Japan Society of Fairfield County

Culture Watch, Society Watch (5)
by Dr. Ikuko Anjo Jassey

     I left Japan and came to the United States in 1993. At that time, Japan, including large cities like Tokyo of 12,500,000, was fairly clean with rarely scattered trash or graffiti. However, it is not the same any more: We sometimes see graffiti on walls and often empty soda cans and beer bottles on the roadsides. Likewise, in the public spaces, you will encounter even more annoying scenes today that had never been seen when I was young. According to PHP Japan Close-up (August 2004), applying one’s facial make-up is ranked the fifth among the nuisances observed in stations and trains.
     Several years ago, on one wintry day, my husband and I visited Asakusa in Tokyo, which was a must-see spot for foreign tourists. This neighborhood still preserves an ambience of the good old Japan represented by a Buddhist temple called Sensoji rebuilt in Kamakura era (1185-1333) after numerous fires. On our way back, we used Ginza subway line—the oldest underground in Tokyo. The train was not crowded, leaving empty seats.
     Soon after we snuggled into a cushioned seat, four young Japanese women, perhaps in their late teens or early twenties, came in and sat next to us. They took out a sandwich from their identical brown paper bags and ate them, without words to each other. And then, almost simultaneously, they opened their handbags, took out their cosmetics and started putting on their make-up. They completely repainted their faces with mascara and lipstick as if they were in a powder room. For some time, we thought that this phenomenon could be applied to just young people like those women. We were wrong!
     We witnessed another scene of the kind on Chuo line bound for Takao, the outskirts of Tokyo, in the summer of 2004. This time the woman was not very young; she was perhaps in her late thirties or early forties. She applied lotion and cream on her face first; then foundation, drew her eyebrows, then put on lipstick and slight rouge on her cheeks. By the time the train was pulling into the station she was to get off, her make-up session—approximately 15 minutes—was completed as if she had timed it. Both my husband and I were simply amazed with her time-management skills--as well as her ability of disregarding public scrutiny.
     Outside Japan, I have not ever seen women applying make-up in the public arena, though it is true that I occasionally observe American women who put on lipstick at a table in a restaurant after eating. However, I have once witnessed a woman performing an acrobatic action in a car, specifically putting mascara while driving on Route 7 in Wilton. For me, who cannot chew gum or listen to the radio while driving since I would be distracted, her action was beyond my imagination.
     Polluting the environment with trash and graffiti is undoubtedly due to lack of civic responsibility. However, how should we interpret the psychology of those who apply cosmetics in public without embarrassment? If we warn them, those women might respond, saying, “What’s wrong? Why can’t we put on make-up in public?” Certainly, it does not affect other people’s health like smoking or defile a public arena like graffiti and trash. For them, the action “applying make-up in public spaces” might have nothing different from girls’ belly-button-shirts vogue and boys’ hanging-down-pants fashion. Nonetheless, putting on make-up in public eyes is disturbing in the same way as other ill manners. In Japanese culture, in which modesty is still one of the highest virtues, it is distracting all the more. Perhaps, Japanese people might be losing “self-control” under the right of “freedom.”
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