Two weeks after my arrival in Japan, at a goodbye gathering for the English teacher I was replacing, I was groped. Not in a darkened room by a perverted co-worker, nor by some drunken man stumbling past. In fact, it was not a man at all, but a young Japanese woman who I am still fairly certain was not mistaking my short hair for some sort of green light. The groping in its aggressiveness felt anything but sexual; it was a grab made in the center of a brightly lit room and followed by loud admiring comments about my breasts, namely how large they were.
This event, though the most profound, was only indicative of what was to come–a barrage of comments concerning my physical appearance. Your eyes are such a pretty shade of blue. Your hair is a beautiful (blonde) color. Your legs are so long. I have actually even been complimented on the crease in my eyelids! It is not the comments alone that bother me, it is the consistency and manner in which they are expressed, at times, with a sort of wistful admiration that leaves me feeling uncomfortable and thinking, why does everything that makes me “beautiful” consist of physical characteristics, and more importantly, physical characteristics that are not naturally common amongst Japanese women?
I have been told that the admiration for my physical appearance stems simply from it being different i.e. imagine seeing color if you are surrounded by black and white. But am I really so unusual? Every time I walk past a magazine rack I see people of well, at least, similar coloring. During the Christmas season, I shopped surrounded by an ad campaign wishing all a white Christmas and consisting of postcards and posters of skinny Euro-ethnic models wearing little red outfits, far better versions of any ideal than what I might brush upon.
And isn’t that really what this is all about: some western media constructed ideal that is infiltrating Japan like a virus? Let me tell you what I believe about beauty, I believe it is subjective, constructed and perhaps most importantly, marketed to make its viewer feel inadequate. Oh, is your hair not blonde enough, we have a lovely product that can take care of that. Is your skin not flawless, we have a cream that can clear whatever right up! Are your eyes not wide enough well, we have a little out-patient procedure that will fix the problem and give you the crease you have always wanted. There will always be another product or procedure offered to fix whatever is not perfect about you and when you think you have reached some sort of ideal the standard will change so another product can be created and more importantly, sold. It is about money, not beauty and if you think otherwise you are being fooled. If I sound a bit harsh here, I do apologize. I speak from a place of compassion.
To be quite honest my physical appearance is considered far less remarkable at home than here. In Japan, I am blonde, at home, America, brown. Here, I am tall, at home, average. Here, my breasts are big, in America, once again, average. Here, my eyes are big, in my previous 24 years only one cheesy 15-year-old boy ever made such a comment. And as for the legs compliment, I had a good eye-rolling laugh over that; I have had the biggest complex about that particular body part ever since I can remember! But I am working on it–and I mean in the feeling better about myself on the inside, not the exercise and diet, kind of way.
American / English Teacher
Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn75, Mar. 2005)