About a week into our trip, one of my cousins asked me what I thought about women’s style in Japan. I didn’t have a good answer because I hadn’t thought about it that much and had not been in Japan very long. After a month in Japan and nearly a month back in the U.S., I have finally formulated an answer.
A few things struck me immediately. First, the number of dresses and skirts I saw was very high. Here at home, I would say more than 95% of women and girls wear jeans or trousers; only girls in the early elementary grades and younger and women dressed for a special occasion wear dresses and skirts. In Japan, skirts and dresses seemed to be worn closer to 50% or more of the time. School uniforms, which are worn in all grades from elementary through high school, always require girls to wear skirts. Secondly, I saw almost no short hair on women. I saw one Japanese woman the entire month I was there who had hair shorter than a bob.
Speaking of hair, there are hair salons everywhere. They often have the words “Hair Make” in their business names. At first, this sounds pretty odd to native English speakers, but if you realize we often refer to a “hair do,” “hair make” doesn’t seem like quite the stretch. But English business names in Japan can be quite funny to the native English speaker. One of my many, many funny and awkward Japanese English signs I photographed is of a hair salon named “Hair Make More.”
Men and women dress for office work mostly in black and charcoal suits. Boarding and exiting the subways and seated in restaurants, the salarymen and career women are easy to spot by their consistently dark and conservative attire. College students and young adults will sometimes dress more casually or with a bit more color, but nothing approaching the variety I see at home. It is rather like stepping back into the U.S. in the 1950s.
One thing you do not see are short sleeves. To us travelers, the weather in April was already warm and muggy and I was in a constant state of perspiration. My mother, a spry and sprightly woman in her 80s, and I both wore short sleeves (or sleeves rolled up) and we were constantly asked, “aren’t you cold?” My mom even carried a light sweater with her at all times to prevent one of our hosts from buying her a new sweater in order to keep warm. Although homes do not have central heating, instead relying on under-carpet heating pads, space heaters, and the ofuro for warming up, we were never cold except when we traveled to higher elevations.
English speakers will inevitably spot T-shirts and sweatshirts being worn and sold in stores with awkward and even nonsensical English emblazoned across them. I have no doubt that T-shirts and tattoos worn here in the U.S. with kanji and Chinese characters don’t always state what the unsuspecting wearer believes, either.
Speaking of tattoos, they are frowned upon in Japan. I saw more than one public bath sign that prohibited people with tattoos from entering, and I understand individuals who have visible tattoos suffer employment discrimination. The reason for this is that tattoos are still directly associated with organized crime in Japan. When Japanese people see tattoos, they think of yakuza, the powerful and sometimes violent members of Japanese organized crime in Japan and abroad.
Menswear is also more muted and conservative than I am used to at home. I saw no bright colors or unique articles of clothing worn by men. I also encountered no men wearing earrings in Japan. One of my hosts near the end of our trip mentioned she thought it looked good to see a man wearing earrings (I wear studs), and it was at that time I realized I had seen no one else who had them during the trip.