(Note: This article was originally published in August 2015 on Fashion Research) According to a Japan Daily Press article that I recently came across, zentai (i.e. full body spandex) suits were “apparently” the new “in thing” in “weird Japan” fashion last year. The article provides some wonderfully striking photos of seven unidentifiable svelte bodies walking down a Tokyo street in colorful suits that cover everything from their faces to their fingers. Their shoes, the only clothing item other than the suit itself, stand out as comic reminders that even their feet are probably encased in spandex. These photos provided the click bait that pulled me into the site.
As someone who both fully embraced the ironic, “deliberately ugly street style” of the 1990s discussed in a previous post and then spent five of the last 15 years living and doing research in Japan, I do enjoy learning about Japanese fashion inventiveness. And I love the quirky fashion items that I can only find in Japan (like the amazing socks and hair accessories!). Back in the early 2000s I even unexpectedly ended up in a Japanese fashion magazine’s “Street Styles” section.
And yet, pop coverage of Japanese fashion in English language media usually leaves me cold. This article about zentai suits exemplifies broader trends by pandering to western conceptions of an inscrutable Japan that is simultaneously laughable and irreducibly Other.
These broader trends in fashion coverage reproduce what I call the “weird Japan” trope. Japanese innovations, in fashion and beyond, tend to get inordinate attention in U.S. media when deemed “weird” and the tenor of the coverage routinely implies that there’s a deep connection between the weirdness of the clothing and the weirdness of the Japanese as a supposedly homogenous people. Case in point, the spandex article actually is marked with a “weird” tag that is used to organize pages across the site and as the article unfolds we quickly learn about the supposed psychology behind the appeal of zentai suits, which can help people feel “liberated” from “suffocating” social pressures or find community and self-expression within an alienating society. These psychological explanations loosely sketch the kind of familiar background picture of Japanese society usually seen in anime. It’s an upside-down, apocalyptic world where pressures to conform produce the opposite and “lost” souls look for a “sense of belonging and individuality through the zentai community.”
The article’s oblique reference to “the zentai community” is the key to unraveling the extended trope. An article published in the Japan Times, the country’s largest English language daily, makes it clear that the Tokyo Zentai Club has only ten members, who gather only every other month. Let me repeat: the Japan Daily Press’s rich tapestry of generalized “people” engaged in social critique and psychological healing through their full body suits = ten people.
Despite such small demographics, part of the often-unstated appeal of these kinds of stories is the sexual subtext. While the Japan Daily Press only vaguely references “fetishists,” the Japan Times goes into more detail about the distinct sexual sensations afforded by the zentai suit. Again, we encounter a familiar background picture of Japanese society often seen within the international circulation of anime and manga – images of a sexually perverse Japan. Zentai. Hentai. Strange.
So much of the English-language coverage of Japanese fashion follows this pattern. One other example among many: between 2007 and 2010 a long line of articles and videos about a skirt that transforms into a faux vending machine made the rounds on the Internet. Sexual perversity is also referenced in this story in that the Japanese designer described the clothing item as a preventative measure against street harassment and sexual assault. Unfurling the skirt and holding it in front of themselves, women could blend into a bank of vending machines and elude their pursuer. Despite their recognition that only “about twenty” of the skirts had been sold, the New York Times connects them to “deeper cultural differences” that make “many Japanese favor camouflage and deception, reflecting a culture that abhors self-assertion, even in self-defense.”
These ideas, attributed to the fashion designer herself, reflect a long history of U.S. institutions reinforcing Japanese nationalism and generalizing claims of Japanese uniqueness. Critical Japan studies scholars have shown over and over again how the stereotype-driven concept of “national character” has served to buttress status quo interests on both sides of the postwar U.S.-Japan alliance. And among U.S. media institutions, the New York Times is relatively well known for reproducing Japanese nationalist claims of uniqueness in ways that portray the country as strange or even laughable. There’s an entire book about this, actually. Published back in 1998, the Japanese title of Warawareru Nihonjin: NyūYōku Taimuzu ga Egaku Fukashigina Nihon = Japan Made in U.S.A., translates roughly to Laughable Japanese: New York Times Depictions of an Inexplicable Japan.
All of this is to say that every time we fall prey to the “weird Japan” click bait, we should take pause. While it may be fun to learn about an extremely small subculture of Japanese people into bagel head body modifications or the “10 Unique Pieces of Clothing You Can Only Get From Japan,” we have to remind ourselves that this coverage usually says more about the interests and preconceived notions of English language media consumers than it does about most Japanese people.