An Ethnography of Crossdressing: Gender Politics and Queer Belongings in Contemporary Japan


Michelle H. S. Ho

PhD defended at: 

Stony Brook University (SUNY)


Drawing on 14 months of fieldwork in Tokyo, Japan, this project is an ethnographic investigation into josō (male-to-female crossdressing) and dansō (female-to-male crossdressing) from the mid-2000s to the present. Through a case study of crossdressing cafes, establishments where employees dress as a different gender and attend to customers, this research examines the gender politics and queer belongings of crossdressing individuals and those they engage with. Employees and customers locate themselves within a wide spectrum of desires, such as straight, non-binary, transgender, and bisexual/pansexual, with more than half the staff identifying as non-heterosexual or non-cisgender. Specifically, I mine the interrelated connections between crossdressing and affect, sociality, gender and sexuality, and consumption of popular cultural media. I conducted interviews with and participant observation of the staff and patrons at Paradise and Garçon, the first josō and dansō cafes respectively to open in Akihabara, a haven for fans of Japanese animation, comics, and games. Based on my ethnographic data, I demonstrate that these individuals’ gender-crossing practices are located in affect—what I call “affective genderplay.” Employees and customers continue to visit or work at the cafes because over time they develop attachments to josō and dansō and to other people engaged in crossdressing. Using theories of affect, queer, and feminist to interpret my data, I argue that individuals challenge gender norms and roles in their imbricated approaches towards crossdressing as shumi (hobby; taste), aesthetic form, and articulation of often socially unacceptable identities.

This dissertation is firstly concerned with crossdressing as a case study for asking broader questions of how what is considered “normal” and outside of normal are shaped by discourse and power relations. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s notions of discourse and power/knowledge, I posit that crossdressing is an important site for tracking what produces so-called normal states of being, non-normative behavior, and norms in society, especially the processes of such knowledge production. Grounded in ethnography, this research offers a glimpse into individuals’ alternative ways of organizing their lives through their approaches toward different genders and sexualities. In particular, it gives voice to various individuals inhabiting the cafes who align with and depart from gender and sexual norms in Japanese society in distinctive ways. Secondly, this dissertation takes informants’ refusal of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) identity-based politics and queer academic discourses seriously. Drawing on Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan’s call for transnational studies of feminism and sexuality, it asks: If individuals disidentify with existing LGBT politics and discourses, in what ways can politics be reconfigured? Although LGBT politics and queer discourses in Japan evolve when taken up as local activism and resistance, my informants reject such associations as representing their interests. Unlike gay men, lesbian women and, more recently, transgender people, who may mobilize based on their shared identities, individuals who are reluctant to embrace existing categories find themselves left out of the conversation. Part of this research’s aim is to recuperate these absent figures in gender and sexuality studies and anthropological studies on Japan through a focus on contemporary crossdressing practices.