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Saturday, Dec. 5, 2009

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I'm a gaijin — just another guy in jeans


An editor once asked why I use the masculine pronoun "he," instead of the less sexist "he or she" when referring to people of both genders in the same sentence. Despite having grown up in what is now called the second wave of feminism, from the early '60s to late '80s, I still never quite made the change from "he/his" to "he or she" or "his or hers." Here's why.

Although I am female, I don't always feel female. In fact, sometimes I feel male, or at least neuter. Other times I feel like a fish or a tanuki. And I have no problem with this. With this existentialist view, and perhaps an overdose of Jean-Paul Sartre when I was young, I have grown into being feminine. Believe me, it's been a slow process.

But society often blurs the distinction between male and female as well. Just go to any Uniqlo store and try to distinguish the men's clothing from the women's. All they do is take men's fashion, add a piece of fake fur to it, and call it women's. It's as if women were descendants of small furry creatures. Well, maybe some of us are.

But Japanese women stick truer to the feminine image. Many wear skirts and shoes with dangerously high heels every day, even when riding a bicycle.

I only wear a skirt when I have to dress up but don't have to ride a bicycle. It's not the skirt that bothers me, mind you, it's the hosiery. Talk about having something needy, clinging to you and following your every move. Plus, the whining really gets to me — the legs crying out: get these things off us!

And nowadays, while spending most of my days on a small island in Japan's Seto Inland Sea, I feel more comfortable in a flannel shirt, jeans and flip-flops. I think of myself as just another guy in jeans.

Perhaps that's why I slipped so comfortably into the role of gaijin, in Japan. While the kanji for gaijin is literally "outside-person," I prefer my own Romanization: "guy-jean." Because I'm really just a guy in jeans.

Furthermore, there is no word galjin.

But I do wear jeans. Some are blue jeans, some are green or even pink. But they're all jeans. My Levi's are even guy jeans.

But I'm not the only guy in jeans. No, no. In my country, from U.S. presidents to Steve Jobs and Willie Nelson, we're mostly guys in jeans. And some people, like Neil Diamond, are "forever in blue jeans." And for quite a while now, our guy-jean ways have been influencing other countries. Recently the prime minister's wife, Miyuki Hatoyama, was dubbed the "Jeans Ambassador" of Japan by the Japan Jeans Association. Hopefully this will lead to more guy-jean rights.

So when we come to Japan, we should not ditch our jeans. They have come a long way to define us.

While the Japanese dress up just to go shopping, us guy-jean are walking around the mall as if we just got off the farm. Every foreigner has experienced that guy-jean moment when they look at the Japanese people around them, and suddenly realize they should have dressed a little nicer. But how can we? We're guys in jeans.

Look around you and guy-jean are everywhere: That foreign professor at university who teaches in jeans, the foreign tourists at the train station schlepping their suitcases behind them, the foreigners trying to book into a fancy restaurant — they're all guys in jeans.

Every now and then, when I wander the boutiques in Japan, I get the urge to buy something really nice to wear. There are so many beautiful fashions here, with luscious fabrics and accessories full of bling.

But in such an unsexy society as Japan, there are few places to actually wear these clothes. Even office parties and end-of-the-year bonenkai parties often require suits. But Japanese women everywhere buy the dressy clothes you see displayed in store windows that exude the feminine mystique. Where do the women wear these clothes? Shopping, of course!

And that's why they are not guy-jean.

So the next time you have a guy-jean moment and feel a bit inferior because of what you are not wearing, calm down and remember your roots. You'll never be like the Japanese. And they'll never be guy-jean.

Here on the island, I easily revert back to my more existentialist days. Sometimes I'm a girl, sometimes I'm a guy, and sometimes I'm a fish. But I'll always be a guy jean — that guy in jeans.



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