We went back to Minoo Park north of Osaka this weekend and walked the trail up to the waterfall and back. It was a beautiful 25 degree day and not too humid. Still, halfway up the hill I bought a bottle of Evian water and took off my jean jacket. My pale Norwegian skin started soaking up the sun and I could feel a slight breeze around my sweaty neck. My shoulders were bare and the straps of my tank top were so thin they couldn't hide the green and indigo bluebell tattoo on the left side.
It was such a relief to be relieved of the extra clothing that it took me a few minutes to realize that I was the only person on that trail showing that much skin.
Most of the women wore shirts with sleeves covering their elbows, which looked both uncomfortable and poorly adapted to the heat. A few (very few) women wore t-shirts with sleeves. All of us wore jeans, pants or skirts that covered our knees.
Culture is more implicit than explicit. It's not so much about what people say - the should's and ought to's - it about what people do. There was a cultural dress code on that slope and I was in violation of it. Not that anyone said anything - they didn't need to. It was all in the looks and the looking away.
Now at this point a woman like me, forged in the fires of Western individualism tempered by feminism, and provoked by the feeling of discomfort that comes when one senses judgement, lets her mind off its leash. The first feeling is defiance and the first thought is: I can wear whatever I damn well want.
And that simply isn't true. Wherever I have lived or travelled there are dress codes for men and women. Even countries that are fairly liberal about appropriate attire have some hard limits. A Frenchman in Paris doesn't wear a thong to work at the bank and an American in Seattle doesn't wear a miniskirt to a corporate job interview. A woman can go topless on vacation on the beach in Brittany, but she's expected to have something covering the area below her navel and above her upper thighs.
In France, Canada and other Western countries there are actually moves to ban certain forms of dress for women. This is societal disapproval so strong that they want to make explicit rules and laws with the means to punish people for their deviant dress, and that says that citizens no longer trust their own cultural forces to do this important work for them.
So the reality is that I don't get to wear whatever I want, wherever I am, unless I am willing to accept the consequences. It is not really about the Japanese dress code for women - it is about my trying to import a French dress code to Japan, and then masking the attempt under appeals to Western individualism and feminist principles. What I damn well want is to not change, and I resent the new cultural forces around me that are ever so gently trying to nudge me in that direction.
There is a great question that one can use to get though these moments of angst and anger when swimming in new cultural seas: Do I want to be defiant and angry, or do I want to be happy?
That's easy to answer: I want to be happy.
Time to go shopping....