Akihabara, the nerd capitol of Japan, is the land where anime dreams come true. Cute girls in frilly dresses hand out flier for maid cafes, beckoning customers with their sweet smiles and cartoonishly high-pitched voices.
The ultra-feminine, cute and adorable maid is an icon of heterosexual male fantasy. She is courteous and considerate, innocent and childlike, faithful and doting in her single-minded devotion to her master. For many of her admirers, she is the ideal woman embodying all of these desirable traits that women are supposed to have and that men are assumed to lack. Her extreme femininity, characterized by purity and subservience, contrasts with the protective and paternal masculinity of her master. This gendered role-play comforts her patrons and affirms their sincere belief that women and men are polar opposites, occupying fundamentally different roles in society.
Although the maid’s success may be interpreted as a protest against the continuous evolution and redefinition of women’s roles in Japanese society, the success of dansou and josou cross-dressing themed cafes and bars paints Akihabara culture in a more progressive light. Drawing inspiration from many of the androgynous, non-binary characters found in anime and manga, the garcons (ギャルソン from the French word for boy) at Queen Dolce and the otoko no ko (男の娘 - male daughters) maids at New Type satisfy customer cravings for something a little bit queer.
To put it simply, dansou joshi (男装女子 – girls in men’s clothes) and josou danshi (女装男子 - boys in women’s clothes) adopt the dress and mannerisms of the opposite sex for personal enjoyment, self-expression, and/or work and entertainment purposes. Although dansou joshi and josou danshi go by “opposite sex” names, members of these subcultures are not necessarily transgender. Some individuals identify as their assigned sex and others identify as both sexes, neither sex, or a third sex.
Despite the obvious similarities between the two subcultures, it is interesting to note that they seldom interact and overlap, replicating the same gendered divide seen in mainstream culture. Rather than use a gender neutral term like iseisou (異性装 – wearing clothing of the opposite sex), participants in these subcultures use the terms dansou and josou. These gendered words deliver a wealth of information in that they 1.) identify an individual’s assigned gender and their chosen gender presentation and 2.) distinguish them from both the cisgender public and cross-dressers of a different gender.
It is easy to imagine that the freedom of self-expression through fashion would attract many to the world of dansou and josou, but what is the appeal for heterosexual, cisgender customers? One theory is that the garcons and otoko no ko maids occupy an intermediary space between the sexes. The logic is fairly simple. If men and women are believed to be vastly different beings having little or nothing in common, then interactions with individuals from the “opposite” group are bound to cause anxiety and discomfort. While dansou joshi and josou danshi have the visual cues and mannerisms of the “opposite sex,” the customers are fully aware that they were born and raised as the “same sex.” Thus, their otherness is both attractive and non-threatening, allowing customers to drop their guard and open up to them more easily than they would with a typical, cisgender member of the opposite sex.
Another theory is that they can perform the ideal masculinity and the ideal femininity better than a cisgender man or woman ever could. While a cisgender person would face fewer challenges where the body is concerned, the dansou joshi and josou danshi are believed to have an advantage when it comes to the mind. Their experiences being socialized as the same sex as their target customer are said to give them insider knowledge regarding the mysteries of what women and men actually like. But what is this ideal femininity and ideal masculinity that men and women are presumed to like?
The otoko no ko staff at New Type look and act like typical maids. They wear feminine and frilly costumes and affect high-pitched voices. They use feminine words and do the same cutesy poses. They compliment female customers for their fashion and beauty and flirt with male customers. Sometimes they even share meals with men, coquettishly leaning in as they take a bite.
Each maid is easily distinguishable from the next. Some look sweet and others look gothic or punk. Some look very pretty and chic, while others look a little awkward and dowdy. However, the submissive and subservient element that is easily recognizable in other maids is barely present in the gender presentation of an otoko no no. Her relationship with her customers is more like the relationship between a pop star and her fans rather than that of a servant and her master. She talks to her customers as though they were friends and yet she maintains a respectable distance. This gives the bar a friendly and light-hearted, but not particularly intimate atmosphere.
People from all walks of life are welcome at New Type, so the crowd is rather mixed. The website specifically calls out to feminine women that love pretty things, office workers looking to relax, fellow cross-dressers wanting to improve their craft, nerds wanting to talk about anime and manga, and masculine women that love cross-dressing boys. The bar is spacious with as many as fifty seats available for customers, so it is a great place for groups although there are some regular customers, mostly men, that come alone. With no time charge after the initial seating/ drink order fee and hours open until 5 AM on Friday and Saturday nights, New Type is a great place to relax with a friend for a couple hours.
Queen Dolce, on the other hand, is significantly smaller and much more intimate. Although the customers are mostly female and nerdy, male customers frequent the place as well. The community is so welcoming that regular customers are very friendly and willing to strike up a conversation with anyone in the tiny bar. In fact, most of the regular customers engage in lively conversations with other customers just as much as, if not more than, with the garcons.
While the maids at New Type will play favorites with individual customers, the garcons aim to please the whole bar. The garcon’s duties as a waiter and bar tender keep him rather busy and the limited space further discourages one-on-one conversations from becoming long and personal. However, there are many ways to bond with customers. The garcons build relationships with customers primarily through initiating fun group conversations involving nearly everybody in the bar and taking part in the conversations they overhear.
The drive to initiate conversation and the charisma to command attention are important elements of the garcon’s masculinity. He wears a simple black and white bar tender costume so his masculinity is conveyed through his personality and mannerisms more than his fashion. Many of the garcons wear their hair in flashy, sculpted styles like hosts, rock stars, and anime characters. They strike cool and sexy poses in photos with guests and use masculine speech patterns in conversation. They use their natural voices whether low or high, but express themselves confidently, dropping the overly courteous and self-effacing conventions of feminine speech.
The success of Queen Dolce and New Type showcases a different side of Akihabara. By embracing the queer and androgynous, these establishments challenge rigid ideas about gender and sexuality and demonstrate that the presumed differences between men and women are not so great after all. Although they are far from mainstream, the non-binary cast members and their ability to appeal to a variety of customers indicate a growing trend towards a more open and accepting culture with regards to the natural diversity of gender and sexuality.