In the photos of Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s recent visit to disaster stricken Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, where she has her arm around the mayor, Jin Sato, I couldn’t help noting the contrast between her black trouser suit and high heeled boots and the mayor’s overalls, trainers and baseball cap.
Each, in their way, was wearing a uniform. She had to pick something that was formal enough for a prime minister, subdued and respectful, but which would not look ridiculous as she picked her way through the rubble. The mayor is still wearing the kind of manual worker’s boiler suit that was donned by Prime Minister Naoto Kan, government and TEPCO officials and various company presidents in the immediate aftermath of the March 11 earthquake. Kan has since reverted to a business suit, as have most of the company presidents.
The messages they are giving are clear – Kan and the company presidents are signalling that the immediate emergency and relief work which they were rolling their sleeves up to supervise is now over, and they must get back to formulating the longer term policies for recovery. The mayor is signalling that that there is still much immediate recovery work left to do and that, for his town, the threat of further crises has not yet receded.
Japan is famous for having strict uniforms for every occasion. Perhaps you don’t see quite as many white gloved taxi drivers and certainly far fewer office ladies in waistcoats, skirts and ribbon ties than in previous decades, but despite the best efforts of Japan’s teenage students, uniforms are prevalent and mostly worn neatly and with pride – even for personal hobbies such as hiking. The easy explanation is to say this shows how conformist and group oriented Japanese people are. Or in the case of company presidents, one could say that they are trying to show they are not putting themselves above the other employees.
Actually, having worn a traditional sailor uniform to a Japanese school for several years myself, I think that the Japanese attitude to clothes and uniforms is a lot more nuanced than simply being about conformity or egalitarianism. It is as much about the message you are sending to yourself as to others. By putting on overalls, trainers and a baseball cap in the morning, the mayor is readying himself for action. The ritual of dressing puts the person in the right frame of mind for the day ahead.
It’s related to the traditional way to learn in Japan, from the outside in or “minitsukeru” – which literally means “sticking onto the flesh”. By getting the externals right, the internal settings will adjust accordingly, until the action becomes instinctive.
It’s not about conforming, rather it is about accepting that we have many identities, and that sometimes wearing the correct clothes helps us fulfil those identities better or facilitates the switch from one identity to the other. It also signals the seriousness of our intent to others.
This article originally appeared in the May 9th 2011 edition of the Nikkei Weekly.
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