I have a Canadian acquaintance living and working in Nagoya. (I have never been to Nagoya.) I think he is teaching English. He has been there for about a year. Since I have been in Japan so much longer than he I have periodically exchanged E-mails with him describing cultural points to him and explaining what’s what and why.
Recently he wrote,
“The Japanese are stylish. I noticed that I kind of dress like a high school kid with my t-shirts and cargo shorts and every other guy seems to sport v necks, button-down shirts and a ridiculous amount of bracelets and stuff. Women here also seems to have this hyper-feminized thing going on; a lot more skirts and dresses than I see on girls back home. Also, it's really weird to see girls in high school wearing high heels, seems like they want to look mature really badly from what my students tell me.”
I get it, yeah. I have often remarked to my own 20-year-old daughter when she dresses for university looking so feminine, “You know, in Canada, university girls will just throw on a pair of jeans, sneakers and a sweater and go.” Or, maybe I am misremembering what university girls were like.
One of the things about Japanese is that children dress like children, not like miniature adults. That’s why they look so cute. Adults dress like adults, not like they’re trying to keep that high school look into their late twenties. Women dress like females, and men dress like males. High school uniforms make both girls and boys look younger than they really are. If you teach high schoolers and then later see them outside school dressed in civilian clothes it’s a freaky difference! Anyway, with the age of majority set at twenty, teenagers continue to look juvenile right up until college. Then, bam! They dress like adults - especially when they go job hunting in their junior year, all dressed in identical, cheap black suits.
At one of my high schools - 75% female student body - most of the girls wear makeup contrary to the school rules, and many of them sport body piercing - eyebrows, lips, noses, even tongues. One of my girls even has a ring through her nose like a cow. She says she wants to be a beautician after graduation. Good luck with that. Many of those girls are Filipinas and the Filipina girls are a lot more precocious than their Japanese peers.
One of the problems with Westerners is that no one dresses their proper age, and appearance lends itself to unbecoming behavior.
There is a degree of cross-dressing in Japanese culture. Homosexuality and transsexuality are regarded mostly as entertainment, hence the number of transvestites and transsexuals on television. But even in the high culture, in literature, theater, music and fine arts there is a lot of homoeroticism. (Coincidentally, The Japan Times English-language newspaper printed a long article on exactly this point, “Gender-bending in Japan”by Michael Hoffman, Sunday, July 14, 2014, just days after I wrote this article on my blog.) But unlike in Western cultures where people increasingly parade their sexuality and publicly shout their private stuff like some kind of grotesque self-actualization, Japanese are more discreet. Japan remains a culture where privacy is private. I like that. Japanese culture also largely lacks a tradition of divine disapproval of human desire and subsequent anti-sex preaching on religious grounds.
I cringe whenever I see and hear young Westerners on the Tokyo trains - Australians and Americans are the loudest - people in their twenties dressed like their still in high school - as my friend in Nagoya lamented about his own appearance in T-shirt and cargo pants - or university graduates dressed like they’re at a college frat party. That’s a strange thing about Westerners. We dress our children like miniature adults, then as adults we dress ourselves as youngsters. No one acts their proper age.
And they are talking on and on and on about nothing! They’ve been in Japan a little while and wrongly think they know something. I understand that part of the process of learning and understanding is to discuss with your mates and figure things out collectively, but still ... shut up! Japanese talk on the trains but by-and-large they are much quieter. Discreet. Discretion is an Asian virtue I dearly wish Westerners would re-learn.
Older foreigners can be similarly guilty. A couple years ago I was on an Airport Limousine Bus to Narita Airport and had to suffer through the stupidest conversation between two American businessmen in their late thirties-early forties in the seat behind me. Mostly it was about their Blackberries, but they were also sharing ‘experiences’ of their hotel, the city, the sights, and their ideas - all crap, I wanted to snarl at them - about sex workers they saw.
Personally, I look very different between work and leisure. In leisure I look fairly grunge -all in black with black T-shirts exposing tattoos, earrings. But when I’m working I’m all buttoned up and nice-looking, with aftershave. But still all in black. I tell my students that I do not wear the same clothes all the time, only the same colored clothes. And near Christmas time I wear a pink shirt with red necktie and look like a piece of holiday candy just to show them that I do have other colors.
You can think of Japanese fashion largely in terms of boundaries. Japanese culture abounds in boundaries, and they like uniforms to visually affirm one’s place in society -their hierarchical place. So adult women look like this; adult men look like that; high school girls look like so-and-so; high school boys like such-and-such; a factory workers looks like this; a businessman/woman looks like that. A J-pop singer looks like so (usually some derivation of Cute); a hard rocker looks like that. Teachers look like this; construction workers like that; prison inmates just so. Housewives feature the standard housewife’s apron. Hospital nurses still wear very traditional‘nurse’ costumes that, I think, North American nurses gave up long ago in the name of comfort and practicality.
The summer time‘Cool Biz’ casual fashion movement started by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has to overcome the strong cultural disposition to embrace and revere certain costumes for certain social roles. I think Cool Biz is a load of shit, and I prefer my summer time thermostat set no higher than 22 degrees at the most. The government-mandated 28 degrees leaves me sweating like a pig no matter how casually I’m dressed. It defies good common sense.
You might say that having so many boundaries, or too many boundaries is stifling and bad. Well ....