It is in the small things we see it, they say. During my stay in Japan (unfortunately, I already returned to Belgium), I noticed some things that you would never spot somewhere else, things that are so typically Japanese, but so unremarkable that they are barely mentioned. Probably, these observations are closely linked to me being a Belgian, so it is possible that I am only observing from a European/Western perspective (and probably with a focus on the city of Kobe, the place where I lived). Nevertheless, I thought that these kind of small things are worth mentioning nevertheless, and maybe I am able to add some couleur locale to your image of Japan.
Obaachan (grannies) with colored hair
When you imagine Japan, you think perhaps of the crazy hairstyles and fashion that can be seen around Harajuku in Tokyo. In Kobe, however, the ones with the most funky hair colors are almost always elderly women, doing their shopping at the local grocery stores or chatting with their neighbors at street corners. These women have short, permed hair, as most grannies around the world, I suppose, but dyed in unusual colors like purple, blue, green or pink. At first, I thought it was a hair dyeing gone wrong, but I encountered far too many grannies with a flashy hairdo to rule it out as an exception. When I searched on the Internet, I found some possible explanations:
- When Japanese people get gray hair (actually called “white hair” 白髪 in Japanese), it has a slightly yellow shade which makes the face looks older. So, they apply some colored rinse such as in the opposite color purple, to cover up the yellow shade and make their hair look white. In most cases, however, the hair still has a purple shade, certainly when it is dyed regularly. (Hitomebo)
- On the other hand, there are some obaachan who fancy a very strong shade of purple, blue or green. Just because it is trendy to do so. (also, purple is traditionally a “noble” color) Apparently, bold hair colors for elderly women became a big hit during the ’80s and has never been out of fashion since. (Quora)
- People believe that a bright color reflects a bright personality. (Oshiete)
- Simply because they can. They are no longer expected to play the role of the Japanese working woman or housewife with a traditional appearance, they are retired, the kids are all grown up, in short, they have the freedom to do as they like. A bold hair color symbolizes their social status as an elderly free woman. (Quora)
On the streets in Kobe, I often heard people singing to themselves while walking or riding a bike. Not just humming, as many of us probably do, but really singing aloud, not afraid that anyone else could hear them. In a country where karaoke is almost a national sport, it should not be surprising that the Japanese, young and old, participate in many singing events. At school, I heard a-capella clubs practice daily on campus, whenever they were free. It struck me that being asked to sing, regardless of your skills, does not cause any shame in Japan. Maybe they humbly state that they are very bad at it but at least the Japanese are always willing to sing. I don’t think many people in Belgium would be very enthusiastic to perform a song in front of their co-workers, the whole family or their neighbors. I like singing a lot, but was still embarrassed and nervous every time it was my turn, certainly in front of people I didn’t know that well.
In Japan, singing is a form of bonding: everyone cheers you on, sings along and claps when you finishes. Next to that, it is a way to relieve stress. Of course, karaoke is often combined with drinking alcohol, which really livens up the party. I also read in some articles that the “singing culture” of Japan is often contrasted to the “dancing culture” in America. It is said that in the west, people prefer going to clubs and bars where they can dance. (Hapa Eikaiwa)
“Centiliter” vs. “milliliter”
At one point, I realized that on cans and bottles the contents are not written in centiliter (cL) as is usual in Europe, but only in milliliter (mL). Also, a pack of milk for example, contains “1000mL” rather than “1 L”. When I asked whether “cL” was used in Japan, they told me that it is usually not the case, as they shorten the word for cm to senchi センチ, which only refers to centiMETER. Deciliter and decimeter are barely used as well. I am not sure why, but it appears to be a choice they made when the metric system was adopted. Before that, Japan had been using the traditional shaku-kan system.
Fun fact: There are even characters for measurements in the metric system! 竕 – deciliter; 竰 – centiliter; 竓 – milliliter (Wikipedia)
Japanese fashion and colors
Not only do Japanese people have a different fashion sense, the color palette of their clothes is also different. During my stay, I made the following observations:
- Japanese people like pale or more toned-down colors, like white, light yellow, pink and blue, black, grey and brown. Too eccentric or too bright colors are avoided. This is a big contrast with the traditional Japanese dress (着物kimono), which often comes in bold color and patterns, especially for young women.
- Stripes and checked patterns are always in fashion. They are everywhere.
- Japanese boys and men often wear light pink shirts in summer. I was surprised, because you do not see that usually in Belgium (it is either a very fashionable and bold statement, or associated with homosexuality here). But in Japan, pink is just another color that has no particular gender connection (bright pink, on the other hand, is seen as a very girly color and is not worn very often by men). The choice for light pink shirts in summer can perhaps be compared with white clothing worn in Europe during the summer, as the color white evokes a feeling of lightness and freshness. In Japan, however, white shirts are the standard uniform for business men, and are therefore associated with formality and work. To create the same lightness as white but keep their dress informal, Japanese men opt for light pink. Or at least, that is my theory.
- Pastel colors are a big hit among women, especially for pyjama’s and clothes worn at home (very soft, by the way, but a tad too Helly Kitty-ish for me).
Once during a grammar class in Belgium when we were translating sentences from English to Japanese, I came accross the sentence “The mathematician who was wearing rainboots was staring at the stars above and fell into a ditch” or something like that. At that time, it seemed highly unlikely to me that you could fall into a ditch just like that, because the Belgian gutters and ditches I knew were very shallow, and the sewage pits were always covered with a lid. Once arrived in Japan, I realized how easy that actually is. In Japan, ditches are deep holes (around half a meter or more) at one or both sides of the road. I believe that most of the time these ditches are covered with a grid or a stone, as is indeed always the case in front of houses, but where I lived in Kobe, the danger of falling into one at dark was very real. Frightening as well was when cats suddenly jumped out of a ditch in front of your feet. In short, the mathematician has my sympathies. I took extra care and managed not to suffer the same fate, but at times when I was reading while walking or looking at my phone, I came very close to the danger of stepping into nothing, falling into rain water, or crushing a hiding cat. I did not take any ditch picture, but maybe this photo can give you an idea.