roles (i.e. all Takarasiennes subscribe to a socially constructionist method of applying gender to performance, but musumeyaku are not encouraged to deviate from the generalized gender norms, while otokoyaku are given more agency in the interpretation of their role, within the parameters set up by the theatre’s [male] directors). The application of performed gestures and assumed physical characteristics, without making reference to an immutable “core” or “essence”, conforms to the criteria of constructionist philosophy, and it would therefore be appropriate to use Judith Butler’s postmodernist, constructionist theory of gender performativity to analyze the “dangers” of exploring spaces between binary gender norms.
Japanese society is traditionalist to a fault in regards to gender roles, scoring 101st out of 135 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report in 2012 (Haussmann, Tyson, & Zahidi, 2012). It is very clear that the Japanese public is rooted firmly in binary gender thought, which is the result of unconsciously protecting the heteronormative, homogenous norms in society from changing. Societal norms are necessary to structure society; to be without them and still retain a coherent society is unfathomable. Judith Butler (2004) explained this concept succinctly:

…the sense of what a norm is and what, finally, is “normative” depends on the kind of social theory from which these terms emerge. On the one hand, norms seem to signal the regulatory or normalizing function of power, but from another perspective, norms are precisely what binds individuals together, forming the basis of their ethical and political claims. When…I oppose violence done by restrictive norms, I appear to appeal to a norm of nonviolence. It would seem to follow that norms can operate both as unacceptable restrictions and as part of any critical analysis that seeks to show what is unacceptable in that restrictive operation. (pp. 219-220)

Japanese society depends on social norms to maintain the status quo, and it is unusual among developed countries in that it is extremely reluctant to challenge these norms for fear of upending the social order: very few public policies have been significantly changed since the institution of the U.S.-authored Constitution, in contrast to the United States, which has made many adjustments to political directives for the betterment of American society. It must be noted that norms cannot be separated from society, and it is better to view them as a part of culture that can be altered for ethical benefit and regarded as positive or negative depending on interpretation. Gender-bending in Takarazuka has been described as “dangerous,” and it “threatens” gender norms that keep heteronormative society functioning; however, should cross-dressing in theatre really be considered negative? I believe that the act of defying gender in a cooperative, communal experience may actually form part of a solution to Japan’s rigid ideas about legitimate gender roles.

Coming back to the notion of subculture as a coping method to ease societal pressures, Takarazuka creates a unique way to allay the (perhaps unconscious) stress of living in Japanese society. Theatre, like other art forms, stems from a blank canvas influenced by outside stimuli: on an empty stage, there are no gender expectations, but audiences always bring their knowledge of the world outside the theatre. Artistic freedom facilitates the conception of a space in which the audience and the actors, disregarding sex, gender, or sexuality, can (briefly) rise above and outside of the gender roles they play to conform with society (Nakamura & Matsuo, 2003). As an example, I would like to consider the “good wife, wise mother” motif and flip it on itself; instead of being perceived as an oppressive pattern to which women are expected to conform, the idea can be seen through Takarazuka in a different light –as something surmountable. One can consider how the “good wife, wise mother” norm can be re-interpreted on both sides of the theatre: those of Takarazuka fans and audience members, and the Takarasiennes themselves.

Where Takarazuka’s many fans are concerned, the theatre serves as an escape from reality. Fans of Takarazuka are, more often than not, obsessed with the Revue, and are 95% women. They join fan clubs, see shows frequently, spend tons of capital and time in the pursuit of being closer to their idols; however, true to Japanese group-oriented ideals, fans are well organized and reasonable (e.g. fans will wait in line for hours to get a glimpse of their favorite star, but when the actress arrives they will bow respectfully and unobtrusively take pictures, in contrast to their shrieking American counterparts). Contrary to popular belief, not all fans fit into the shoujo category: many fans are housewives and elderly women, with a minority of male fans (MacGregor, 1996) and reasons for becoming a fan are varied. Although the company still propagates the “good wife, wise mother” ideal through its motto (see note footnote 12), housewives have sought to escape from filial responsibilities by becoming a fan of Takarazuka. Other fans are dissatisfied with their love lives and want to escape into a fantasy. The largest reason for Takarazuka’s popularity in modern Japan, and an object of paranoia for homophobic critics’, is fans’ deep frustration with, and disappointment in, Japanese men. MacGregor (1996), in her Washington Post article which interviewed Takarazuka Revue director Shinji Ueda, noted, “Ueda attributes Takarazuka’s popularity to the inequality for the sexes, women’s dissatisfaction with Japanese men, and the restrictions placed on women in Japanese society” (p. D08). Women benefit from the atmosphere of Takarazuka by temporarily escaping from gender expectations, and are in turn empowered by seeing women (otokoyaku) in a position of power; a path around the “good wife, wise mother” ideal solidifies itself. As Ueda explains in MacGregor (1996), “Many women love the shows because when they see other women on stage portraying men, they say to themselves: ‘I could do that!’”(p. D09).

Takarasiennes are empowered in a different way by subverting constructed gender norms, and musumeyaku and otokoyaku benefit in separate ways. Both gender-specialist groups, being unmarried and (largely) young, technically belong to the social group of the shoujo; however, musumeyaku, because they bodily reflect gender norms in their acting without the agency that otokoyaku have, benefit more directly from belonging to this group and being a Takarasienne. Furthermore, musumeyaku have the freedom to represent their own gender attributes on stage, because they do not live in the public sector. By virtue of being a Takarasienne, they can also choose to delay marriage (and the subsequent entry into “adulthood” as defined in Japanese culture) and therefore remain in control of their own lives (Grᾰjdian, 2011). Otokoyaku are empowered by the roles they play: male characters played by a female can be viewed as neutral, and therefore are perceived socially as being androgynous. By enacting conflicting gender roles with a separately sexed body, the otokoyaku is able to briefly escape the constraints of her birth gender, but in doing so she must leave behind her own identity to become an “entity of desire and site of projection” (Grᾰjdian, 2011, p. 13 ). Thus, Takarasiennes are able to almost completely step around the “good wife, wise mother” ideal; however, in doing so, it should be noted that they lose their agency.

I titled this paper “Dangerous Women”, because I was struck by those words in reading about otokoyaku who cut their hair in the early days of the Revue. The first girls who cut their hair short at that time, the so-called “modern girls,” were considered to be, “extroverted, maverick, and in the eyes of critics, dangerous women” (Robertson, 1992, p. 56). The idea that, by cutting her hair (which was supposed to be symbolically as important to a Japanese woman as her life), a woman who was defying what defined gender at that time was considered to be “dangerous” struck me as significant. Before the influence of the “modern girls”, women who cut their hair did so as a way of withdrawing from society into religious service; otokoyaku in the 1920’s were held to different standards of gender norms that those of the present, and yet those norms shifted with popular demand. Although Japan is a very innovative country, when it comes to social normativity, progressive gender embodiment is judged to be “dangerous” or immoral. If Japan could be open to change, on many different levels, many of its problems would simply disappear. Shifts in social norms do not herald the end of civilization, and any perceptions of gender and identity mutability as a threat, whether it is embodied in the street or in the Takarazuka Revue, should be met with an open mind.


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