Sunday, 1 June 2014

Sense and Sensibility ~ Making "Sense" of Japan: Summer Edition

So despite the heat we’ve been getting recently, it’s actually not quite summer here yet so that makes the title a little redundant. But coming from England where “real heat” only surfaces maybe around 25% or so of the year, I can happily say that I am indeed getting my “summer fix”.  That said however, with the emergence of the sun have come a whole new host of question marks that me, as the curious outsider, raise my eyebrows. After all, if you recall, I wrote this entry last year. I was the fresh-faced foreigner cocking my head to one side in confusion trying to piece together the differences between the status quo of my life in the UK and the habits or what have you of those around me in my life here in Japan. And even though I’ve passed the halfway mark, I still tilt my head and wonder to myself “how do they do?”

I mean it’s hot! And I love it. I like the fact that I can walk down the street in the daytime wearing just a t-shirt and I like the fact that I can walk home at night when it’s cooled down a bit wearing just a t-shirt. And sometimes I see the men adopting the same manner but the women simply confuse me. For you see, it is extremely common for me to see women wearing long-sleeved tops and jeans down to their shoes. In one extreme scenario, I once saw a woman wearing a scarf. I double-took because I couldn’t understand how the heat had not gotten to her. Now I know that the Japanese have a thing about modesty here; women do no wear low-cut tops, but once again they’re happy to show off their legs – and sometimes I do mean a lot of leg – whether their encased in tights or not. So for me, it does not compute. That said I once tried to conform to the standard actually and ended up passing out on a train so since then, I’ve decided that I will be exposing my arms for my own personal state if being, whether it fits in with society or not. As for Japanese woman…I solute your tolerance; I really do.

Still on the topic of women in the sun however, it is also very common to see women walking with umbrellas (I guess they’re really parasols) here…in pretty temperate weather. I already knew this would be an occurrence but for someone like me who adores the rays from the sun on her skin, it still seems a bit odd to me. This is because I equate an umbrella with rain and sometimes we do get a barrage of rain that cools us down after a heat wave, but I’ve never seen this kind of custom before and it leads me to wonder if they’re protecting themselves from UV rays, if the idea of tanning is really that taboo or whether its something else entirely. And while the day is pleasant, doesn’t it become annoying having to carry that extra item around with you? It just seems like an inconvenience. I’d rather bask in the day.

As an extension of the above nonetheless, in their apparent desperation to shield themselves from the sun, there seems to be an inconsistency. Now, I’m not sure if this is relevant to nowadays, but I’ve heard through the grapevine that most people don’t really wear sunglasses here. I’ve actually heard a plethora of reasons but the one that stood out to me the most was the one that detailed that Japanese people associate sunglasses with suspicious behaviour. After all, dark glasses hide your eyes and therefore hide your identity – funny how that works – and so you must be up to something screwy if you’re hiding behind a mask. But what doesn’t quite add up to me is that while sunglasses may not be acceptable, it’s perfectly fine to walk around wearing this:

W...T...F indeed
This is a visor. It’s basically the equivalent to this…only big enough to obscure your entire face. I double-took when I saw this for the first time because like the surgical mask in the dark, it looked a little frightening from a distance. In fact, it looks even more suspicious than a pair of sunglasses considering that, you know, it actually truly masks your identity.

Now this last one isn’t really a summer issue; it’s an all-year-round phenomena and it’s common place here in Japan if your face doesn’t fit the status quo. So as most of you are aware, all manner of foreigner or people who don’t quite look fully Japanese are stared at. As I’ve been here for a while, I’ve started to notice it less but if I cross into new territory for the first time, then all eyes are generally on me. Sometimes it can be annoying and on other occasions I don’t really care. I mean heck, if a three-eyed alien with green tentacles walked past, I’d probably stare too. What gets me however is that in Japan – like most places – it’s actually rude to stare. Now if something’s out of the ordinary, I’m gonna wonder about it as well so I understand really, but some people here are quite blatant with it. Their heads will crane a full seventy degrees as I walk past and on one occasion, a man spent the better part of 15 minutes just looking at me...and only me. I would move and so would his head. I would sit down and his head would peak over the banister just to look. Creepiest thing ever. So my gripe is, for a country that prides itself on its levels of politeness; where it tries to accommodate tourists by using English or asking if they’d prefer a fork instead, why can’t this be extended to staring? Where I’m from, if I’m looking at someone, I try not to make it obvious; I implement the “steal a glance” method so the individual isn’t aware that I’m looking. In Japan, however, this is often entirely lost complete with pointing, nudging and general astonishment.

So there you have it. I'm sure there are perfectly logical explanations for the above and as I've said before, I can only deal with it. After all, I'm not in Kansas anymore. But believe me when I say it's hot. And when I finally decide to head to a beach next week (I'm heading to Hagi in Yamaguchi Prefecture), it'll certainly be interesting to see how the Japanese behave in a location that I generally associate with sunbathing, swimming and partial nudity.

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