What A Salaryman’s Suit Says About Japanese Culture

Japanese Salaryman's Suit

via dilos

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.

Summer Suits

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.

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9 Comments on “What A Salaryman’s Suit Says About Japanese Culture”

  1. ThroughTheLookingGlassAndDownTheRabbitHole
    January 16, 2014 at 1:05 pm #

    Great post! I learned quite a bit from it 🙂 I’ve always thought young Japanese salarymen especially tend to look quite sharp in their slim-fit suits 😉

    • introvertnathan
      January 17, 2014 at 3:50 am #

      Thanks. I know a few stylish gents who I could learn a thing or two from myself.

  2. hollywoodsam
    January 16, 2014 at 11:18 pm #

    I wondered how they kept cool in summer while I was in shorts and a t-shirt, air conditioned suits! Of course!

  3. birdicatt
    January 20, 2014 at 6:17 pm #

    Great read! Never knew there was so much to learn from a Japanese businessman’s suit!

  4. narcopathcrusher
    August 24, 2014 at 7:39 pm #

    air conditioned suits? and what if you get caught in a summer rain? electrocution?

  5. SometimesIalsolooklikecrapbutathome
    September 3, 2018 at 7:56 pm #

    I wound up reading this after googling “why do the Japanese wear black suits for business” (I was curious about it since in the US black suits are casual dress).

    The article is interesting, thanks for writing it. I have noticed something from the photo that I found surprising- all these guys look terrible!

    Crazy-looking unkempt long hair, unshaven faces, the wrong knot for the collar type, looking like they haven’t showered in days, etc.

    Hell, one of the men even has the fuzz of a fifteen year old attempting his first goatee (alias “chin-beard”- a goatee has no moustache). I thought they were much more rigidly conservative about business dress over there. Man, I was way off.

    None of this applies to the two grey-haired cats flanking both sides of the photograph, of course- thank god.

  6. SometimesIalsolooklikecrapbutathome
    September 3, 2018 at 8:14 pm #

    I forgot to mention a couple of things that just look bad in business clothes:

    -Your tie knot being anything but tight.

    -Your tie being of the 45 degree angle-striped “club” variety. Those are for frat boys wearing blazers and brown trousers with wing-tips- by which I mean casual dress while impressing their parents attending a function.

    I realize I’m being a stickler based on my viewing of a single candid photograph, but that’s how it is with business clothes, right? Otherwise people would be showing up to work in shorts and a basketball tank tops wearing those big, puffy white shoes in about two years after the rule book got tossed out. I’m not completely serious, by the way (except for these guys looking like teenaged goons selling Cutco), but a whole lot of people are about this stuff.

    This almost makes me wish I still wore a suit to work! When I was a banker, you could wear a grey suit or blue suit… but always a grey suit.

  7. SometimesIalsolooklikecrapbutathome
    September 3, 2018 at 8:17 pm #

    By the way, the above two extra items are both examples from the photograph taken in Japan, and not just me being a stuffy old jerk.

    That is all, further bulletins as events warrant.

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