Sam E Lewis
How male fashion could determine our future diplomacy
In China they’re called ‘xiao xian rou (little fresh meats), in Korea ‘khonminam' (flowerboys) and in Japan ‘ikemen’ (hot guys). Typified by slender wrists and fingers, pale skin and a brooding boyish look, these individuals have come to represent ‘soft masculinity’ across Asia and even the world. Celebrities from all three countries have made a career out of being one – from K-Pop to Chinese cinema they are a feature of what is now considered good looking. And yet, typically, their influence is also the subject of deep hatred from more conservative elements who fear the feminisation of Asian culture.
In the West we might call male attention to moisturising and cleanliness being ‘metrosexual’ – the David Beckham’s of the world that caused a flutter of female hearts and a change in what it meant to be a straight man in the noughties. In Asia, the history is a bit longer but no less influential.
In Korea, perhaps not surprisingly, it was the first K-Pop band Seo Taiji and Boys, who in 1992 changed the world by adopting a Western style dress sense alongside hip-hop music. Their uniqueness made them stand out and despite the backlash, they left a lasting legacy. They became heart throbs of the increasingly independent Korean woman and as such, influenced the regular man on the street who started to take more care of his appearance.
According to a recent report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, however, the start of this slow feminisation of men in Asia came in 1962 when the CIA began to “brainwash” Japanese men by founding the Johnny & Associates talent agency whose creator Johnny Kitagawa was “loyal to the Americans rather than the Japanese”. His ultimate goal was naturally “to weaken the male temperament of Japanese society”.
As idiotic as this conspiracy sounds, it accurately reflects the subconscious feeling of many elements within Asian countries that see some of their male children wearing make-up, and contrast this to the (albeit slightly old) notion of the Hollywood hardman. They fear that a future generation of males will be “sissy pants” , a far cry from the traditional Asian view of men as the provider of the family. In China for example there is the outdated notion that national strength is in some way related to manliness, perhaps best shown by the pushing of propaganda films such as ‘Wolf Warrior 2’ whose understated slogan ‘Anyone who offends China will be killed, no matter how far the target is’ perhaps suggests CCP leaders are trying to compensate for a lack of something with an overly aggressive tone.
Asian societies on the whole may be more conservative in outlook than Western ones, (it shouldn’t be forgotten that it was only in the last two decades that the Chinese Society of Psychiatry removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses), but the younger generation are changing social mores just as much as their American and European counterparts. Taiwan recently became the first Asian nation to allow same-sex marriage, and since the 90s at least, when the xiao xian rou/khonminam/ikemen prototype became mainstream, there has been a slow movement towards small ‘l’ liberalism.
Perhaps therefore, it is more than just the national politics of a nation that we should look towards when deciding how best to alter our diplomacy to its most impactful. Instead, we should keep an eye on the TV, cinema and music of the continent – this will indicate what internal pressures there are, and how a nominally outward looking conservative set of cultures, are in fact, more like us than we think.