SCANDALOUS SHOULDERS IN JAPAN

With the arrival of summer came the arrival of sudden humidity, scorching bright sun and temperatures that made my little West-European self feel like I was on a summer holiday in some southern location. On top of that, the half-amusing, half-devastating phenomenon of May Sickness (五月病) took its toll, and left us feeling tired, grumpy, and mostly, hot. The urge to pull out the swimwear and the sunglasses has been pretty intense ever since those first summery days, and a lot of the exchange students (especially the European ones) have been rocking the shorts, sandals, and tank top looks. The reactions we got from some of our Japanese friends living in the dormitory, gave us the first hint that something was up.

Little comments like: “how sexy” or “exotic” (a very interesting phrasing I might write a separate post about) whenever we came in wearing tanktops or strapless dresses. At first we assumed it might be about the cleavage, but as it turned out, it wasn’t. The great, foreign-made mistake, was showing the bare shoulders.

Now, it has to be said that bare shoulders are not completely absent in Japan. Definitely not in Osaka, though I have been informed by Tokyo-dwelling friends that Osaka is a bit of an odd place, where standards and expectations are very different. Eating and drinking on the streets, for example are generally more accepted In Osaka than anywhere else. Still frowned upon, but it’s not uncommon to see businessmen rush by with a coffee, or to see teenagers sipping juice on their way back from school. Just like that, it’s not uncommon to see girls and women with some of the latest fashionable off-shoulder shirts with ruffles.

Aside from the little comments and glances occasionally thrown our way (which we have accepted as standard, along with the daily “I love you”, “how do you like Japan?” and “I want to practice English, speak with me?” that all the exchange students have experienced), there is no one calling us out on the bare shoulders. After all, there are more people showing them off, which seems fair enough, since the average temperature in Suita has been around 26°C for a couple of weeks.

Yet last week, we heard through the grapevine – a friend who talked to a friend who got a message from someone who follows on of our teachers on Facebook who read on his profile – that there has been serious discussion happening within the older generation whether or not this is inappropriate. Said teacher had written it was “absolutely indecent” and “showed clearly that the girls were only coming to university dressed that way because they wanted to get a man to date them”. We’re ignoring the very sexist nature of this statement, and instead, focus on why bare shoulders are so provocative, so offensive, so very dame (not done).

Strangely enough, there doesn’t seem to be a clear direct answer. I did a couple google searches and I do find people saying that shoulders ARE indeed provocative, (in one amusing little blogpost, someone said “Forgive me, I’m gaijin! Bloody gaijin…shoulder whores!” ) but aside from the general “it’s just how Japan is” or “we Japanese, don’t like it” there is no one who has posed a theory on the WHY. If someone has and I have just overlooked it, excuse the potential ignorance of this post.

As pretty much everyone knows, when we think of Japan, we think of kimono. And if we look at the way the kimono is worn, we see that everything from the neck down is very firmly covered, both for men and women. Sometimes even with several layers. It’s very hard to find pictures that do show the shoulders.

Playing Samisen (w bare shoulder) ca. 1880-1890 by Adolfo Farsari

However in my search I have found a couple of them, dating from around 1900, in the middle of the Meiji period, but often these were taken by foreign artists and have a definitely voyeuristic, erotic air to them. For example Playing Samisen (w bare shoulder) ca. 1880-1890 by Adolfo Farsari.

French Japonisme

Or we have pictures from abroad, with (non-Japanese) girls wearing kimono-inspired clothing and showing their bare shoulders. They’re cute, playful and pretty, with a romantic air around them.

Quick historic framing for such pictures : Starting from the Meiji restauration in the 1868 and the opening of Japan, there was the rise ofJaponisme abroad, a sudden peak in interest in this country which had for so long been inaccessible. Photographers, painters, etc. were intrigued by the music, style and fashion of Japan, which led to endless creations abroad that were heavily influenced by Japanese art-styles. For example there is the (obviously problematic yet charmingly entertaining) musical The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan, from which we might recognise “three little maids from school

Early 20th century American Japonisme

The casual portrayal of the shoulders in these pictures is something that is definitely not present in Japan. The kimono slipped down from the shoulders seems to always have been a very erotic image, in a way that doesn’t convey when brought into a Western setting

Perhaps it’s just a cultural thing that happens naturally, a piece of history that stuck around until now, with people forgetting why it is that way. Perhaps it’s less natural, another one of those “different from the west” concepts that got subtly enforced until no one remembers where it comes from. It’s interesting that there is no clear-cut answer for my thought, but then again, when it comes to Japan, is anything really clear cut? 🙂

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