What can you learn about Japanese culture from a salaryman’s suit? Quite a bit. From their adoption to their innovation, Japanese suits have both influenced and been influenced by Japanese culture. This suit has a story. Let’s begin.
A 200 Year Old Status Symbol
Suits were status symbols when they first entered the Japanese fashion arena. Japan started to adopt Western clothing in the Meiji era, but only the ruling class was able to afford it. And when the emperor started wearing a swallow-tail coat instead of a kimono, suits were fully embraced as symbols of Japanese political power and wealth. Only later was the general population able to afford a suit. But by then Japan had embarked on its journey into modernization, and owning a suit was more than just a fashion statement, it was a symbol of Japan as a modern nation.
Suits As Uniforms
The suit is the salaryman’s uniform. There’s not much deviation from dark colors because he tries not to stick out. Japan is a group culture, and clothes reflect that. There are many, many, many reasons for Japan’s group culture–from the language itself to state-led nationalism. But on the societal level that affected salarymen, a lot had to do with the shogunate of Hideyoshi Toyotomi.
Hideyoshi Toyotomi instituted group punishments for crimes. If someone committed an offence, their whole family, neighbours, and the head of the community could be severely punished. Japanese groups were tight and rigid, and strangers were not welcome because the community risked getting punished because of their wrongdoings. It’s a system that still resonates with modern Japanese culture.
The Salaryman’s Tie
Many cultures don’t wear ties, though since Japan has adopted Western fashion, ties have become a required part of the salaryman’s uniform. Notice how the ties in the picture are not black though. Black ties are traditionally only worn for funerals since the color black is associated with death and sorrow. Black can also represent experience, however, hence the black belt of karate.
Giving Thought To Style
Salarymens’ suits are often quite stylish, because Japanese have a history of paying attention to style. Many of Japan’s museums exhibit extraordinarily beautiful kimonos that are considered works of art. The most renown were the twelve-layered kimonos of the Heian court, where women draped themselves in layers representing the seasons. Male kimonos are darker than female ones, but since kimonos are unisex, Japanese fashion easily crossed gender boundaries. The attention Japanese men pay to their appearance is from a fashion culture hundreds of years old.
Japanese salarymen need to wear suits, but since Japanese summers are very hot and humid, wearing one is like walking around in an oven. But as the old saying goes, “Japanese don’t make things, they make things better.” True to form, the Japanese have come up with some impressive–and not-so-impressive–solutions to the problem of summer suits. These include cooling gel inserts, infrared-blocking fabrics, and even air-conditioned suits, which have a ridiculous vent in the side and make your clothes balloon up like a clown.
Why not just turn up the air conditioning? Because in 2005, the Japanese government instituted the “Cool Biz” campaign, which aimed to reduce the nation’s energy consumption. Government office thermostats were set at no less than 28 degrees Celsius (82.4F) and government employees were encouraged not to wear jackets and ties in order to bear the summer heat. While this caught on in government offices, business adopted it in various forms. Appearances are important in Japanese business, and some maintained their professional look by turning up the thermostat without fully adopting the relaxed dress code. This led to some much-needed Japanese innovation to cool things off.
From A Japanese Suit
You can learn a lot from a salaryman’s suit. It’s design and adoption are products of Japan’s long and varied cultural history. Stay tuned, because there’s more Japanese culture from common items to come.