I’ve barely done any significant writing in 2018, but that changed last week when I posted A Sunday With Ladybeard, A Unique Western Celebrity In Japan. It’s 3,000 words about attending a Deadlift Lolita concert and then going out to lunch with Ladybeard.
Since I had so much material to work with—basically an entire day with Ladybeard! Of all people!—I cut out some parts of the final piece. I left out the fact that John went to lunch with Ladybeard and I, since he’s a private individual anyway. I also left out the part that I was also wearing a Ladybeard shirt. Yes, while eating lunch with the guy whose face was on my shirt. But all day, I was more concerned about this than anyone else, including Ladybeard.
This is a feature first and foremost about Ladybeard, but secondly about the kind of enthusiasm I encountered repeatedly in Japan. In certain spaces, like a club during a concert, or Akihabara on a Saturday, people appeared to ditch their usual self-consciousness about their passions.
I talk about this occasional inhibition in the article here:
In America, I told Ladybeard, adult concert attendees showing the same sort of merchandised enthusiasm would be considered to be “trying too hard,” to say the least. It’d be too performative in the land of irony, where liking anything too much simply isn’t cool. You have to be more subtle, I tell him, wondering if “subtlety” is even in this over-the-top performer’s vocabulary.
“You’re kidding me,” Ladybeard says.
And then later, specifically to Ladybeard. Though after meeting him, I’d argue that Ladybeard’s entire shtick is that he’s not joking around. He becomes his character:
I ask what kind of drive prompts a guy to put on a frilly dress every morning without feeling silly when he looks in the mirror, and quickly realize from Ladybeard’s expression that this is the wrong question. It wouldn’t occur to this man, who has so fully absorbed his persona, to feel silly in his own clothes.
During lunch, I also asked Ladybeard about how he managed to get his makeup ready as Cammy at 2017’s Comike 92, since it’s considered rude to appear in cosplay in ordinary spaces, like on the elevated train to Odaiba. He said they did the makeup and hair at home, and he wore a hoodie and a flu mask on the train to cover up. (Once he got to Comiket, however, he did anything but cover up.) It feels like there is this divide between places where the priority is to avoid standing out, and places where fans completely let their hair down.
I wanted to make sure I wasn’t projecting my own cultural mindset here, so for the story I spoke to Keiko Nishimura, a native Japanese speaker and a Cultural Studies PhD candidate at University of North Carolina. To Nishimura, it’s a matter of how fan events are treated in a wider cultural context. In the US, concerts aren’t all that differentiated from other events:
“I have only been to few concerts in the US (Tycho playing at Raleigh NC, for example) and my sense is that the concerts are more part of everyday life for many Americans, whereas Japanese events are that of festival, the carnival, the out of ordinary (thinking of Bakhtin’s notion here). The participants might be embarrassed if their dances etc are seen out of context, but in it it’s more appropriate to go crazy, and I believe sometimes it’s even rude not to be crazy.”
Nishimura said she first became aware of the difference at Fuji Rock Festival, a major annual international music event in Yuzawa, Japan.
“I’ve been to FRF with my Japanese friends several times, who always wore something from that band… and didn’t realize it was considered uncool until my American husband hesitantly told me. I don’t think the difference is… cultural (not necessarily national culture but that of how different events are organized in different communities),” she told me in an email. “You don’t want to be seen as just a random stranger not knowing what to do, but rather wear whatever that signals you are part of it, and bond over with the potential friends.”
I think this is also the explanation for why I saw women showing off incredibly decorated itabags, featuring their favorite male characters, at Ikebukuro fujoshi haven Otome Road and miraculously nowhere else. (Maybe they put them in more discreet bags on the train?) This was certainly why Ladybeard, who has no personal incentive not to do so, covered his frilly dress with an oversized hoodie while traveling in and out of the concert venue. It explained why I saw people in over-the-top Hanshin Tigers ensembles inside the stadium and nowhere else.
I love learning about what makes passionate fans tick and my latest trip to Japan was a crash course in the way another culture chooses to put that enthusiasm on display. In Japan, it felt like there were very clear boundaries about where it was and was not OK to express your fandom—and inside those fan spaces, people let loose like I’ve never seen before.