Culture

The Drag Queens of Tokyo: How I Became a Nonbinary Drag Performer in Japan

A gender-bending journey in Shinjuku Nichome.

By 8 min read

In this new GaijinPot series, American-born drag king/queen Le Horla takes us through what it’s like to be a part of Tokyo’s budding drag scene. 

“I’m ready,” I thought. “I’m ready to go to Nichome.”

I was not ready.

If you’ve only been to Tokyo’s premier gay district Nichome on weeknights or daylight hours, then you haven’t really been at all. Nichome’s streets come alive on Friday night and fall back asleep by Sunday.

Compared to the gay scenes in other cities around the world, Nichome is relatively small but extremely tight-knit. On most weekend nights, the 7-Eleven (Club 7 as we call is) is crowded with lively cliques of younger queer folk. Everyone seems to know each other, which is a bit terrifying to a newcomer.

Le Horla, my nonbinary drag queen/king persona.

I’d been an introvert in university and a geographical introvert in JET when I lived in the countryside of Kyushu for three years. But when I moved to my language school in Yokohama and found a readymade pack of fellow LGBTQ classmates, I decided this was finally the time for my queer flower to bloom.

“They all look so cool,” I whispered to the classmate I’d gone with—a prince and Adonis among the gays himself—as we stared at a club kid with a bright blue mohawk.

“Godddddd,” he slurred. “You’re fine. Just go up and be like, ‘heyy!’”

“I’m not a gorgeous man like you.”

“Well, no, you’re not,” he said. “You just need a niche. You’ll find your scene. You should watch RuPaul’s Drag Race.

A lesson in drag history

Drag is at the heart of the Western LGBTQ scene and is quickly catching fire in the east as well.

Photo:
Japan’s relationship with gender-bending performance can be seen in Kabuki Theater where men perform female characters.

Western drag, the performative art of gender-bending, began in the early 1900s as a sanctuary for homeless LGBTQ youth. By the later half of the twentieth century, these communities were primarily Black and Latinx. As these young people were turned from their homes, they formed drag houses under a parental figure known as their drag father or mother. Under the guidance of its drag parent, a drag house competes in queer fashion catwalks aka drag balls.

Drag queens often serve as matriarchs in the LGBTQ rights movement, including famous transgender drag queen activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who instigated the 1969 Stonewall Riots. Trans women have always had a strong presence in drag, a community where they could present as women openly and safely.

Japan has its own long history with gender-bending performance. In both Noh theater, which dates back to the Muromachi Period (1336-1573) and Kabuki (dating back to 1603), both male and female characters are performed by men. More recently, there’s the Takarazuka Revue, an all female-theater troupe that began in 1913.

With mainstream attention, however, RuPaul’s Drag Race often represents a narrow image of drag, excluding many transgender queens, bioqueens… and other atypical performers.

Drag in Japan built off of these preexisting art forms, beginning in the ‘80s and ‘90s due to the influence of films like Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and La Cage aux Folles. The older generation of Japanese drag can be best characterized by flamboyant showgirl costumes, slapstick comedy, and niche humor. Outside of drag shows, there is also a strong overlap between Japanese drag queens and cabaret, burlesque, bar mamas, and hostesses.

Photo:
Some of the regular crew at Tokyo Closet Ball from L to R: Angel Heart, Julia YMIT, Le Horla, D Whom, Furiosa, Stefani St. Slut, Mx. Terious, and Rosa Diamonté.

Over the decades, drag has continued to expand as a subculture, breaking into reality television shows like The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula and Rupaul’s Drag Race (RPDR). RPDR in particular has become a cultural phenomenon, running twelve seasons to date and inspiring multiple spin-offs.

With mainstream attention, however, RPDR often represents a narrow image of drag, excluding many transgender queens, bioqueens (cisgender woman drag queens), kings, and other atypical performers, and has been criticized for losing touch with its roots as a radical art form tied to queer persons of color.

Whether they are on an international platform like RPDR or in a local gay bar, drag performers choose to be ostentatious, satirizing gender roles. It’s no wonder to me that drag queens lead queer rights movements, with thousands of LGBTQ people dazzled and inspired by them.

Stepping into Tokyo’s drag scene

Photo:
My first time venturing out in drag with my future sister Stefani St. Slut.

Soon after bingeing RPDR, I changed my field of study to “Drag in Japan.” Together with my classmate and future drag sister Angel Heart, I began practicing drag every weekend. In February 2019, I wobbled out in drag for the first time.

