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Sunday, Aug. 19, 2001

Uniformly stylish Japanese

WEARING IDEOLOGY: State, Schooling and Self-Preservation in Japan, by Brian J. McVeigh. Berg, Oxford, 2000, 231 pages, $19.50

The Japanese are some of the most fashion-conscious dressers in the world. They spend large amounts of their discretionary income on clothes, have a strong preference for designer-made outfits, and take great care in coordinating their dress and accessories. Beneath all this stylishness, however, some social scientists see another, more disturbing, pattern in their dress: uniformity.

On any given day in a Japanese city, for example, one can see hordes of salarymen in subdued blue or gray suits jammed into the subway and pairs of identically dressed young women balancing precariously on towering platform shoes, while on warm, summer-festival nights, young couples in matching yukata strolling along riverbanks are a common sight.

On his very first day in Japan, Brian McVeigh, the author of "Wearing Ideology," felt as if "everybody, it seemed, was uniformed." Armed with the hypersensitized antennae of the outsider, he was particularly impressed by the number of uniformed junior and senior high school students.

"There seemed to be a youthful army, attired in blue or black and armed with heavy school and gym bags, that patrolled the streets, scouted the alleys, guarded the corners and made sorties on trains, subways and buses."

As a social scientist, McVeigh saw a self-evident connection between the uniforms and uniformity in Japanese society. However, he also observed a very powerful countervailing trend toward individuality. For instance, students would subtly alter their uniforms to make them more expressive of their personalities, or they would personalize their clothes and accessories with images of cute animals and cartoon characters, which they would wear on T-shirts and pants, hang from portable phones and handbags, and plaster onto address books and wallets.

How could these two seemingly contradictory social impulses -- the desire to fit in and the desire to stand out -- be integrated into a cogent social analysis of the relationship between the individual and the state? Why do uniforms and uniformity play such a prominent role in Japanese society? What is the relationship between the political and economic structure and the ways that people dress? These are the issues McVeigh addresses in "Wearing Ideology: State, Schooling and Self-Preservation in Japan." The relationship between dress and culture is complex and multifaceted. Certainly, Japan is not the only country with a predisposition for uniforms: The Americans have their jeans, the Africans have their dashikis and the Indians their saris. Furthermore, the attitude of the Japanese toward uniforms -- and toward dress in general -- is highly diverse. Nevertheless, some researchers have reduced the complexity of Japanese social behavior into easily digestible cultural myths.

McVeigh judiciously avoids these pitfalls: His potpourri of theory, analysis, anecdotes, survey research and fascinating bits and pieces of little-known information about the interrelationship between culture and dress is balanced and objective. At the same time, however, his carefully chosen examples are powerful and evocative.

In one high school district, for example, the dress code is so restrictive that women are required to wear "neckties that are nicely and evenly tied in a rectangular shape," with "the hem of the skirt . . . not more than 30 cm from the floor" and socks that "should be of plain white (colors, design and lace are prohibited)."

In another example, taken from the world of business, a major Japanese airline's training manual specifies that hair shouldn't be below the shoulders and that earrings cannot be more than 0.1 inch in diameter. "The airlines rule out women with birthmarks on their wrists as passengers might be discomfited by their sight."

In the related area of makeup -- which is, after all, a way of dressing up the face -- McVeigh ominously reports that Japan's mammoth makeup industry, the world's second largest, has been targeting girls 12 years and under in its sales campaigns. "Using slogans like 'you will be a lady starting today,' the manufacturers dispatch makeup consultants to the toy corners of department stores to teach young girls how to use cosmetics."

As much as McVeigh's examples portray organizations striving to control the ways in which Japanese people present themselves, modest and even flagrant demonstrations of individualism and outright resistance are increasing. The alterations that students make to their uniforms (raising hems, lowering pants, loosening ties, etc.) are sending off a powerful message: I have to wear a uniform, but I will do it my way.

This stubborn insistence on doing things "their way" throws a monkey wrench into the typical explanations of Japanese social behavior as a "predilection for conformity, regulation and standardization." It also leaves room for developing radically different perspectives for analyzing Japanese society. In his refreshingly unorthodox conclusion, McVeigh seizes this opportunity and celebrates the individuality that lurks in the shadows of Japanese society:

"What many Japanese do with the codes of dress uniformity; e.g., alter, supplement, subvert, convert and make cute -- illustrates an adaptable, abounding and resolute -- indeed, at times, obstinate -- individuality."

Philip Zitowitz teaches at Meiji University.

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