This story appeared on the Sunday New York Times:
[inTOKYO] With the precision of a craftsman painting a ceramic doll, Toman Sasaki blended foundation onto his fine-boned face, shaded the side of his nose with blush and shaped his lip color with a small brush. After 40 minutes of primping in his tiny studio apartment in Tokyo, he peered into a hand mirror and gave himself a nod of approval.
Along with his manicured nails, bobbed hair and high-heeled shoes, the makeup made Mr. Sasaki, 23, appear more typically feminine than male, a striking choice in a society where men and women tend to hew strictly to conventional gender dress codes.
Mr. Sasaki, a model and pop band member who goes simply by Toman, does not regard his look as feminine so much as genderless. As one of a small but growing group of “genderless danshi” — “danshi” means young men in Japanese — he is developing a public identity and a career out of a new androgynous style.
“At heart, I am a man,” said the petite-framed Mr. Sasaki, whose wardrobe of slim-fit tank tops, baggy jackets and skinny jeans evokes the fashion of a preadolescent girl. The concept of gender, he said, “isn’t really necessary.” “People should be able to choose whatever style suits them,” said Mr. Sasaki, who has a large following as Toman on social media and regularly appears on television and radio programs. “It’s not as if men have to do one thing, and women have to do another. I don’t find that very interesting. We’re all human beings.”
Just as some American males have embraced makeup, young Japanese men are bending fashion gender norms, dyeing their hair, inserting colored contacts and wearing brightly colored lipstick.
Men like Ryuji Higa, better known as Ryucheru, his signature blond curls often pulled back in a headband, and Genki Tanaka, known as Genking, who rocks long platinum tresses and often appears in miniskirts, have made a leap from social media stardom to television celebrity.
“It’s about blurring the boundaries that have defined pink and blue masculinity and femininity,” said Jennifer Robertson, a professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan who has researched and written extensively about gender in Japan. “They are trying to increase the scope of what someone with male anatomy can wear.”
Japanese culture has long had a formal tradition of cross-dressing in theater, from classic forms like Kabuki and Noh, where men dress as both men and women, to Takarazuka, where women play both genders.
The unisex look for men has also been popularized in the Japanese cartoon form called anime, and by members of popular boy bands.
The term “genderless danshi” was coined by a talent agent, Takashi Marumoto, who has helped develop Toman’s career. Mr. Marumoto recruits other androgynous men for fashion shows and contracts as potential models, capitalizing on their social media followings to market to fans.
Unlike in the West, where cross-dressing tends to be associated with sexuality, here it is mostly about fashion.
“I think Japanese people react to these men who look quite feminine differently from how people in Euro-American societies react,” said Masafumi Monden, who researches Japanese fashion and culture at the University of Technology Sydney and is on a fellowship at Tokyo University. “In Japan, how people look and their sexual identities can be separated to a certain extent.”
Toman Sasaki said that when he first began dressing in the genderless danshi fashion, people frequently asked him whether he was gay. (He says he is heterosexual.)
He said that he wore makeup to conceal his flaws. “There are many things I’m insecure about; I really don’t like my face,” he said. “But I also feel that who I am changes when I wear makeup.”
Several men who consider themselves genderless danshi said in interviews that they did not see a connection between their appearance and their sexual identities — or even their views on traditional gender roles.
“It’s just that you use makeup and dress how you want,” said Takuya Kitajima, 18. Mr. Kitajima, who goes by the name Takubo, said he believed men and women were fundamentally different in spite of any blurring of style distinctions. “I think men should protect women, and that principle won’t change,” he said. “Men are stronger than women, and a man should work because the women are weaker.”
But Yasu Suzuki, 22, who organizes events for other genderless danshi to meet with their social media fans, said his explorations in fashion have broadened his views on sexuality.
When he began to experiment with makeup as a teenager, he said, he sometimes attracted the romantic attention of other men. “I thought that I would want to throw up when a man said to me, ‘I love you,’” said Mr. Suzuki, who wears baggy trousers popular among Japanese women and tweezes his facial hair because he cannot yet afford the laser hair removal treatments popular among the better-known genderless danshi.
“But now that I began wearing this genderless fashion, I think I shed my prejudice,” he said. “Before, I didn’t like boys or men who love each other, but I have started to accept them. Beautiful people are just beautiful.”
In Japan, where a walk through a train station during the commuter rush highlights the dark-suited conformity of most males, young men disillusioned by corporate stagnation may be using fashion to challenge the social order.
“In my generation, women were jealous of men because they could work and do whatever they wanted,” said Junko Mitsuhashi, 61, a professor of gender studies at Chuo University and a transgender woman. “But in the younger generation, men are jealous of women because they can express themselves through fashion.”
She added, “Men feel like they don’t have a sphere in which they can express themselves, and they envy girls, because girls can express themselves through their appearance.”
Young girls are the most ardent fans of the genderless danshi, making up the bulk of their social media followers and showing up at events.
On an autumn night when Toman performed with his band, XOX (Kiss Hug Kiss), at a hipster clothing store in Harajuku, the center of Tokyo youth fashion, the audience was made up almost entirely of teenage girls and a few 20-something women.
Toman, dressed in a satin pink and leopard skin-print jacket, ripped black jeans and faded black and white Converse sneakers, had inserted gray contact lenses that made his eyes look huge beneath purple-tipped false eyelashes. When the band mounted the makeshift stage for a few songs — all performed slightly out of tune — the audience waved signs and screamed. Some girls cried.
Nagisa Fujiwara, 16, a high school sophomore in Tokyo, was one of about 200 girls who lined up after the brief concert to take selfies with the band. “He looks like a girl,” she said about Toman, her favorite. “But when you put that together with his maleness, I see him as a new kind of man.”
Makiko Inoue contributed research.
A version of this article appears in print on January 6, 2017, on Page A4 of the New York edition with the headline