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Book Review: Work of Gender

Book review of Gitte Marianne Hansen and Fabio Gygi's edited volume The Work of Gender: Service, Performance, and Fantasy in Contemporary Japan (2022)

Published onJun 27, 2023
Book Review: Work of Gender

The Work of Gender: Service, Performance, and Fantasy in Contemporary Japan (2022), edited by Gitte Marianne Hansen and Fabio Gygi. Copenhagen, Denmark: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies Press.

The Work of Gender is a unique collection of ethnographic glimpses into work in contemporary Japan. While work has long been a focus of research in Japan, this collection breaks new ground in several respects. First, it is a collection of essays, which provides readers a richer variety of workplaces and forms of work than would be possible in a single-authored volume. Second, the essays all feature post-industrial workplaces and workers: staff at a gay bar and at a crossdressing escort service, sex workers, street musicians, and male adult-film stars and their fans; even the notion of gender transitioning as work gets its due. Collectively, the book examines how different forms of gender are presented, commodified, and consumed in contemporary Japan, both by workers and by the researchers themselves. Across seven chapters, most of which include color images, the book makes important contributions to the study of Japan and that of both work and gender in general.

In the Foreword, co-editor Gitte Marianne Hansen introduces the scope of the volume by reflecting on her personal encounters with gendered work, from a hostess club in the 1990s to a butler café in the 2010s. Japan experts will recognize the spaces featured herein and the ethnographic studies of these and similar workplaces (Allison 1994; Faier 2009; Takeyama 2018; Koch 2020). Through her short vignettes, Hansen admits a discomfort with the gendered performances in these contexts and the awkward questions that they raise about the relationship between work, gender, consumption, authenticity, and fantasy. The present volume, thus, aims to build upon a rich research tradition by highlighting the emerging research of junior scholars who contend with these questions.  

Hansen and co-editor Fabio Gygi dig deeper into these questions in Chapter 1. They begin by contextualizing the study within a wider sphere of scholarship on affective labor, while simultaneously exploring some of the culturally specific nuances of gender(ed) work in Japan. This includes a valuable description of gender performances in kabuki theater, which for centuries has only featured male actors performing all the roles. The book’s editors riff on kabuki to explain both how gender is performed and how the audience enjoys this theater performance as a performance. In other words, both parties recognize the performance for what it is and appreciate when gender is performed well in it. While not suggesting unvarying historical continuities between kabuki of the 1600s and gay bars of the 2000s, the book aims to show how gender is performed and consumed in a highly conscious, often choreographed, manner. In these settings, patrons enjoy the kabuki performance as a performance and pay for the privilege of watching and often co-producing that performance. As Hansen and Gygi put it, “In the spaces presented here, as in many everyday life scenarios, gender is the focus of a deliberate performance that involves complex cognitive, social and bodily skills. It is the affective effect of these performances that becomes the object of desire” (2). The remainder of The Work of Gender, thus, provides a backstage pass to the spaces and people in which this gendered desire unfolds.

In Chapter 2, Marcello Francioni invites readers into a Tokyo gay bar, where he worked for more than a year. He describes interactions between the staff and regular patrons, highlighting the gendered work of language (such as pronoun selection and the use of sexual innuendo) as well as how each party listens, offers advice, teases, and jokes. Interestingly, Francioni argues that despite the need to be constantly performing gender to suit the different needs of a variety of guests, the staff themselves lack much gender flexibility. Instead, they are expected by both the bar owner and the clients to perform narrow gender roles based on outdated postwar ideals associated with the heteronormative home: either hyper-masculine quiet types or hyper-feminine talkative and caring types. The resilience of these outdated norms in the non-heteronormative space of a gay bar makes this chapter particularly enlightening.

Chapter 3 features Marta Fanasca’s work of becoming an FtM (female-to-male) crossdresser during nine months of fieldwork at an FtM escort agency in Tokyo. Fanasca shares insights from coworkers, as well as her own physical and psychological work of attaining the “beautified and androgynous masculinity” (74) that appeals to female clients. This includes specific fitness routines and vocal training to appear more masculine, as well as psychological training of developing a fictionalized persona—“a friendly and slightly flirty Italian guy” (77)—who could fake feelings of love to provide the complete boyfriend experience as well as the psychological ability to dissociate from this persona.

Chapter 4 moves from flirtation and sexual innuendo to sex work through Nicola Phillips’ study of Deadball, a Tokyo-based “delivery health” shop, where male customers pay for sexual services from middle-aged women. Through interviews with the company owner and workers, Phillips explains the complex context of legal prostitution in Japan—where vaginal intercourse is illegal, but a long list of other services is legal—before describing the services provided at Deadball and how employees think about their work. The chapter is full of fascinating details, most notably the ways in which the industry frames sex workers as “professional amateurs” (102), thus creating a situation in which sexual gratification is presented not as work, but rather as entertainment and healing.

