You might have missed it but there’s a story making the rounds in the newspapers and blogs right now about a Swedish department store displaying their clothes with mannequins who are not quite as skinny as we are used to seeing mannequins (and indeed models). I would just like to point out that Japanese stores were way ahead of the west on this – or what about this mannequin I found today in Kawagoe City, Saitama prefecture? She is definitely not your typical wafer thin Twiggy look-a-like, and quite senior to the not so thin but still stunning mannequins in Sweden.
In Kyoto, Japan’s old capital, right until the first few years of the last century one sure sign of spring was the Shirakawame (白川女), the flower maidens in their special costumes selling flowers on the streets of the city. It is said that the practice started in the Heian period (794-1185) with market ladies delivering flowers to the imperial palace, but by the Edo period (1603-1886) the Shirakawame was almost exlusively young ladies selling flowers in the street. Japan has a long tradition of sales people walking the streets of the city often with their special sounds, cries or signals. It is said that most of these ladies came from the Shirakawa neighborhood, hence the name, and that by the age of 15 most girls were already skilled saleswomen.
Allow me to tie this tradition with a modern phenomena, namely that of uniforms. Japan has a great tradition of uniforms. Every task, every job, ever position in society had its own special uniform or clothing or insignia, making it very clear to everyone what every particular individual was doing. This tradition has somewhat managed to survive today and every day on the streets of Japan you will see people going about their daily business in what is or very close to a uniform: even the suits of the business men can be considered a uniform. All children wear special clothes that tell you what school they go to and most children from Junior high school and up spends most of their time wearing their school’s special school uniform. Office ladies too have their special uniforms and of course train drivers, station personnel, construction workers, delivery men, shop staff, restaurant workers, bartenders, officials and all public workers have uniforms. This may sound like a very class based society and very ritualistic and wasteful, but in practice it really works. The lowly corporate accountant wears the badge of his company on his lapel with as much pride as the police officer wears his peaked cap or the street cleaner carries his green uniform with pride. The uniform actually equalizes the difference between the classes and income and creates a space for the person to step out of his role as a private citizen and assume the responsibilities of his position, helping him to achieve the mindset of his role as a worker rather than his private self. it also clearly communicates to everyone around him or her what job or task he is set to fulfill, thereby managing expectations and responsibilities of everyone who comes in contact with him.
School children too has to behave and manage themselves in a manner that is fitting with their role as a student, and misbehaving students can be easily identified and reported to their schools, thus creating natural checks and balances. Students can also take pride in their identity and school without the often difficult and time consuming effort of “finding themselves” and “expressing themselves through clothing” as in most western countries while still allowing for a certain amount of individual expression in a mutually agreed area of clothing, like a choice of socks, or choice of bags or choice of hairstyle.
Many people chose to stick to uniforms even in their private life, for example most pregnant women wear a special cut of sweaters and dresses that signal to each and all that they are pregnant and many of them also wear special badges issued by the local government (if you spot one of those on the train you have to give up your seat!). Even youth are allowed to dress as outrageously as they want when they want and where they want on their own free time without attracting blame or anger from the public (something that is often impossible on almost all other countries I have ever visited or lived in).
I think that this tradition and culture of uniforms is one of the keys to understanding the social hegemony, low crime rate, orderly society and social cohesion of Japan, to the envy of many other countries. In the west you see less and less uniforms every day, which only leads to more uncertainness, less accountability and a breaking down of the (like it or not) barrier between self and work which is necessary for a functioning orderly society, and like it or not, a certain kind of social control.
In Japan, I have often found that there is no obvious difference in self opinion or in behavior between the uniformed street cleaner on one side, and the lapel pin wearing government official: they are both secure in their roles and what is expected of them, as defined by their uniform. They are both treated with respect and treat each other with respect. Not to say that inequality or disrespect does not exist in Japan: off course it does. There is no perfect society. But Japan seems to be in better working order than most I have seen.
On a side note: This blog hit 13 000 comments a few hours ago! Yay! About 6000 of them would be my replies to comments I think. I really love hearing from readers of this blog, and I want to give a tiny thank you! to all the people who have taken the time and trouble to comment on this blog: it is much appreciated and I remember all of you! Let’s keep going!
The Jidai Matsuri, or festival of the ages, is held in Kyoto and Tokyo once every year. They are slightly different although both of them focus on court and aristocratic costumes from Japanese history, with a sprinkling of priests, soldiers, scholars and even comedians. Here are a few of the ones I saw in Kyoto, at the festival in late summer last year. Enjoy!