Nichome’s outskirts are home to the hub of Western-style drag in Tokyo, Bar GyoenRosso, which hosts two of Tokyo’s most popular drag shows, Tokyo Closet Ball and Beauty Blenda. Closet Ball is the grungier and weirder of the two, so naturally, we went there. Dressed in a crappy blue cosplay wig and polka dot dress with my two friends Micahel and Stefani St. Slut in tow, I approached the bar.

In a room full of people without a queer community near me, I feel invisible. Adrift. The monster Le Horla waiting for someone to welcome them home.

Even with Closet Ball regulars Stefani and Michael, I had much the same reaction stepping into Bar Rosso as I did Club 7. Towards the back of the room glittered members of Closet Ball—stage manager, prop assistants, kings and queens—people I would call my friends and family in less than a year’s time.

Stefani hadn’t been in Tokyo long, but she knew everyone. She vogued across the floor, braiding peoples’ wigs and gossipping like they’d been friends forever.

I thought to myself, “This can be your community. The door’s right here.”

Becoming Le Horla

Photo:
My drag father Ross Verik doing my makeup for a show.

I debuted as a drag king that June, together with my sister Angel. From the start, I knew I didn’t want to perform exclusively as a drag king, so I decided to dip into both extremes of the gender pool. My debut king look was a purple glitter beard and chest-binder. I danced and lip-synced to Jinkx Monsoon’s “The Gender Binary Blues.” Since then I have performed as a drag king, queen, and half-and-half.

I perform under the name “Le Horla,” after the titular monster in a short story by Guy de Maupassant. As a gender nonbinary person—someone who doesn’t identify as either male or female—there is a part of me that has always felt monstrous compared to my peers. In a room full of people without a queer community near me, I feel invisible. Adrift. The monster Le Horla waiting for someone to welcome them home.

Although getting into drag is fun, it is also physically uncomfortable. When I strip the makeup and wig away and return to my regular genderless self…it makes me grateful to be me.

I have experienced gender dysphoria throughout my life. I’ve often felt frustrated with my body’s shape and appearance. Drag relaxes that issue. When I dress up in hyper-feminine or masculine attire, I am wearing a costume, creating a character, pretending to be something I am not.  Although getting into drag is fun, it is also physically uncomfortable. When I strip the makeup and wig away and return to my regular genderless self, I can feel relief leaking from every pore. It makes me grateful to be me.

Photo:
Together with my drag parents, Ross Verik and Die Schwarze Frau.

This year, Angel, Stefani, and I formed a drag house under legendary drag mother Die Schwarze Frau and drag father Ross Verik: the Haus of Schwarz.

Die Schwarze Frau, or Yukiro Dravarious, is a Swedish-born drag queen who has been performing in Japan for over a decade. Ross, Yukiro’s friend and former bandmate, is a Scottish-born musician and makeup artist who came to Japan in 2016. The haus makes me excited to be alive and to hear what everyone is doing next. Drag houses are new in Japan, but an attractive way to combat expat loneliness.

The Ps and Qs of gender performance

Photo:
With my drag sister Angel Heart. Both gender nonbinary drag queens

So how does an assigned female at birth (AFAB) person do drag? Can they even be drag queens? Are women always drag kings, and men always queens?

A performer’s sex and gender don’t limit whether they perform as a king, queen, or mixture of both. Drag is only defined as a satire of gender through exaggerated costume.

In recent years, this has opened the scene to many bioqueens like Closet Ball’s Julia Your-Makeup-Is-Terrible, and nonbinary AFAB people like myself. Similarly, drag kings can be portrayed by people of any gender. Famous drag queen and RPDR winner Sasha Velour debuted a drag king alter ego named Alexander Velvet.

The fact that shows like Dragula and Drag Race Thailand have begun accepting performers of all genders gives me great hope that more mainstream shows will follow suit, and consequently, so will Japan.

Among other performers, my belonging is rarely questioned. There are certain bars and clubs that only book assigned male at birth (AMAB) queens for their shows, citing the popularity of traditional drag queens for their audiences. This is disappointing, though perhaps predictable in a scene where drag is still relatively niche, and drag shows and venues are rare.

The fact that shows like Dragula and Drag Race Thailand have begun accepting performers of all genders gives me great hope that more mainstream shows will follow suit, and consequently, so will Japan.

Nichome feels like a different place now with friends. We often mosey over, still painted after a show, for drinks at Eagle Tokyo.

I’m still very new. It’s been only a little over a year since that first visit, and less since I began to perform. Still, each time I go out, and with each face I recognize, it feels a little more like home.

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