Lanterns outside restaurants light the way through the small alleys of Asagaya to the Gamuso bar, host of the Tokyo Closet Ball, “Japan’s most outrageous variety show.” At the top of the narrow stairway is a pleasant and relaxed English-style bar — the perfect place to stop, grab a drink and enjoy the spectacle as the audience arrives, many in extravagant costumes, some in drag.
Most seem to be regulars here, but the costumes, often handmade, are excellent icebreakers for newcomers looking to make connections. Compliments are free and the partygoers aren’t shy with their anecdotes and costume advice.
“There is usually between 30 and 40 people watching the show and 10 performers, with sometimes guest performers,” explains Taylor Wanstall, the event’s organizer. “A core family, and an extended family.”
Wanstall was introduced to drag by a group of friends in his hometown of Eugene, Oregon.
“I had friends doing drag, I just wanted to do it with them. So I started practicing. I started wearing dresses, wigs and makeup,” he says. “I just like the aesthetics, something that is beautiful but really off in some ways.”
When he arrived in Tokyo five years ago at the age of 24, Wanstall found the drag community here more insular than what he was used to.
“Starting drag in Tokyo is really hard. You have to know someone who knows someone, and shows are really late at night and really expensive,” he says. Wanstall was looking for something more casual — “something that can involve the whole community, not just a small part of it. I just wanted it to be free and open for everyone.
“I started thinking, if this is going to work, I am gonna have to make it myself. I started contacting the bars and renting the space, inviting my friends,” he remembers. “Over time it started attracting a lot of really great performers.”
Easing into drag in Kansai
While the Closet Ball is based in Tokyo, it draws performers from around Japan. Michael Judd, known in the drag world as Belgium Solanas, is a 38-year-old Australian-born photographer and filmmaker who tries to make it to the night as often as possible.
“Recently I have done some shows in Tokyo. It is definitely more international than it used to be,” Judd says. “The audience particularly. I think it is much more free — for me, that’s the appeal of it.”
Though he now lives in Osaka, Judd first started doing drag in Kyoto in 2010, nine years after arriving in the country.
“When we started, we were the only foreign queens in the club,” he says. “When I first started going out to gay clubs, there were always drag queens — it was just part of going out. I got to know some of them really well, especially in Nagoya where I used to live. It was just sort of a natural progression into it.”
He recalls the first time he decided to dress in drag. “I had a Japanese boyfriend; he had been a drag queen for five years. We went to this club, Diamonds are Forever. We went in drag with a Canadian friend.”
He remembers others being very interested in their style, which was very different from the way other queens dressed in Kyoto.
“Everyone was asking about us because of the way we were dressed, the way we looked — they thought we were a rock band or something,” he says. Judd and his Canadian friend had toyed with the idea of doing a drag show, but not seriously. “We had really wanted to do a show, but didn’t know how to start.” They were taken by surprise when they were offered a chance to book a show that very night.
After that, things moved very quickly. “Our third show ever was on a huge concert-size stage in Osaka,” he recalls. “We were really lucky.”
Being Divine in Nagoya
In Nagoya, Ken, better known as Miku Divine, says being one of the few foreign drag queens there allowed him to enjoy some level of local fame.
“Everyone who comes knows that I perform, because I am the foreign drag queen there,” he enthuses. “I have been like in Tokyo in the Closet Ball, and someone was like, ‘You’re Miku Divine!’ and I wasn’t in drag, I was just a boy.”
Ken, who asked that his full “boy name” not be published due to privacy concerns, grew up in Oregon in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“At the time I started watching drag, he explains, “I was living with my parents, and they were not accepting of a gay lifestyle or anything like that.”
So he decided to wait. Fond of Japan from a young age, he started learning the language in high school and decided to teach English in order to migrate there.
Only when he arrived in Nagoya did he start looking for gay clubs, and found the Metro Club, an LGBTQ-friendly event in the city.
“I contacted the coordinator, Matthew Goldman,” Ken recalls. “I asked him if I could start performing at his club. He knew I was a baby queen, I was brand new, and he just said, ‘If you can put something together, yeah, I’ll have you.’ I did, and I came every second Saturday.”
He remembers taking his art very seriously. “I slowing started learning my drag, watching YouTube videos.” Ken says he made a lot of good friends among the Japanese drag queens. “They come to the Metro constantly and perform with me. And I have been able to watch what they do and learn from them.”
They do things differently here
While performing is a challenge in itself, exposing your art to a different set of cultural standards adds a new level of complexity.
“In Japan, they really focus on the performance,” Ken says. “You have to dance, you have to have amazing costumes, or to do something funny.”
He tries to adapt his humor to better fit Japanese tastes, an experience most foreign residents here can probably relate to.
“I never know what is funny, what is not,” he says. “A lot of my jokes are done verbally, so most of the things I do at my international club, I can’t do at theirs, they wouldn’t understand. So” — he pauses — “I’m learning.”
