It’s the age-old question, literally, and it’s happened to all of us at least a few times. You’re drinking at your local izakaya when the Nihonjin nearby inevitably get up the courage to ask, “How old are you?” If you’re savvy and have mastered the rules of this game, you reply, “Guess,” at which point they “eeee” and “mmmm” for a few moments before giving what they assume to be a generously low number. In the end, you’re forced to tell them that you are, in truth, still a good five years younger than that, a fact met with complete shock and amazement by all Japanese in the vicinity.
It’s no headline news that Japanese look much younger for their age than do westerners. They are known to have a healthier diet, but as winter segues into spring and summer, another reason becomes apparent – Japanese, particularly women, take great care to stay out of the sun.
It was hard for me to understand at first, and to be honest, still is. During my first summer in Japan it surprised me that women seemed to wear more clothing in the heat than they did in the dead of winter. Long shorts replaced miniskirts, layered shirts covered chests, umbrellas shaded faces, and full-length gloves kept hands and arms delicately white. The last thing I want to do in Japan’s heavy, humid, summer air is don every item of clothing I own and carry an umbrella. On the contrary, I find myself embarrassed to run into my chugakusei outside of school on account of how little I wear in this weather. And even at school, during my free periods, I’m searching for that elusive outdoor locale that hides me from the eyes of students so I can lie down and catch some much desired rays for even a few minutes.
The desire for white skin in western society is rather antiquated, harkening back to a day when a tan linked sun exposure to outdoor labor. A fair complexion was prized for the social status it implied, of being able to stay indoors and have all work taken care of by slaves and servants. But these days, it’s a tan people want, especially in my native California. A bronze glow radiates health and freedom, despite any actual negative effects of tanning. Even amidst fears of skin cancer, tanning beds remain popular and profitable, and those who do care to watch out for their health cheat the system by using fake tan products including lotions, bronzers, or even spray-tan booths where you stand in a compromising position while dye is finely misted over your entire body.
I should have been prepared for the sun-fearing craze by the masses of specialized cosmetic products that dominate department store displays – white makeup, whitening creams, super-sunscreens, and more, offered by the same companies that are marketing bronzers on the other side of the globe. And while sun-protection is undoubtedly one of the reasons why Japanese manage to look so young, these products are proof that youth is not the driving factor behind the desire for white skin – they could easily stay out of the sun and use fake tan products, but instead they are actually striving for even whiter skin than shade and sunscreen can provide.
Some Japanese women claim it is wise to stay white in the professional environment. The July 2005 Dodesho noted that one reason Japan won’t conform to Daylight Savings Time Standards is because men don’t like to leave the office while it’s still light out – while the sun is shining, people are expected to be hard at work. Similarly, Japanese women feel that a tan makes them less authoritative or detracts from their legitimacy as professionals, perhaps for the same reasons that many westerners value a tan – it makes a statement of “Hey, I’m living the easy life, swimming, lying on the beach – work WHAT?” We place high value on having (or appearing to have) the means to enjoy more leisure than work, whereas Japanese prefer to play up their professional lives to make work appear to occupy the dominant portion of their time.
The health benefits of sun protection are obvious, but I’m not about to buy into the respect-in-the-workplace theory anytime soon. I, for one, gladly accept the odd stares from all around every time I step scantily clad into the sun and raise my face and arms to the sky in a glorious salute. The hardest part is trying not to cry when my students compliment me on my fair skin, pointing to their arms and mine in turn with exclamations of “Kuroi…shiroi!” Shiroi? But I’ve been tanning so dedicatedly! Then again, maybe underneath it all, that is the answer to this cultural question – we always want what we don’t have.
By Courtney Brigham, American, Sun Goddess / English teacher
Illustrations copyright Shirley Waisman 2006