Sunday, February 03, 2008

Japanese people's love/hate relationship with the cold

Given the snowy conditions today, I find it rather apropos to take this opportunity to comment on something that's always boggled my mind - Japanese people's reaction to winter weather. If you've ever been here in the winter, it really doesn't matter where you find yourself or whether that area is actually cold or not, you will inevitably hear them complaining pretty much daily, sometimes hourly or more depending on circumstances, that it's cold in rather exaggerated fashion. Allow me to examine this with a bit more depth if you will, as the more I think about it the more I find this to be most decidedly bizarre.

First, it's rather unbelievable how much they bring up the cold unless you've experienced it yourself - they'll start saying it's cold and making shivering motions like a small chihuahua if it hits 10C (40F) or so... amusing if not annoying, but more like sweater weather if you ask me. 10F is cold, but 10C?? Get real. This might be slightly understandable in a place like Tokyo where it rarely snows or reaches freezing temperatures, but I heard the exact same from people up in Sendai where it gets at least as cold as back home. Well, I guess to be totally fair I should mention the fact that they did stuff like leave the windows open in the bathroom in the middle of January among other things... another Japanese mystery to me.

Now contrast that with this... 1st, to the right is exhibit one:

First off, I must note how disturbing it is to google for children's school uniforms in Japanese and have trouble finding images that don't make me feel dirty just for looking at them, but I'll leave that one for another day...

So what do elementary school kids have to do with this you ask? No, I have not been here long enough to develop a pre-pubescent lolicon, I just wanted you to check out their *WINTER* uniforms, which are actually quite conservative in relation to the reality which I witness on a daily basis. For the private school kids I see at the station on my way to work, I'd say take that boy's shorts and move them up to the point where you can't tell the difference between shorts and underwear and throw a goofy little cap on his mop, and that's what they all look like - whether it's 5 or 15C outside. They make these kids endure the cold in pretty minimal clothing... probably telling them it "builds character" or some such nonsense.

Moving along, women's winter fashion. These pictures are all taken in December in Shibuya, which is usually populated by the young who wish to be seen as trendy and fashionable. If you asked any of these girls I'm sure they'd tell you up and down that they're cold, but skirts rule in male-centric Japan and fashion and form supersedes comfort and warmth. I'm especially amused with the girls that just look like they're wearing a coat and boots... leggings/stockings cannot possibly be that warm, can they??? Anyway, looks to me like they can deal with the "cold"... if you wanna say that Tokyo is cold, that is. They also keep this form over function mindset with accessories as well... I could probably write a whole entry about that though.

I have a certain friend in particular that always seems particularly cold and was surprised when mentioning snowboarding to hear that she boards too!! This despite mentioning not liking the cold weather... I guess I can understand it being warmer when you're active and all, but this kind of thinking is still mind-boggling to me.

So how do I reconcile their insistence that it's cold with their bizarre wardrobe choices? How does a whole nation of people go from booty shorts and mini skirts as kids to shivering chihuahua adults?? Well, my theory involves two things. The biggest thing I'd say is temperature difference - they keep our office thermostat set at a blistering 26C (79F)! It's the same in the summer, with them keeping the A/C set at I'm guessing like 18-20C (64-68F) all around town. The drastic temperature changes make it feel super cold outside in the winter and tire you out real quick in the summer - I actually shiver sometimes entering a train or store in the summer with their A/C blasting. Such a waste if you ask me though to train the kids to deal with the cold with those uniforms, then ruin it all with the crazy temperature control. And the clothing thing... well that's just form over function taken to the extreme. They just care more about appearances than comfort or practicality, so they get what they ask for in that respect.

In closing, one last thing that makes me go hmm?? regarding the thermostat thing is how hypocritical it is for a country that's supposedly all about energy and resource conservation... yet another topic I'll have to save for another time since there's plenty to mention there too.

Ok this is getting long... I'll stop for now.


Ian Lewis said...

I think this is just a part of a more general phenomenon in the behavior of Japanese people.

Essentially, Japanese like the "release" time. 90% of the time they suffer, work late, sweat it out, brave the cold, or whatever else, but once that is done they "release" by going out spending the other 10% endulging themselves, going out with coworkers and getting drunk, warming up in the kotatsu, etc.

Japanese like the extreme difference because it makes you feel that much better for the last 10%.

darg said...

Hmm... I dunno, I'm not sold in this case and I'll tell you why.

If you look at snowboarders then it definitely looks to be in favor of your theory. With salarymen on the other hand who, as you put it love working late and spend 90% of their waking hours in the office, are also spending 90% of their time in the nice (speaking of warmth only here) office, sheltered from the cold world.

Then again, maybe the whole lack of proper insulation and central heating supports your side... and the kotatsu. God how I love kotatsus btw- such a wonderful and simple invention!

I was talking to a Japanese friend the other day who spent 10 years or so in NYC, and we were talking about how the average person around here seems to have little to no concept of the idea of "room temperature" and attempting to maintain such norms year round... this factors in there somewhere as well.

Anonymous said...

I work at the school you hotlinked the school uniform image from. Not that I care, since they cut all internet access off for the students there's bandwidth to spare...

Nevertheless, the uniforms for the elementary school were supposedly designed by a famous designer (of whose name eludes me) and interestingly enough is replicated all throughout the junior and senior high for female students only (boys get the typical "gakuran" black uniform, but with 7 buttons just like the Historical Imperial Japanese Naval College uniform). The girls in junior and senior high tend to roll the skirts up to about 15-20cm over the knees despite the skirts being tailored to 10cm under the knees when originally issued. When asked why, they say it's "cute." When pressed for what they mean by "cute" they indicate that it is defined as cute since all the schoolgirls in the magazines, TV shows, cartoons and comics who are "cute" have their skirts rolled up or tailored that way. They couldn't care less about the temperature though - they wrap a blanket around their legs in class and sometimes even wear the blankets around as they walk around if it's cold enough...