What you need to know
Take a dive inside Taiwan's vibrant cosplay scene with two 'otokonoko' cosplayers.
At cosplay events, it is very common to see people dressed as characters such as warriors, robots and female mages. However, in recent years, in addition to the standard anime characters, a subculture called “otokonoko,” in which males dress as cute female characters, has emerged, with some turning out to be even cuter female cosplayers. This has led to a popular sentiment: “They’re so cute, they must be a guy.”
For this article, The News Lens interviewed two “otokonoko” cosplayers, Yen-yen (炎炎) and Chih-chi (芷祈), about the current situation surrounding “otokonoko” within the Taiwanese cosplay scene.
What does ‘otokonoko’ represent?
When trying to understand the diverse culture of “otokonoko,” a good place to start is the definition of the Chinese term weiniang (偽娘), which can be interpreted as something close to “female impersonator.”
However, Yen-yen and Chih-chi, who often “crossplay” as otokonoko at cosplay events, have different views on the definition of the term. Yen-yen believes the Chinese term represents the desire of “wanting to wear women’s clothes and look feminine,” and that it does not really refer to gender identity or orientation. Yen-yen used himself as an example, as he identifies as a straight male both physically and psychologically. It’s just that cross-dressing is an interest of his.
This interest may also come from wanting to replicate the masters of otokonoko in Japan, and wanting their own outfits to look and feel just as fabulous – a somewhat similar feeling of how super-fans of mainstream superstars sometimes like to dress up as their idols in exaggerated outfits, even though they dress very ordinarily in their daily lives.
In contrast, for Chih-chi, the definition of the Chinese term is closer to “discovering a hidden side to yourself” – finding a side to yourself that is just more feminine. He believes that deep down, everyone has two sides. People in society usually adhere to their birth-assigned gender and only show that side of themselves, but in private, many people have something they secretly envy about the opposite gender. For example, men may admire the beauty in the mannerisms and behavior of women, whereas women may envy how ‘cool’ certain men seem. For these reasons, men and women may have the desire to dress up as each other.
What made you start cross-dressing?
Chih-chi says he started dressing up because it was forced onto him by his friends – they always felt that he would look good as a girl. So one day, after he lost a bet, he was made to dress in a female outfit at a cosplay event. That first time, he wore the outfit begrudgingly and with reluctance, but after that day’s experience, he felt: “This isn’t that bad.” He then started exploring his interest in the world of otokonoko.
Yen-yen’s path into the world of otokonoko was also inspired by his friends. Yen-yen used to help one of his female cosplaying friends at events. At one event he saw this female friend of his and an otokonoko get on like a house on fire, where his female friend basically threw herself onto him; a situation which made Yen-yen feel very jealous. After he got home, he says, he thought to himself: “Damn it, I want that too! I want girls to swoon over me too!” and decided he also wanted to “crossplay” and experience those interactions for himself. He immediately started shopping for female cosplay outfits online and asking his friends to teach him how to do his own makeup.
Later on, while at a cosplay event in costume, he bumped into that same female friend. Once she saw that it was Yen-yen, she was maybe the most excited he had ever seen her, as she flung herself on to Yen-yen. At that exact moment, Yen-yen felt that he was suddenly satisfied with life. Yen-yen says he then went on to become even more interested in otokonoko culture and has continued to “crossplay” at cosplay events.
Have your perceptions of otokonoko changed now that you have started cross-dressing?
Chih-chi admits that, before he had experienced cross-dressing, he thought the otokonoko culture was very strange. He says he did not know how he would react if he met one, because since his childhood, the traditional values have always been that boys wear boys’ clothing, and girls wear girls’ clothing. Due to these gender stereotypes, whenever he saw male or female cross-dressers, he would automatically think that they were possibly gay. However, after trying otokonoko himself, he now feels that it is a positive way of expressing another side to one’s self.
For Yen-yen, “otokonoko” means having “the courage to express yourself” and this is the opinion he had both before and after he started cross-dressing. The biggest difference in opinion was that before immersing himself in the world of otokonoko, Yen-yen used to think it was maybe just another trendy fashion style. He therefore didn’t think it was much different from wearing different outfits in everyday life, and he thought of it purely from the aspect of whether this person looked good in the outfit or not.
However, after cross-dressing himself, he now holds very high standards about outfits and makeup because personally, he cares about whether others think he looks the part or not. When he encounters other otokonoko, he doesn’t only check to see if their outfit is good, like he used to. Instead Yen-yen pays attention to every little detail of that person. As Yen-yen doesn’t dress up as characters from manga or anime at cosplay events, instead preferring to “crossplay” as just another every day female “passerby,” he pays extra attention to how the women in his life dress. In particular, he takes note of how girls with a similar height and build to his own dress, especially thinking about how their outfits would look on himself.