This cultural challenge is inspiring him to improve his performance.
“The funniness can come through language,” he says. The Japanese drag queens “do a lot of copying and editing from TV shows, making things gay and funny. That’s what I think I need to do more: making visual cues, visual jokes.”
Judd explains how every metropolis seems to have its own aesthetics and style of performance.
“Usually there are two main themes,” he explains. “There is the sort of comedy almost making fun of the idea of doing drag, or this kind of polished, elaborate-costume, very choreographed version of drag.”
In Kyoto, where Judd started, “The queens all have the same kind of facial look, like a sort of Kim Chi in (RuPaul’s TV show) ‘Drag Race,’ with big eyes — a really exaggerated sort of clown. In Nagoya it is much more polished and costume-oriented, and Osaka is more rough and ready, and a bit wild.”
“Usually I know what to expect if I go to a Japanese drag show,” he says. As opposed to shows popular with the international community, the different standards he sees in Japanese cities come down to a “difference of sensibility in the audience.”
Judd came to realize that the public here prefers to know what it’s going to get from the shows, a bit like the audience for traditional theater.
“I think I have seen the exact same show, six years ago and a month ago — the same person doing the exact same show in the exact same costume,” he says. “It just seems so weird to me. But the audience loved it so much. I think the audience enjoy knowing what is gonna happen — it makes them feel like they are part of it, because they can anticipate what is gonna happen.”
The cultural difference is also apparent in the system itself, Ken says.
“In Japan they have the senpai-kōhai,” he says, referring to the hierarchical system of seniors and juniors that exists in school, work and elsewhere in society. “This structural system is the same in the drag world. The most experienced queen will always get the most respect, the most cheers from the audience — even if she has a crappy performance!” he laughs. “It is a really heavy factor in you getting gigs in Japan, in people hiring you and working with you.”
The expectations and the standards are higher here, inspiring the foreign queens to raise their game.
“The best thing about Japan is all the costumes,” Wanstall says enthusiastically. “I can go to Harajuku and get amazing costumes, like I couldn’t get in America. If I was doing shows in America I could just wear something cheap I got at the mall, but here in Tokyo they have such high standards — I need really elaborate costumes!”
A safe space far from home
While Wanstall is hoping to attract more Japanese spectators to his Tokyo Closet Ball, Judd is confident that there will always be a place for foreign drag queens.
“When we started there weren’t so many Western drag queens. It definitely helped to have sort of a niche,” Judd says. “I guess in a way it was kind of exotic. It was something new to people.”
References to their own overseas cultures make the foreign performers an intriguing draw for Japanese audiences. It gives them a niche in the scene in Japanese cities, and it helps them create a safe space — a home away from home.
On the night of a recent Tokyo Closet Ball, the core group of performers and regulars played their parts with outrageous enthusiasm. The show began and the performers came up in ones and twos to dance and sing for a crowd of about 30.
Zowie, dressed in a silk blouse and carrying a black cane, was instantly recognizable as David Bowie’s character in “Labyrinth.” Emmanuel Transmission was Jared Leto’s Joker on top and banana hammock below, and Sixxx was a rather reserved version of the Pale Man monster in “Pan’s Labyrinth” with eyes in its hands. During the second act, people from the audience were invited to get on stage and dance to the soundtrack of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
All of the miscellaneous Western references were echoed in the audience’s costumes, which ranged from Mad Max to street clothes and a sexy teddy bear.
Although he is an active member of the Tokyo International Players and the Yokohama Theatre Group, it is in this venue that Wanstall invests the most effort. “I feel like I am giving a voice for people that wouldn’t feel comfortable before a crowd otherwise,” he says.
And walking into the Tokyo Closet Ball does indeed bring a palpable yet unexpected feeling of comfort, seemingly at odds with the provocative nature of the performances.
“It is like having an extended family,” Wanstall explains. “Our families are back home, so having this community here is very important.”
In Tokyo this strong bond is especially important to foreign residents, as most come and go after one or two years, he says. “They stay here before moving on to another country.”
With this event, Wanstall, dressed as alter ego Tatianna Lee, aims to let people see that it is safe to come out as something beyond the supposed norm.
“It is a safe space where I can just be myself and not worry too much about what people think of me,” he says.
Wanstall sees his character Tatianna as an escape, a catharsis from his daily life as an English teacher.
“In the beginning, Tatianna was just Taylor in a dress,” he remembers. But after a few years, he says, “It is almost like having two different personalities. Taylor is just who I am in my day-to-day life: Very relaxed quiet and happy, I love being around children, I try to be nice to people whenever possible.”
Tatiana, he says, allows him to show a hidden version of himself.
“Working in the elementary school, I can’t swear or anything. When I am Tatiana, it kind of gives me an excuse to say what I want as a character and then change back into who I was.”
