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Saturday, May 12, 2007

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

The freshman wears Prada


"Because I want to make a statement," says the girl. "And my statement is that I am unique, which my choice of fashion demonstrates."

So that was her answer. And the question?

Why the Bvlgaria watch, the Louis Vuitton bag, the Christian Dior blouse and the flirty whiff of Chanel? Why — little Miss College Student — why the obsession with so many brands?

Then this unique girl flashed a Max Factor smile, turned and took a seat with her classmates — each dressed almost the same. Cheek to cheek chic.

True, not all Japanese coeds come packaged in so many labels. And many more can better afford Hello Kitty than Hanae Mori.

Still, in Japan there exists a sizable number of young females who do not leave their homes for school or work without at least one designer item in their ensemble.

Some say these women are to brand goods what hot air is to balloons. The fashion industry might not crash without them, but neither would it fly so high. The well-heard figure is that one third of the world's brand items are purchased by Japanese.

Chuo Avenue in the Ginza is but one of many Tokyo spots where the fashion boutiques line up like models on a walkway. Not that the shops are packed. Subtract both the window shoppers and the tourists and Chuo Avenue might echo with the remaining footsteps.

Yet somebody is buying. For along with the boutiques come pawn shops specializing in used brand items. Further evidence includes women bedazzled in fashion. Or perhaps in well-fashioned fakes. Regardless, in Tokyo even some college freshman wear Prada — or at least what looks like it.

So much so that stories of girls selling themselves — so called enjo kosai — in order to keep up with the Tanakas, fashion-wise have long been passe. Even a boom of one-of-a-kind goods reflects against the trend it is bucking — the national passion for brands.

Why? Is it as simple as peer pressure, like the coed who insists she is matchless, despite being matched by all her friends? Or is it — as is often argued — just a middle-class lust for luxury?

Granted, I don't possess much fashion sense myself. I wear no brands at all, unless you count the stains of French's mustard on my cuffs. Typically, I leave my house with holes in both my sweaters and socks, my wife permitting such shabbiness only because she says the openings go so well with the one in my head.

But my holey head sees more to Japanese status-seeking than fashion.

Snobbery Japanese-style operates on a number of levels, with one fine example being the gakureki shakai syndrome, where advancement in life is tied to university rank.

To get to the top, you have to start at the bottom, but in the ideal scenario the steppingstones in between are embossed with the names of elite schools, from kindergarten up.

Society then presents pecking orders for almost every endeavor. You're a better company man if you work for Mitsubishi, Sony, Toyota or the like than if you get paid by any place with a lesser-known shingle.

You are a better stewardess if you can serve tea for JAL, you are a better clerk if you can dot i's for the Ministry of Finance, you are a better ballplayer if you can shag flies for the Tokyo Giants. And so on.

Perhaps this is all linked to the Japanese craving for form. Something — and I often wonder if it is not the precise crafting of kanji — has soaked into the Japanese spirit that there is one correct way to do things. The sense of "way" — the same Chinese character that denotes the disciplines of judo, kendo, shodo and more — permeates life. There seems to be a national way for every endeavor, including how to be Japanese.

With the possession of brand goods perhaps being the standard for how to be an elegant and swank Japanese.

"Nah," says a voice in my head. "Brand goods are just a mark of dependable quality. That's all."

"Yeah, right," says another voice, perhaps one whistling through that hole, "People don't show off the quality, they show off the name."

Yet, another voice points out that to some people, the finest brand of all reads, "Japanese." You can wrap the body in whatever classy fashion you want, but nothing, some say, beats the label underneath.

Perhaps this is the root of Japan's designer craze. The idea is not that the man makes the clothes, but rather that proper form demands a good fit of class.

"Was I your fashion statement then?" I ask my wife, noting that to many a foreign spouse is a retreat from "Japanese-ness." "Was I your moment to buck the trend?"

She tells me she thinks differently. That she instead sought a ritzy brand name from overseas. So that's how she got me.

Words that make me blush. Until her next line. Which is:

"Now — those pawn shops. Where are they again?"



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