In addition, Yen-yen thinks that a successful cosplay relies on the cosplayer’s ability to exhibit their character’s “soul.” Being able to get the appearance of your character correct, he says, is not all it takes for a perfect cosplay. It is still imperative that all the details of a character’s personality are reflected in the movements and mannerisms of the cosplayer. Therefore, when he is in costume, he not only hopes his appearance is feminine; he wants his behavior to make others think he is a girl. His ability to do this comes from the constant observations he makes in his daily life.
Before you started cross-dressing, did you have any encounters with the otokonoko culture?
Chih-chi says that before he started cosplaying, he sometimes saw otokonoko on his way to and from school. Once when he was out, he saw who he thought was a pretty girl in the men’s bathroom at an MRT station, so he said to her, “Excuse me miss, aren’t you in the wrong bathroom?” However, this person replied in a masculine voice, “I... I’m a guy.” Chih-chi says he will never forget this embarrassing situation.
Yen-yen used the rock music scene as a metaphor: In Taiwan, even though many people never venture into this music scene, most people still get exposed to rock and roll throughout their lives in some sort of way. This is a very passive interaction, because an active interaction will only happen when you decide you are interested in rock music and actively explore it. Yen-yen said that for him, he only actively took an interest after he decided he was going to “crossplay.” As for passive interaction, he had long been aware of it in the past, but had never wanted to further his understanding.
Do you have any advice for people who want to explore the otokonoko circle?
Yen-yen suggests that if you are interested in otokonoko, but none of your immediate friends are involved in this world, then one way is to ask a close female friend to help you out. If you want to dress up as a girl, then you must first understand them, and no one understands girls better than girls. Some of the things they will understand far better are things like how to put on makeup, along with the finer details related to behavior and mannerisms that you should pay attention to.
Once you start interacting with the otokonoko circle, you will naturally make more friends, but it won’t be until you start participating in events and activities that your friend circle in this area will start to grow.
Chih-chi has a different take on it, believing that there are many details you will not understand until after you actually start cross-dressing. For instance, you need to learn how to create the effect of having breasts, how to hide your masculine traits when you are in character, and to understand the differences between the way women and men walk and stand. Not even women themselves will necessarily understand these details, he says, so a prospective otokonoko must figure these things out through the process of actually cross-dressing.
What is the best way to interact with otokonoko so that you won’t seem rude?
Yen-yen says that, regardless of whether someone is an introvert or an extrovert, everyone is a little shy their first time in an otokonoko outfit. Everyone becomes a little more introverted when they first join this circle, even the most outgoing guys. They may seem confident on the outside, but they often get nervous if you suddenly approach them and start a conversation.. If you want to interact with them, a good way is to start by speaking with their friends, because if you are too direct with them, there is a high chance that they will get shy and run away.
Chih-chi adds that, when interacting with otokonoko, jokes about interpersonal relationships, especially those related to gender traits, are considered rude. This is because otokonoko care about how convincing their outfits and makeup are. A joke of this manner may easily rub them the wrong way.
What should people mentally prepare themselves for when joining the world of otokonoko?
Yen-yen says that to enter the otokonoko circle, one must be able to handle stress to a certain degree. When you first start cross-dressing, he says, you may receive some criticism about your outfit or your look, so you need to be able to take all of that on the chin. He went on to say: “Rome was not built in a day. Not even the best otokonoko were great their first time out.” The point is to practice repeatedly and learn from those initial failures.
Chih-chi recommends that those wanting to enter the otokonoko circle should learn how to get along with girls. At cosplay events, girls are surprisingly friendly in their interactions with otokonoko and think of them as great playmates. However, this means otokonoko must pay attention to and understand intimacy boundaries, because whatever the situation, you are still male, so it remains very important not to cross the line.
Yen-yen adds that many women treat otokonoko as though they are female friends and are sometimes too open in their interactions with them, which might leave their boyfriends or male friends unhappy, causing them to think of you as a threat. Therefore, he says, you cannot necessarily be as open as those girls may be.
What has changed in your every life since you started dressing as an otokonoko?
Yen-yen says that, before dressing as an otokonko, he didn’t have many friends at cosplay events. Sometimes there were only a handful of people that he would recognize – sometimes one or two guys that just liked attending events with their female friends – but he, himself, barely had any female friends. After he started crossplaying, however, girls began noticing him a lot more. He says girls prefer these types of guys, as there aren’t that many, and this is especially the case when your outfit and makeup are done well as those girls may even feel a little envious and start actively approaching you.
