It’s 9 p.m. on Oct. 11, 2019, at Eagle Tokyo Blue, a nightclub in the heart of the city’s LGBTQ-friendly Shinjuku Ni-chome district. Tokyo is in the middle of locking down ahead of Typhoon Hagibis, but around 100 die-hard fans of the TV show “RuPaul’s Drag Race” have gathered here to watch the premiere of its British version.
The venue, cloaked in blue light, is staffed by several neatly coiffed and slightly bulky Japanese men. You see, Eagle Tokyo Blue typically catered to “bears,” big and bearded gay men who come here to meet other men, dance and, occasionally, perform karaoke. Tonight’s crowd, however, is filled with a mix of Japanese and non-Japanese, as well as people of varying degrees of sexuality and gender identification. It’s a level of diversity that bar owner Yuta Furukawa didn’t originally foresee catering to.
“When we screened the (American version’s) Season 11 finale, customers could hardly get through the door it was so packed,” he says. “‘Drag Race’ is popular with people regardless of age and gender, and from hosting these screenings we realized it was possible to appeal to a whole new group of customers.”
Furukawa can thank two men for this: Of course, drag queen extraordinaire RuPaul Charles who hosts the show, which is available in Japan via Netflix, and Tokyo-based British DJ Tom Hall, who came up with the idea for Dragmania, a public viewing party that includes performances from Japan-based queens.
“It’s fun to watch ‘Drag Race’ with friends. I’d watch it at different people’s houses and eventually our group got too big,” Hall says, adding that he tried holding viewing parties at two smaller venues before approaching Furukawa. On top of that, a couple of customers who weren’t very LGBTQ-friendly showed up and “that was a bit awkward, so we decided to try it in Ni-chome.”
Hall thought Eagle Tokyo Blue’s space would be perfect, but didn’t know if the owner of a bar that caters to bears would be into the idea of a drag event. Luckily, Furukawa was already a “Drag Race” fan.
“I am a fan, but it was after meeting Tom that I thought this could be a new kind of party in Japan,” Furukawa says. “I don’t know if many gay people in Japan know ‘Drag Race’ because they’d have to have Netflix, but I think it’s possible for the movement to get bigger.”
Early on, Hall says the club was a bit concerned that there would be too many women at the bar. Gay bars in Japan have traditionally been particular about letting people in that don’t meet the criteria of the clientele they cater to.
“At first, the regulars would turn up at the bar and look kind of surprised when they saw a different crowd, and we were all just watching a TV show,” Hall says. “But then they seemed to start to enjoy the spectacle of it and the performances, drinking their beers and people-watching. Our crowds were respectful, and I think that ended up making all the difference.”
After Furukawa began to understand how popular Dragmania was and how it wasn’t causing any problems with his usual customers, he began to think bigger.
“As a result of the Dragmania parties being a success, we set the goal of bringing one of the RuPaul queens to Japan for a big party,” he says. So, Furukawa bought himself, Hall and a small team flights to New York to attend RuPaul’s DragCon in September with the hopes of meeting some queens and building relationships. Hall sent out a few emails a month prior to DragCon and received one reply: Voss Events was in the middle of planning the Asian leg of its “Drag Race”-related Werq the World tour and had booked every major location — except Japan. It seemed they couldn’t find anyone to act as a promoter.
“It really was pure luck,” Hall says. “And it was also thanks to Yuta, who put the money down and even put his reputation on the line to support this.”
And so the Werq the World tour found its savior in Team Eagle. And instead of one queen, Furukawa bagged seven: The queens coming to Zepp DiverCity on March 2 include Aquaria, Detox, Kim Chi, Monet X Change, Plastique Tiara, Sharon Needles and Violet Chachki. Expect a mix of comedic interludes, dance numbers and lip syncs to various RuPaul songs that are staples of the “Drag Race” TV show.
“The show is really polished, it has actually been tough to find a tech crew in Japan to take it on,” Hall says. “It’s more like a concert than the usual drag show.”
