Punk comes wrapped in stockings and eyeliner from Japan’s only transgender band
Imagine how you would feel if the lead singer of your rock band suddenly told you that he was going to quit the group and become a she. This is exactly what bass player Minato Kota experienced seven years ago when a former high school mate, now known as Sasori (scorpion) Chikako, announced that he was quitting to undergo sex change procedures to transform himself into what in Japan is known as a nyu hafu (new half).
“At the time the last band ended, he told me that he wanted to become a woman, which as you can imagine was a huge surprise,” Kota says with a chuckle at a noisy family restaurant around the corner from the Shinjuku basement bar where Ikochi have just finished playing. “He said that he would be busy with his new quest, and wouldn’t have time for the band anymore.”
But an even bigger surprise was to come a few years later. Chikako decided that, after cementing her transgender status with a stint at a new-half bar in Shinjuku’s infamous Nichome gay district, she wanted to get the band back together. Kota agreed. “Something attracted me to the idea of playing with her now that she was a woman, so we got back together three years ago.”
The new unit took the name Ikochi (no particular meaning—it just had a nice ring to it), now a trio with the addition of the hard-hitting but soft-spoken Daisuke Arita on drums. Chikako’s transformation from a punk rocker with a mohawk to a stylish woman with incipient breasts, lustrous hair and a carefully done beehive hairdo required some changes in the band’s sound. “At root what I’m writing about isn’t different,” she explains. “But my voice has changed a lot, so now I’m able to reach higher notes and sing in a more pretty way compared to my past roar.”
Ikochi’s approach blends punk and rockabilly with kayoukyoku, the emotional ballad style that was a staple of the mid-20th-century Showa era. The effect is completed with a vintage look that for Chikako means a shoulder-baring evening dress and, for Kota and Arita, eyeliner, tuxedos and morning jackets.
Live, their set sees banging rockabilly give way to jazz-inflected tearjerkers. Chikako is a stately presence, while Kota on acoustic bass and Arita on drums are a solid and stylish rhythm section. Sometimes cracking with emotion, Chikako’s voice, neither entirely male nor female, is the vehicle for songs about the loves and losses that are hard enough even in the straight world—but all that much more complicated for someone who is transgender.
In one ballad, “Choshoku” (Breakfast), Chikako sings about having an affair with a man who has a wife and children. “When day breaks he has to go,” she explains. “It’s about the feeling of having to live for the moment until the morning comes.”
“As a new half it’s harder for her than for the rest of us to find happiness in love,” adds Kota, “So her love songs have a purity, a certain melancholic poetry about them, that many love songs don’t.”
Despite the profusion of new half entertainers that abound on Japanese television, Ikochi, which Kota says he describes to foreigners as “Japan’s ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch,’” are apparently the only new-half band around. Notes Chikako: “When you make the effort to change from a man to a woman, you generally don’t want to do something boyish like play in a rock band, you want to do something feminine.”
“From what I can observe,” Kota chips in, “for new halfs, just going through the process of becoming a woman is so consuming that they don’t have space for anything else.” Having finished her stint at a new half bar, Chikako now works as a typical OL, living life as any woman might—the ultimate goal of most new halfs.
Signed to independent Outbreak Records, Ikochi are a staple not only of Nichome, but of clubs around the capital, where they command a cult following. One of those followers is a former Tokyo resident, Australian Joe Hay, who followed their progress during his four years in Japan, and has now arranged their first trip abroad, an upcoming tour of Australia that will include a gig at the opening night of leading queer event the Adelaide Feast Festival.
So far, the group’s transgender identity has proven to be all pluses. “We’re the only such band, so live houses are happy to have us,” says Chikako. “I haven’t experienced any prejudice at all. On the contrary, after we play, they often say that the music was great and it didn’t make a difference either way. But it’s a point of entry to get people interested in us. It’s a merit for us.”