However, he says the biggest change is that, even when he’s not crossplaying and just goes as himself to cosplay events, girls will come up to him and ask: “Oh, why didn’t you dress up today?”
Chih-chi also feels that the main difference was the growth of his friend circle. After becoming an otokonoko, he has gained more female friends. Before dressing up, he estimates that only one in 10 of his friends were female. However, because he also changed the way he speaks and acts after dressing up, making him more gender-neutral, it means most girls feel there isn’t a gender barrier when they interact with him. Therefore, he says his ratio of male to female friends is close to 60:40, and sometimes even 50:50.
However, girls that are outwardly friendly to otokonoko still come primarily from cosplay circles. Women who have not had interactions with this world have more trouble accepting otokonoko. In contrast, most guys are friendly towards otokonoko – but their jokes can sometimes cross the line. An interesting point is that a guy’s friendliness is usually connected with how perfect your makeup and outfit are; the better your costume, the more likely it is that people will come and talk to you, but if you haven’t done a good job, then people will likely not pay you any attention.
How do otokonoko deal with the bad vibes at cosplay events?
Chih-chi mentions that the amount of otokonoko at cosplay events is usually not very high. Although there are more at some big cosplay events, that is only because the events themselves are larger – but there’s still a low percentage of otokonoko. In recent years, otokonoko have been very active in the cosplay world, but in general, the atmosphere at cosplay events hasn’t always been as relaxed and friendly as it was in the past.
Chih-chi believes that the reason for this may be because the participation rate at cosplay events has surged in recent years, while the average age has decreased. In the past, everyone would get along and the atmosphere was very open and enjoyable. Lately, however, cosplay events have become tense and the sense of community has eroded. For example, photographers may want a certain look and will insist on a certain pose or a certain gesture that cosplayers are not willing do. This kind of problem also occurs with otokonoko.
Yen-yen added that some otokonoko want to hide their Adam’s apples, so they won’t let others see their necks. If the photographer tries to insist that the cosplayer shows their neck, there will be some tension between the two.
Chih-chi mentioned that one of the reasons everyone dresses up in cosplay is because they want to take that perfect photo. If the photo ends up looking bad, then it’s not only the photographer that will be unhappy; the cosplayer maybe even more upset. Therefore, if they encounter these situations, both Chih-chi and Yen-yen say they would clearly tell the photographer that they do not want to be photographed in that pose.
Although this problem has always persisted, it has been particularly common in the last two years. Yen-yen said that he thinks the increase in these incidents is because the government has started to promote these manga and comic events, which has meant even more people have started attending over the past two years. Even though the surge in interest is a good thing, the interaction between people has also increased. Because many new participants are unfamiliar with the etiquette within these circles, it has resulted in more disagreements.
How do you deal with discrimination from society?
At the end of the interview, when we arrive at the topic of discrimination otokonoko receive from society, Yen-yen says that because otokonoko is already a subculture, it is very natural that it is discriminated against by people outside of those circles. Some people maybe accept it and some people may even like it, but there will always be those that dislike it. No matter what feelings one has towards the activity, however, Yen-yen still hopes that everyone can maintain an attitude of equality towards otokonoko by not letting traditional gender stereotypes restrict their thinking into prejudiced boxes. Yen-yen also hopes that people in otokonoko circles won’t react radically to prejudice as that will only make the public resent cross-dressers more.
Many of the older generation still have prejudices against otokonoko – they believe that, if a guy wants to dress as a woman, it says something about his sexual orientation. Only a precious few families are open enough to accept otokonoko as just another of their child’s interests. As for peers, even if they have qualms about otokonoko, most otokonoko would be happy to open a dialogue if they are willing to interact. If they aren’t interested in understanding the otokonoko culture, however, then naturally no one will want to have any contact with them.
The News Lens asked about how an increasing amount of young kids are beginning to accept the manga and comic culture. Chih-chi said that there is still an existing discrimination against it – it has just transformed from the very public discrimination of the past to a more invisible wall of exclusion. For example, in the past, it was very common for people to show physical or verbal violence. Nowadays, it is more common to give all manga and comic fans a cold shoulder and collectively alienate them.
When Chih-chi encounters this sort of person, he says he still tries to become friends with them first. After establishing a friendship, he reassures them that their dislike of otokonoko is not a problem as he would never dress-up in front of that person. If they keep their friendship separate from Chih-chi’s love for otokonoko, he says, then nothing bad will happen.
This article first appeared on the Chinese-language Taiwan edition of The News Lens and can be found here.
Translator: Zeke Li
Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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