Extra layers of foreignness
On stage, some performers use their characters to feel closer to home.
“Belgium was my grandmother’s middle name,” explains Judd. “The first day I went by myself in a club under the name Belgium, my grandmother had died that morning in Australia, and I couldn’t be there, and I didn’t have a name up until that point. So I was like ‘OK, I’m gonna call her Belgium.’ It just seemed perfect, and it stuck. Solanas comes from Valerie Solanas, who was a radical writer and feminist.”
Even if drag is not always feminist, it definitely has a radical side to it for Judd. He has been attacked several times on the streets of Osaka because of the way he dresses. Once, a man crawled between his legs with a camera while he was waiting at a station. However, he is adamant that incidents like these will not stop him dressing in drag.
On the contrary, he says: “Definitely it wouldn’t stop me from doing shows. I have actually done shows about it, about rape and abuse. Those experiences kind of blend into the work I do.”
But doing drag is safer here, the three agree, than in their own countries.
“If I was in America, would I take the train? Heck no! I wouldn’t do my drag face, I could get beat up,” says Ken.
Here, on public transport, the trio explain, the reaction is half plain disgust, half curiosity. Even in the gay community, dating as a drag queen is not easy.
“If I am wanting a relationship, it’s not the first thing that I mention. But I wouldn’t hide it. It’s too big in my apartment to hide anymore.” Judd laughs. “If you go into my extra room it’s just a drag explosion.
“I always thought part of the performance is just being part of the Japanese society and walking around — a giant man dressed as a woman on public transport, walking the streets and not allowing people to treat me like an animal in a zoo. Having some dignity in that is really important to me.
“I think it is important to get ready and then go to the club,” concludes Judd. “It is sort of saying, ‘You can’t ignore me — this is also part of modern Japan and you have to deal with it.’ ” In that way, he says, “I actually think this is an extension of being a foreigner in Japan.”
The next Tokyo Closet Ball show is on Sat., April 8, 7:30-10 p.m., at Gamuso (www.gamuso.com) in Asagaya, Suginami-ku. All future events will be posted at www.facebook.com/TokyoClosetBall. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
‘I can’t really emulate Japanese femininity’
Although drag performances are inherently about playing with traditional gender boundaries, there is one cultural boundary that remains taboo, at least for Australian Michael Judd and his alter ego, Belgium Solanas.
“My drag isn’t that influenced by Japanese women … because I can’t really emulate Japanese femininity,” says Judd. “I’m a very huge man, so it’s like, it would be sort of a parody in a way. … When I do shows it has to come from a very deep honest place.
“I also think the Japanese drag queens do that so much better,” he adds. “It’s much more real and authentic coming from them. That’s their history and their culture.”
It seems that while Western drag queens in Japan enjoy exploring gender boundaries, they are wary of violating cultural ones.
“I’ve lived here for a long time,” explains Judd, “but I’m not Japanese so it doesn’t seem authentic for me to do that, in a way. It’s not really a part of what they grew up listening to or whatever. It wouldn’t feel right.”
Judd says he has detected this same feeling of awkwardness toward cross-cultural performances by Western drag queens among Japanese audiences. Many seems to prefer to see Westerners putting on Western-style shows.
“I’ve done shows with American drag queens, doing these kind of J-pop or K-pop things, and any time I’ve talked with the Japanese audience afterwards, they said, ‘Ah, I really wish they do some Western songs!’ ”
He hesitates and says that during the show the audience would always call the performance “kawaii” but after it was over, Japanese people would always say that it had seemed like kind of a strange mix to them.
Japanese style: approach with care
Ken, who appears in drag as Miku Divine, was deeply influenced by Japanese pop culture during his adolescence in America. During his shows, he often lip-syncs to Japanese pop. The second song he ever performed was “Chocolate” by visual-kei artist Kaya.
But when it comes to Divine’s visuals, Ken doesn’t feel the need to incorporate much in the way of Japanese style.
“I don’t really do any super-Japanese looks — you know, the Harajuku girl, the Lolita, visual-kei,” he says, “but I do have a sushi look, where I put on a sushi headband, with fake pieces of sushi on it, and a sushi sweatshirt.”
Divine’s sushi costume seems to be a wink to the audience, a self-deprecating comment about foreigners’ understanding of Japan. But Ken’s stage persona is undeniably Western, and comes from a deeper place than just personal taste or cultural influences.
The performers seems to prefer using their own imagination, and most are hesitant to venture into Japanese styles — even those whose entire drag career has been spent in Japan. They are inspired by Japanese queens but are more likely to learn tips and tricks from YouTube than a local mentor.
“I definitely go out and watch drag performances in Japan and get ideas about looks and costumes,” Ken explains, “but visuals are all about YouTube for me. I watch Misty Eyes, from Florida, a really good friend of mine, and I have been on the RuPaul ‘Drag Race’ cruises. That has influenced me a lot.”