His tie is too short, likewise his shirt sleeves, and his pants pocket bulges. He’s a disgrace. He’s the prime minister. Abroad, he represents Japan. Really, Shinzo Abe should know better. Fortunately, his American interlocutor, President Donald Trump, is no more suave. If anything, he’s less. What, frets Shukan Gendai (March 10), is this world coming to?
Japan is a mannered country – a well-mannered country. Its politeness is notorious, proverbial. And yet Shukan Gendai worries about breach upon careless breach of decorum. Nor is that all. On numerous points, what is considered mannerly in Japan is unmannerly, if not downright odd, in other parts of the world. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are just around the corner. Will Japan withstand international scrutiny?
It’s easy to dismiss this sort of thing as trivia, but “international image consultant” Yoko Asaka raises the stakes. Nineteenth-century French novelist Honore de Balzac, she says, equated indifference toward clothing to spiritual suicide. A great writer saying a thing doesn’t necessarily make it true, but Asaka, Shukan Gendai’s source, is convinced, so let’s follow her and see where she leads.
Given that Abe’s suit would have cost him something like 500,000 yen, she says, the least he could do is wear it properly. The suit as we know it today is a creation of the 19th-century British finicky class – royalty and the upper nobility. Unwittingly no doubt, they set the global dress code for ages to come. Their rules are ours: the necktie hanging down to the belt buckle (Abe’s doesn’t); shirt sleeves protruding 1 cm beyond the jacket cuffs (Abe’s don’t); and as for the pants pocket bulge, it’s unsightly enough that we need no expert’s eye to draw our attention to it. Trump’s dress is diagnosed as even more careless, though his suit is at least as expensive.
One more point about clothes, and then on to other things. Japan’s love affair with the black suit bemuses the outside world, says Asaka. Whether the occasion is a wedding or a funeral, Japanese men wear black, unaware, or not caring, that, abroad, black symbolizes mourning. In Japan, it might well be said, a ceremony is a ceremony, and black is the color that most deeply dignifies it.
The social graces are precise but ambiguous. One culture’s manners are another’s boorishness. It’s a fine line globalization makes us walk. In Japan, Shukan Gendai notes, the circle formed by joining thumb to forefinger means “OK.” In France it means “zero, useless.” In Spain and Brazil it’s an obscene gesture.
Japanese bowing can clash most awkwardly with the American handshake. Then there’s this: when greeting a stranger, Japanese tend to fold their hands across the belly. To Westerners quick to extend their hands, that indicates lack of confidence.
Eye contact is a controversial issue. Avoid it and appear shrinking. Make a point of it and you come across as domineering. Japanese tend to err on the side of caution. Where does one draw the line? Thirty seconds of eye contact per minute, counsels Asaka, is just about right.© Japan Today