In only a few days I have made several observations - some more shocking than others - about Japan in a general sense. I'm trying to keep track of these revelations as they jumble through my heat stroked brain so please try to bear with me; I'm sure that at some point down the road I will be able to look back on this rather higglidy-pigglidy list and will then make it into a much more cohesive and less feverish rambling ::Give me a freakin' break here, people. It's 92 degrees outside and I don't have AC. My brain is literally melting::
Ok, here goes:
Let's start with fashion. It's interesting to look around while I'm on the train, in a cafe, at the temple, and to see what the local women consider trendy, realistic or chic. There are so many diverse fashion statements walking around here that it would quite literally take me forever to sub-categorize them all, but I believe that in the most succinct sense I can convey what I believe is going on here.
I think that what I have been seeing is a sort of 1950's housewife meets the Chiquita banana girl. Abso-freakin-lutely insane, I know, but that's the best thing that can sum up this cultural tendency towards long, puffy skirts, nipped waist bands, puffed sleeves, pearl encrusted collars, cardigans, bows, ribbons, lace, saddle shoes - with lace trimmed socks - , perfectly curled hair, headbands, steam pressed floral pattern dresses, tulle - who even still wears tulle? oh, Japan. - You get the picture.
But, and this is a HUGE but, you say 1950's in American and we think Pin-Up girls; sexy, curvy, red pouting lips and tight cardigan sweaters that hardly live up to their duty as coverage. Not so fast, says this faux modest country – we don’t want sexy women in Japan. That wouldn’t be proper.
The cultural preference does not seem to be "sexy" as much as "cute". I observed two girls - both decked out to the nine's in matchy-matchy sailor dresses with little red bows and patent leather shoes - talking to each other on the train in what I must assume was their normal or natural tone, which was not overtly high pitched ::enter a pair of boys who start talking to them:: and by some miracle their voices rose several frequencies to what I like to call 'little girl'. I've even seen it in women old enough to be my grandmother; the giggling, the simpering, the little shoulder shrugs, head tilts, batting eyelashes - all in women who, without a doubt, are well beyond the 'flighty teenager' years where this sort of behavior is natural.
I made this casual reference to my host -who, while being very petite and fashion forward does seem to be a bit more level headed than some of the girls that I've been observing - and she agreed with me; so much so that she told me to keep an eye out for young high school age girls with designer label handbags or jewelry. Apparently these girls - most of whom cannot work and could therefore not afford those expensive items on their own - date older men (to my complete horror she confirmed much older) and in exchange they get those nice little trinkets. Yikes!
As for the legality of it all, it's totally not above board, but for some - twisted - reason the society here in general overlooks this borderline obsession with girlishness unless the situation leads to a serious - read: public - disturbance.
At least I needn’t worry about being groped on the train (a common occurrence, I’m told), as I'm pretty sure that about 60% of the men here would seriously think me capable of physically overpowering them in such an instance - I'm 170cm tall, that's large even for the average man in Japan.
For those less fortunate petit ladies there is always the “Women Only” car on the train. This novel idea (likely stemming from the above mentioned molestation problem) provides women with 2 cars on each train during very late & very early hours of operation for their personal safety. As much as I applaud the sentiment behind this idea it does make me wonder; just why do these women need this added safety?
Everyone that I have spoken to has assured me that Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. After several days of watching the same news clips being recycled from days before – this countrywide level of safety makes for poor evening news I’m afraid – I must concur that there does seem to be a sort of hive mentality behind how everyone here behaves. On the few occasions that I have been truly lost all that was needed was for me to stand there for a few seconds, looking around with a hopeless expression, before someone would detach themselves from the masses and come to assist me without me ever having said a word.
One woman in particular was so distressed on my behalf (I had just missed my connecting train by mere seconds and the next would not be arriving for another 20 minutes) that she brought me into her store, gave me her seat in the air conditioning, and forced a bottle of water into my hand. – I shudder to think how I must have looked to illicit this response –
Which is a good way to lead into my last observation for this post; how freakin’ hot it is here. Seriously, as I told my mother last night, I’ve never been somewhere that my food would start to liquefy at room temperature ::didn’t want that chocolate bar anyway::
In direct correlation to this observation is the fact that there are more ways to obtain drinkable substances and cigarettes in this country than I’ve ever seen before in my life. There are vending machines at the train station. There are vending machines on the streets. Heck, there’s even a small row of them about two blocks away from the house that I’m staying at, smack dab in the middle of a residential zone with no real pedestrian traffic.
Everyone carries towels to help mop up the massive amounts of sweat, everyone drinks to the point of excess (my hosts’ think it’s cute how I insist on 1 beer, instead of 4), and everyone smokes – which, reminds me – because of the cultural focus on smoking there is a trend of adding nicotine to every known substance under the sun. Thus far my ability to understand what I am putting into my body has been limited to reading very bad English translations or visually seeing pictures of things – and even then I’ve had a few surprises. This is, however, a poor way to tell if that cute little smiling orange on that bottle of juice that I just bought might indeed have nicotine added…time will tell if I’ve inadvertently addicted myself to cigarettes before I leave here.
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