Sayonara to Tokyo's camp followers

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The young Office Ladies found the city's gay men so cute, they latched on to their club scene. But now the 'sticky rice girls' have come unstuck.

The signs, written in the politest Japanese, are posted at the doors to more and more clubs in Ni-chome. They announce, regretfully, that patrons of the feminine persuasion cannot be admitted.

Every gay scene has its men- and women-only nights, but this is something else. Something defensive, different. And wholly unexpected.

Once upon a time, everyone was welcome in Shinjuku Ni-chome, half a dozen compact blocks containing Tokyo's greatest concentration of gay bars, clubs and rumpus rooms. It was a sort of glossy misfit democracy. It is true that the whole of East Shinjuku virtually closed down for a whole day last month. But that was another matter: the crazed religious guru Shoko Asahara had singled the place out as the target of an apocalyptic catastrophe.

"Most of the crowd who came here were gay," recalls Steve, a stubbly Californian perched in the Bar Delight. "But the gay thing made room for lots of other people, too. Foreigners, girls from the hostess bars who came here after work, even salarymen. And all these OLs."

And this is where the trouble began.

OLs are Office Ladies, young Japanese women in the second adolescence between college and, traditionally, marriage. Recruited from the same universities as their male colleagues, they are required to do little more than pour coffee, photocopy and giggle demurely. But they are well paid and, unlike the boys, not expected to stay in the office all night. Many of them live at home with their parents. With no rent to pay, OLs have money in their handbags, and time to spend it.

From the ranks of the OLs (although no one in Ni-chome seems quite sure when or why) a new phenomenon emerged: the okoge.

The closest English translation is fag hag, but this doesn't do justice to the expression. Okoge is a culinary term, referring to those irritating grains of rice that stubbornly glue themselves to the bottom of the pot.

Like Mieko, for example, here in the Bar Delight.

Mieko is very pretty. But here in Bar Delight she's just not pretty enough. Look at the siren standing next to her. Mieko is small, round- faced, boyishly slim, with the classic handbag and little-black-dress combo, but this other lady is built on altogether more epic lines: fishnet stockings and G-string, Raquel Welch breasts, and triangular features - 6ft tall in thigh-high leather boots. All around are similar prodigies.

Mieko taps her foot gamely, but no one pays her much attention. "It's fun!" she chirps, when you ask how she's doing. Mieko is suffering from another disadvantage, too: in the narrow basement club of maybe 500 drag queens, transsexuals, S&M artists and pelvis-pumping pretty boys, she is (as far as one can be certain) the only woman.

"Okoge-chan! Konnichi-wa!" smirks a muscly boy in jeans and nothing else. "Good day, Little Miss Rice Dregs." Mieko smiles and looks away.

An implied insult such as this didn't matter two years ago when the okoge phenomenon was hot. Before gays and transvestites began to feel patronised by their little, sticky grains of rice. Back then there would have been scores of Mieko clones in a club like this, and strolling tipsily outside on the streets of East Shinjuku, Tokyo's great neon city within a city.

A couple of Mieko's friends finally arrive: the okoge greet one another, swap gossip and menthol cigarettes (it's impossible to slip off to the ladies' - there's only one loo here, and it has a queue of boys in front of it). Megumi first came here with friends; Rika says she read an article in a women's magazine. At any rate, fag-haggery became all the rage. There were more magazine articles and, a couple of years ago, a witty movie, entitled Okoge, about a girl who becomes involved in an emotional menage with a gay couple.

"The first time, it felt so strange," says Mieko. "I came with a couple of girlfriends and we were the only girls here. The smell was different, too, at least from the clubs I was used to. Kind of ... soupy. But the guys were so friendly, so different from the salarymen my mother always wants me to go out with. They would talk to you about who they fancied, what boys liked to do. You could flirt and get drunk. They weren't dangerous. They were cool - and cute, too."

Cute and cool are to OLs what tough but fair were to John Wayne - the alpha and omega of the OL universe. Entire consumer industries are based on them: holidays (cute: England; cool: California), cars (cute: Minis; cool: sports cars). The gays of Ni-chome were cool, because they were so different from the boys in the offices (where a whiff of homosexuality would guarantee a speedy tumble from the career ladder). But they were cute, too, because they presented no sexual threat, because they seemed to offer a mirror of the girls themselves. Sexy, but safe; naughty but nice.

This kind of gender blurring crops up all the time in Japan. There are "host" bars in Tokyo where women pay by the hour for the company of young women dressed as young men. One of the country's most long-lived and successful theatrical troupes is Takarazuka, which mounts lavishly kitsch musical melodramas. The audience is entirely women; the cast - virtuous maidens, evil seducers, star-crossed lovers, mothers and fathers - is all female.

Takarazuka is escapism, a stage for romantic never-never fantasy. In contrast, Ni-chome provided many of its gay and lesbian patrons with the only chance they had to be themselves. "At first, the okoge were kind of fun. It was flattering in a way," says Hiro, a 32-year-old cooling down outside after an hour of vigorous dancing. It's 3am on Sunday morning, and hard-core clubbers are taking a breather before moving on to the second or third venue of the evening. Some disappear into a small park at the end of the road; dark shapes rustle in the bushes.

"One time I was talking to this girl," Hiro goes on, "and she touched my arm and said, 'You're cute. You're my little gay baby.' Like, yeeuch! I'd just got back from a different kind of club, just round the corner. If this girl had seen what me and my boyfriend had been up to in there ... Cute wasn't really the word. I began to look at the okoge-chan and think: they don't know me. I'm a fantasy for them. I began to feel used."

Others put it more bluntly. "Those fag hags were a pain in the ass," says one. "Who needs girls," asks a towering transvestite, "when you've got women like me?"

So, the no-women signs are being posted. The elderly owner of the local noodle shop, who has been feeding club casualties for as long as there have been clubs, says that most of the girls who come here now are from the mizu shobai, or "water trade": bar hostesses, dancers and masseurs from the straight scene down the road.

"Ni-chome has grown up," says Steve from California. "It's like the place has got more confidence, and doesn't need the outsiders so much. The girls and even the foreigners. The novelty value's gone."

OL fashion is itself fickle, too. By the time they started to become a nuisance, most of the weekend okoge had lost interest in any case. A new breed emerged: the armchair fag-hags, devotees of gay manga, the ubiquitous Japanese comic books. Manga with titles such as Rei-jin, Be-Boy, Gust and June have boomed since their first appearance in the early Nineties. The characters are beautiful young gays, with long limbs, fair hair and misty, Caucasian features. The stories are moistly sentimental, with intermittent scenes of shimmering soft-focus sex. The readers are overwhelmingly young single women.

For some, however old habits die hard. Back in Bar Delight, Mieko and her mates, the last of the okoge-chan, have squeezed on to the dance floor. Mention gay manga, and they pull faces.

"They're for grandmas and high-schools girls," says Rika. "Who needs fairy stories?" asks the lovely Mieko, unaware that she's made a joke.