In Chapter 5, Maiko Kodaka takes readers to an event in which fans of female-targeting pornography interact with their male idols. In rich detail, she describes a single event at a bar in which the fans at her table discuss what this form of entertainment means to them and their feelings about the actors. Overall, she aims to study “how [the fans’] interactions [with the form of pornography and these actors] influence their understanding of love, intimacy and romantic relationships” (121). Importantly, this includes understanding how gender is not only performed by the male actors but also by the fans, who achieve recognition through this physical encounter. She writes, female fans “purchase self-realisation and a sense of femininity” through the same process that their idols “attain fame and money” (120). This shows the dual nature of gender work, which impacts all those involved and is a theme found in most of the chapters.

Chapter 6 focuses on street performers near a Tokyo train station, with R. J. Simpkins sharing his findings from months of observing and talking to buskers. Unlike in other chapters, Simpkins focuses on public space, which he argues brings a unique set of gendered interactions. The sidewalk near a train station provides an ideal space for musicians to encounter many potential listeners (and customers), yet it also exposes buskers to sometimes-unwanted intimacy with strangers. Simpkins investigates how this dynamic plays out differently for men and women, including how men use the space to build intimacy with strangers, while one woman cleverly and literally masks her identity by wearing a pro-wrestler mask.

While most chapters focus on the work of gender in the workplace—even when the workplace is a sidewalk (as in Chapter 6)—Chapter 7 broadens the meaning of the book’s title by describing the everyday work of gender in a trans context. Lyman Gamberton explores trans life in Japan through both ethnomethodology of his own trans life and interviews with Japanese who appear as gender non-conforming. Gamberton reflects on the constant work of gendering through bodily comportment, fashion choices, and language use, in addition to exposing the challenges facing trans people in Japan, such as the lack of legal and social recognition of non-binary existence. In doing so, Gamberton emphasizes that gender work is never limited to the workplace, but rather is something that we do all the time.

The book ends with an Epilogue by Fabio Gygi. Similar to what Hansen did in the Foreword, Gygi shares a number of deeply personal encounters impacted by gendered work. These include his experience coming out as gay to his Japanese host family and comments by his male students about sex workers while he was teaching at a local university. Like those of the other authors, Gygi’s reflections emphasize the personal costs of gendered work, including the emotional and physical labor of learning the rules, attempting to pass, and exposing oneself to critique. In a statement relevant beyond the study of work, the book’s editors succinctly emphasize the vulnerability of these researchers and personal costs of bringing their research to light: “As every ethnographer worth their salt knows, ethnography is just a long series of unfortunate events: failure to gain access, failure to gain the trust of gatekeepers, failure to be accepted as fieldworker/participant/friend, failure to perform according to taken for granted standards in the field, failure to understand what is at stake until it is too late; the list goes on” (22).

In this statement, however, the editors pinpoint something vital to ethnographic knowledge production that is missing in the book: time and space. The brevity of each chapter, which all come from different authors, precludes the revelatory moments of failure or frustration that one might encounter in a longer manuscript. Indeed, this reader was left eager to learn more of the multiple failures of these authors and whether those failures were productive. Framed differently, of course, the book’s format seeks instead to whet the appetites of readers. The brevity of the chapters and variety of research settings might also make The Work of Gender more appealing to instructors than would a book-length ethnography. Someone teaching a course on the anthropology of work, for instance, may only have time to include a single example from Japan. In that case, any of these chapters would provide a short, vivid description of the performance and consumption of gender in a Japanese workplace that students would find fascinating and enlightening.

Overall, The Work of Gender will be valuable to anyone interested in the complexity of contemporary work, in particular its gendered dimensions. Japan specialists will also find valuable insights into the country’s workplaces as well as into the broader work of gender in everyday life in Japan.



Allison, Anne. 1994. Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Club. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Faier, Lieba. 2009. Intimate Encounters: Filipina Women and the Remaking of Rural Japan. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Koch, Gabriele. 2020. Healing Labor: Japanese Sex Work in the Gendered Economy. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. 

Takeyama, Akiko. 2016. Staged Seduction: Selling Dreams in a Tokyo Host Club. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Author Biography

Chris McMorran is Associate Professor of Japanese Studies at the National University of Singapore. He is a cultural geographer of contemporary Japan focusing on the geographies of home across scale. He is author of Ryokan: Mobilizing Hospitality in Rural Japan (University of Hawai’i Press), an ethnography of a Japanese inn based on twelve months spent scrubbing baths, washing dishes, and making guests feel at home in Kurokawa Onsen. He also has published research on tourism, disasters, gendered labor, area studies, field-based learning, gradeless learning, and popular culture, including as co-editor of Teaching Japanese Popular Culture. Finally, Chris co-produced (with NUS students) the Home on the Dot podcast, which explores the complex spaces and meanings of home in Singapore. His profile can be found here:


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