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June 23, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

Expressing individual tastes

With friend, Kiyoko Izuka, circa 1986

(February 14, 1991)        

In many of the countries we traveled through on our way to Japan, clothes were colorful and not so much put on as wrapped around or draped over the body. Thus, during the early days of our stay here, I could most often be seen wearing the hand-embroidered blouses I’d bought in Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, long flowing skirts or baggy pants from India, and a shawl from Afghanistan. And almost always I wore a coral and turquoise necklace and large silver earrings that had taken me practically two weeks to barter for in Nepal.

Colorful, yes, but it didn’t take me long to notice there wasn’t anyone else dressed like me. (For awhile, I thought every man and woman in this country must be a businessman or office worker, because when I went to town, I only saw people in suits.) Already attracting far more attention than I could ever want, I consciously adopted more conservative attire.

I soon noticed too that there seemed to be some unspoken agreement between everyone about what to wear for every specific occasion. Was there some secret sign given, I wondered, about when to wear “training wear”, the “golf look” or yukata?

Sometimes, I found out, agreement on what to wear is spoken, if not exactly spelled out. Some years ago I invited my three elderly neighbors in the village where we were living to accompany me to my daughter’s nursery school recital. I thought it would be the kind of affair grandmothers would enjoy, and indeed they all accepted the invitation.

One afternoon a few days before the recital, the four of us were standing and chatting in the winter sun in the yard in front of Arai-san’s house. She brought out some sweet potatoes she had just roasted, and while we munched on them, she casually said, “Kimono will be warm and comfortable.” That’s all. That was, apparently, enough. They, like all of the other grandmothers at the recital hall that day, wore kimono.

When, really, should one wear black? Although I grew up hearing it was bad luck to wear black to a wedding, it seems to be the color of choice for female guests attending weddings here. And I once wore black to the funeral of a neighbor in our village to find out only close family members were in black. For my daughter’s graduation from elementary school I had no intention of wearing the customary black, and in a beige dress I stood out among the 30 other mothers – all dressed in black without exception.

Of course, all this was years ago, and styles and fashions have changed quite a bit in the fifteen years since we arrived. Now more people seem to express individual taste in their clothes, and a recent survey reported that although many Japanese still prefer to dress conservatively, most do not care how others dress.

Recently when I visited my old neighbor Arai-san, she asked me repeatedly if I didn’t think the pink sweater she was wearing, a gift from her daughter-in-law, wasn’t “too young” for her.

Now, approaching a healthy 85, she looked lovely in it, I assured her.



Well, if I thought styles and fashion had changed then – whatever could be said about what people choose to wear now. Anything goes. I wouldn’t bother to describe some of the outfits I’ve seen. You’ve seen them too.

I guess I still dress pretty simply. I stand out so much, there is no need for me to go out of my way to bring attention to my clothes. About ten years ago I found a designer and style I like, and that’s pretty much what I wear. I vary my look by accessorizing with necklaces, scarves and shawls. 

I go to the local municipal swimming pool five days a week. Recently, I purchased two new bathing suits online. They’re simple, and cover as much as possible. But oh, the colors! One is described in the catalog as “Dark Azure” and the other “Bright Raspberry”. They’re certainly a departure from the monotonous black bathing suits I’ve been wearing to the pool for the past five years.

I have been complimented (profusely!) on the colors – here is a range of the comments:

            “Oh, you can wear these colors because you have such long legs.”

            “Where did you get them? A catalog? Of course. They would never have these colors in Japan.” This last statement was said with regret.

            “Oh you are still young enough to wear these colors. And the colors make you look young.”  I’m well into middle age. Nothing makes me look young.

            From the men (none younger than 70) I hear: Beautiful. Bright. Fashionable. Pretty. Lively.

            Today, when one of the older women complimented my raspberry suit, I said in response: “Hade kedo …” (it’s flashy but…)

            To which she replied: “But if I wore that color it would look jimi.”  Plain.

Who would ever have thought that I would become like Arai-san, modest and cautious about what choice of colors to wear. Well, whadaya know …


© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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