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Monday, April 27, 2015

Dress Codes

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....


Bruce B. said...

"Do I want to be defiant and angry, or do I want to be happy?"

I hope you don't mind my taking this statement apart a little bit, as I understand it (or at least, how it struck me), but it did stand out to me.

I find it interesting that you put this as a dichotomy: either one or the other. IMO there are some other possibilities. For example, you could be happy (or more comfortable?) in your defiance, or unhappy in "submitting" to some particular Japanese norms. IMO defiance is also not always "angry", it can sometimes just be more comfortable, or in some instances, even joyous/liberating. Depends on how you want to define the word "defiance".

My understanding of some of the culture here in France, partly from teaching ESL to both adults and university students, is the tendency to reduce many decisions to either/or, or black/white forms. One of my pet theories is that part of this comes specifically from the French language, and more specifically the concept of "le mot juste": the "right" word at the right time and in the right place. Since there's a "right" word, every other word becomes "wrong". From this point of view, vocabulary choice becomes dichotomous, a right/wrong, either/or choice.

If one of the primary ways language is used is as an either/or choice, that can have profound effects on viewing other interactions. That form of decision making (even if it's "only" for vocabulary), since it's constantly being used every day, can become one of the primary ways of making other decisions. That can also mean that either/or decisions rule out the possibilities of "and".

To compare French to more typical English language vocabulary uses, IMO in English, we're more often concerned with "how" to say something, and not necessarily the "right" way of saying it. We look more often to "getting the message across" as opposed to saying it a certain way.

AND ;) because you're a fluent and acculturated French speaker (either/or vs. "and"?), I'm wondering how your understanding of your Japanese cultural integration is being affected by your years-long "Frenchification".

Blaze said...

The Girl With The Bluebell Tattoo is such a radical hussy!

Did you show the one on your leg too?

Inaka Nezumi said...

Was it sunny out? I'm not so familiar with Osaka, but wonder if the long sleeves may have been more UV countermeasure than fashion statement.

Anonymous said...

well it has been noted that the essence of good manners and general kindness is to not intentionally make others uncomfortable. Dressing to fit the circumstance when in someone else's country seems to be generally easy enough. And yes we all find ourselves under or over-dressed and we count on the kindness of others to not make us feel uncomfortable. I do, however, continue to be annoyed by the tourists who wander around in cities in clothes more suited for a beach and wonder why those nasty "natives" are being so rude. Especially annoying are the beach clothes in active churches. Please a little mindfulness guys.

Anonymous said...

At least you didn't get thrown in jail. Try not covering your hair or showing too much skin in some middle eastern country and see what happens. It might be much more unpleasant than being stared at...
Yes, be happy!

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Bruce, Very interesting comment. Lots to think about there.

Generally speaking when I'm angry, I'm not happy. :-) And there is something about being at odds with one's environment that is not compatible with serenity. Anger CAN be liberating but at some point it's like taking the poison yourself and expecting the other person to die. It goes nowhere and however right one may be, self-righteous anger tends to alienate just about everyone. So you get to be angry AND alone. :-)

Good point about French and good question about FRance and Japan. I'll answer that in a post. Thanks for the topic.

@Blaze, Nope, I was wearing my jeans.

@Nezumi-san, This was one I checked out with two guys and one woman I know who are married to Japanese, and I asked my Japanese tutor. And she summed up the consensus quite well when she told me that my tank top was "OK" but (and she acted putting on a shirt over the shoulders), "this is more better."

It might be a regional thing. How is it where you are?

@anonymous, Yes, I've heard some comments about men not wearing shirts at all and that doesn't seem to go over well. I've been warned that if I try to go into a temple with a tank top and short they might ask me to leave. It seems to me that, as you say, it's not hard to modify one's ways so as not to offend.

@anonymous, Absolutely! However, isn't it ironic that there are Western countries that are trying to make a woman wearing a particular style of dress a criminal subject to penalties? I agree that it's not exactly the same thing but it's pretty damn close...

Inaka Nezumi said...

I asked my Japanese tutor. And she summed up the consensus quite well when she told me that my tank top was "OK" but (and she acted putting on a shirt over the shoulders), "this is more better."

Yeah, I guess your tutor is right. Tank top "ok," shirt better. I'm mostly thinking about the extra long sleeves part -- I see quite a few women putting on extra layers, or sometimes sleeve extenders, when venturing out into the sun instead of being indoors. Looks hot to me, but I suppose it might be more comfortable than smearing greasy sunblock all over.

(Guys tend to just carry a hand-towel around the neck, to soak up the sweat. Actually, some women add a towel too, especially older ones.)

Inaka Nezumi said...

By the way, the other summer-wear tip I had to learn when I moved here (besides "always carry a towel"), is to always wear a t-shirt under one's regular shirt, especially when it gets hot out. (The sweat-soaked, clingy, see-through look is not generally appreciated -- especially not on someone with my physique.)

Christophe said...

Somewhat related:

Glad you're enjoying your time in Japan. Those parks are just beautiful!

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Nezumi-san, Ah I see what you mean. Yep, the long sleeves are overkill but sunblock isn't necessarily more comfortable. Thanks for the tips. I hear that Osaka is going to get much MUCH hotter in a month or two.

@Christophe, Thanks for the link,

Wait 'til you see where we are headed for Golden Week (tomorrow). :-)

Tim said...

I thought French women are ALWAYS supposed to wear white dress shirts and black skirts at least in cities like Auteil and Neuilly Sur Seine.