Hall is using the Zaiko ticketing service, which has allowed him to get an insight into who’s coming to Werq the World. He has been surprised to find that Japanese women aged 20 to 34 make up roughly 80 percent of the ticket purchasers.
“We’ve had a lot of messages from Japanese women asking things like, ‘What kind of presents can we bring?’ and ‘Why can’t you do a seated show so we can dress up?’,” Hall says. “We made 100 Meet & Greet tickets available at ¥25,000 each and they were gone in minutes. We had around 800 people applying to get them.”
The extravaganza will differ significantly from what you’ll find at a Japanese drag show. While non-Japanese performers do similar-style acts to the RuPaul queens — at Eagle Tokyo Blue the night before Hagibis, Britain’s Sera Tonin debuted at the Dragmania event with a rousing lip sync to Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” — Japanese queens have traditionally stuck to a style of performance that veers more toward cabaret.
Furukawa and Hall’s new mission is to bring these two styles together with the help of another “Drag Race” alum, Brooke Lynn Hytes, at a show in April. She will headline a bill that includes Japan-based queens Junko Edamame, Sasha B Savannah, Goma Dango, Vera Strondh, Vana, Sera Tonin, Kosmic Sans and Okini, as well as Japanese drag pioneer, Bourbonne.
“Brooke Lynn is one of the best dancers and performers to come out of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,'” Hall says. “Our market is made up of gay guys and allies, but also a lot of straight, Japanese women who will come because they mainly know Brooke Lynn from ‘Drag Race.’ We want to show them the kind of diverse talent that Tokyo has to offer.”
For Furukawa, who’s eagerly awaiting the arrival of the 12th season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” this week, a victory has already been scored for gay culture in Japan.
“I don’t think gay culture has ever been more accepted than it is now,” he says. “RuPaul has helped gay culture cross over in a way that has even spread to Japan. And I think gay culture will continue to be accepted by more and more people here as well.”
RuPaul’s Dragmania viewing parties take place weekly at Eagle Tokyo Blue in Shinjuku Ward, with Season 12 screening from March 1. Werq the World 2020 takes place at Zepp DiverCity in Tokyo on March 2, and Brooke Lynn Hytes appears as part of Dragmania at Shinjuku ReNY in Tokyo on April 5. Ticket prices vary. For more information, visit www.eagletokyo.com/dragmaniajp.
New to drag? Have fun and stay respectful!
Special to The Japan Times
Kimiko’s at her very first drag show with all her besties. Stepping into a space they’re all new to, she’s worried about possible breaches in etiquette. Don’t worry, Kimiko! The performance collective Haus of Gaishoku has a few tips on enjoying shows by your favorite dolls:
Compliments and cash, Kimiko! Tell us we’re gorgeous! We spent hours on our faces and appreciate the love. Tipping, especially during a number, isn’t as common in Japan as it is overseas (largely due to the fact that the smallest bill, the ¥1,000 note, is equivalent to $10) so compliments are as good as cash … sometimes.
Say cheese, Sachiko! Ask to take a picture with us! High angles, multiple shots and all the flash you got — think ring lights! Be sure to post, tag, follow and like on social media because if you had fun then other people will, too! And a little filter or face-tune action never hurt.
Hands off, Haruka! Us drag queens put time, money and a lot of effort into our lewks so please do not run your beer fingers through our hair or plant chardonnay kisses on our cheeks. Definitely do not grab what you think is a breast or butt, you will be disappointed.
Phone down, Fumiko! If you’re watching us perform from the front row, really watch us! We don’t want to perform for your iPhone. We want your energy, attention and interaction! That live element is what makes drag magical, so try to appreciate it in the moment.
Move over, Momoko! Our feet are screaming louder than that drunk twink on the pole. Slide over and let us grab some couch action once in a while. It’s a perfect time to chat, chill and take part in an Instagram story that’ll make all your followers jealous.
Goma Dango will perform at Dragmania at Eagle Blue Tokyo on March 1. For details, follow the Haus of Gaishoku on Facebook and Instagram: @hausofgaishoku.