A friend at the office sent me this WaPo article, the latest installment in the seemingly interminable series in which the Western media treat the funkiest aspects of Japanese culture as if they were poised to become the mainstream by next April. I’m not so sure about the general conclusions that are implied, and I also have to wonder about some of the specifics. It’s possible that the reporter, Anthony Faiola, has a lot of experience in Japan, but he doesn’t sound that way. I was especially puzzled by this sequence:
On busy Tokyo subways these days, it is not unusual to see men fishing for packs of Virginia Slims cigarettes in European-style male purses. They have many models to choose from at Isetan Men’s — the successful 10-story department store in chic west Tokyo that opened two years ago and is now the cathedral of masculine vanity.
The store sells more than 100 types of male purses, including jade-colored alligator clutches and rhinestone-encrusted knapsacks, along with hats with peacock feathers, pink leather card holders and thousands of pieces of exotic designer clothes. Sales have outpaced Isetan’s other major Tokyo stores, where the emphasis is on women’s apparel, according to company officials.
“On busy Tokyo subways these days“? When I first arrived a decade ago, one of my first questions was, “What is up with all the guys’ carrying tote bags and little clutches?” The answer, according to every Japanese person I know, is that those shapes simply don’t read as any more femmy than briefcases or backpacks. Plenty of regular, un-fashion-conscious guys with wedding rings carry such bags. The rich ones get them at Vuitton or Coach (or their wives pick them out on their behalf), but they’re usually in un-showy neutral colors. With respect to clothes rather than accessories, by contrast, men wear pastels and jewel tones more readily here than they do in the US–you frequently see construction workers swaggering around in lavender or seafoam-green rubber trousers. But that’s also a long-standing element in the culture and doesn’t signify any new development.
Furthermore, Isetan Men’s does have a wide variety of outlandishly colored and over-decorated accessories. They’re prominently showcased, which makes every department look as if it catered exclusively to fops, but as someone who shops there, I can tell you that most other guys seem to do what I do: wade through to find the more ordinary stuff. What’s great about Isetan Men’s is that you have almost ten floors devoted to nothing but men’s clothing at your disposal. Like many other high-end stores in Japan, Isetan stocks modestly-priced items along with the sticker-shock brands, so people of a relatively wide range of incomes can shop there. If you want a new jacket, you can look at Brooks Brothers and Ermenegildo Zegna and Theory and Burberrys and a few house labels to be sure you’re getting what most pleases you, and you don’t have to run all over the place. There’s no other store like that for men in Tokyo; there are plenty of stores that cater mostly to women. Therefore, it seems to me that the success of Isetan Men’s says at least as much about its lack of competition–its acute exploitation of a niche market that had been hiding in plain sight all along–as it does about men’s increased dandyism. (Note also that Atsushi and I frequently see a healthy proportion of guys who have clearly been dragged there by their wives or girlfriends, same as in any other men’s department the world over.)
Oh, one last thing: Isetan Men’s is literally two blocks from Shinjuku 2-chome, the biggest gay district in the city. It’s not at all uncommon for guys to do some shopping before the store closes at 8:00, meet friends for dinner, and then go out for a drink afterward. I’ve done it myself more times than I can count. Do we have a noticeable effect on the store’s total revenue? I don’t know. Could we help to explain why it makes business sense to keep pink ostrich-print wallets with marabou-feather trim in stock? It seems to me we could. “Some gay guys like outlandishly attention-getting clothes” is hardly the stuff of news stories, though.
The reason I’m going on about this is that it all makes me wonder whether Faiola can be trusted to read cultural signals competently. The underlying issue he’s talking about is certainly real and important: post-War Japan barricaded women in their apartments with the kids and shoved men into the office for twelve-hour days. Now that the national goal of prosperity and respect on the world stage has been achieved, it’s natural for people to want to use the resulting wealth to the end of arranging their lives more to their personal liking. The quotation from Negami Kishi lamenting the feminization of Japanese men is used without putting it in this rather obvious context. Of course, when women get a little breathing room, they’re going to covet the jobs that have always been available to men; men, in turn, don’t want to have to wall themselves off emotionally from everyone including their own children. Since the Japanese have not been socialized to be resilient and resourceful in applying their individual talents and know-how to new situations, the transition has been rocky.
Still, that doesn’t mean that the popularity of men’s cosmetic surgery and of flamboyantly gay entertainers such as Shogo Kariyazaki means what Faiola seems to think it means. It’s worth bearing in mind that Kariyazaki is safely stereotypable: a gay guy with fussy clothes who arranges flowers. His straight male fans don’t appear to be imitating his personal style, after all.
And on the subject of cosmetic procedures: hairiness is considered rough and somewhat vulgar by many Japanese. (Sorry, Kyushu and Okinawa boys–I’m just describing other people’s opinions here.) As the cost and inconvenience of cosmetic procedures drops, men are getting more of them, as you’d expect. It’s not surprising that as advances are made in depilation, specifically, Japanese men are taking advantage of them the way Americans have taken to, say, tooth whitening.
About that whole Koizumi-dancing-with-Richard-Gere thing, I have no comment. I will say that I was shocked that Faiola mentioned Gere and then discussed Dandy House several paragraphs later without mentioning the obvious connection: Gere is featured in the company’s latest ad campaign, the billboards for which are INESCAPABLE in Tokyo lately.
Added at 20:55: Okay, I changed the first paragraph to make it a bit less mean-spirited. I don’t think most reporters are going around with the intention of making Japan sound like a freakshow. They just don’t seem to be able to avoid doing so.
Added on 26 September: I changed a few sentences for clarity. Sheesh, my style is turgid when I’m irritated and writing off the cuff.
Added on 28 September: Thanks to Virginia Postrel for the link. Just to emphasize this again: Faiola is absolutely right to be saying that sex roles are in flux at this historical moment in Japan. In fact, there’s very little he wrote that I would actually say is inaccurate. My complaint is with the (mostly implicit) connections he’s making and the way he characterizes the larger issue. That Isetan Men’s carries shocking pink tote bags doesn’t necessarily say anything about Japanese manhood outside an extremely small circle of Tokyo-dwellers.