Like many haunts in Shinjuku Ni-chome, Tokyo’s gay quarter, Onnanoko Club (Girls’ Club) seeks to provide a home from home for its clientele, with staff chatting at ease with customers to take their minds off the stresses of daily life.
The smiling hostesses are decked out in tasteful, carefully chosen outfits, with immaculate makeup and hairstyles.
Only one element of the stylish Japanese woman’s arsenal is missing — nail art. Their neatly trimmed but bare fingernails are the only hint that outside of the bar, the staff dress and act as society expects every man to do.
Manager Kuriko, 31, sits poised on a low pink sofa with all the mannerisms of a confident young woman, but describes himself as a man and goes by male pronouns.
“In my private life I’m a man, of course, and I dress as a woman for work — it’s both incredibly tiring and incredibly satisfying,” the former real estate agent explained over an iced tea.
Onnanoko Club is not a drag bar with theatrical outfits and shows, but rather a relaxed space where a man can arrive straight from the office, perhaps in a suit, and indulge his feminine side with a complete transformation.
One side of this cozy bar is marked off with a heaving rack of outfits — everything from understated blazers to gowns with puffy lace sleeves.
Colorful stickers decorate a long mirror behind the clothes rack, with piles of makeup, wigs and skin care products on hand to complete each customer’s look.
According to Kuriko, the most popular outfits are not costumes but fashion that any stylish woman might wear.
“I would love to see customers wearing white and other cheerful colors, but they tend to stick to more subdued colors that take their cues from men’s fashion, at least at first,” Kuriko said.
The bar welcomes both men and women, whether nervous cross-dressing beginners, seasoned fashionistas or those who are just curious.
Kuriko feels fulfilled when he sees regular customers gradually grow more confident in themselves before his eyes.
“Perhaps the first time they come, they won’t dress up but will just sit quietly and observe others. Then next time they’ll dress up, realize how good they look, and over repeated visits they’ll come out of their shell,” he said.
Even on a chilly Sunday night in December, laughter and music can be heard on the streets of Ni-chome. A group of stylish young men people watch from a bar’s outdoor seats as several straight couples walk past, arm in arm. A billboard encouraging regular HIV testing looks down on the scene.
“Ni-chome used to be a much more closed community, but with the economic downturn in recent years, gay bars have had to let in ‘tourists’ in order to survive,” Kuriko explains.
Kuriko is happy with the influx of fresh faces, but says the owners and regulars at some long-established gay bars feel threatened by the changes and long for a return to “the old Ni-chome.”
Such bars have instituted members-only systems or moved to a different part of Tokyo, he says.
The advent of social media has also brought changes to the scene. Many businesses in Ni-chome are hidden from the street, and a neon sign can only tell so much about the character of a place.
“By amassing followers on social media, each of my staff can become superstars in their own way,” he said.
Kuriko, who realized his love for men as well as women in high school, praises the recent advances for sexual minorities in Japan, such as Shibuya Ward’s decision last March to issue domestic partnership certificates to same-sex couples.
“But I worry about LGBT issues being overexposed in the media, and not being reported in a proper way, but rather treated as a trend,” he said. “We still have a long way to go.”
Kuriko acknowledges the potential for cross-dressers to clash with transgender people, who may see the hobby as trivializing the struggle they go through to be recognized for their true selves.
“Most cross-dressing men have a great deal of respect for transgender women and recognize our mutual differences,” Kuriko said.
“That’s one of the reasons it’s vital for us not to do embarrassing things and attract negative attention while we’re dressed as women.”
“We don’t seek to hurt anyone, and I really do think there are no drawbacks to trying cross-dressing, only benefits,” he said.
Kuriko said cross-dressing is just what is needed to build empathy between the genders in a society where many women feel under pressure to wear a full face of makeup to the supermarket.
“It’s not the case that every man who tries on women’s clothing discovers they have a passion for it, but I think every single one of them gains a bit of empathy for women from the experience,” he said.
Men open their eyes to the sheer effort women have to put in just to maintain what’s expected of them, he said.
“Once a man has felt how uncomfortable high heels can be, he won’t take a woman wearing them to a place where she has to stand up for a long time. And if a woman turns up a little late to a date, he might understand that she put in extra time to look nice,” Kuriko said.
But Onnanoko Club staff member Reki, 24, disagrees somewhat.
“Cross-dressing can help men understand the annoyance of having to keep up a feminine appearance, but it’s a mistake to think the difficulties women face in daily life end there,” Reki said.
But Kuriko, looking to the future, said, “I would like to see a society where every man has the opportunity to try cross-dressing at least once — that’s the kind of open and warm place Japan should become.”