There’s a person sitting in front of me in a café. The person is wearing a ribbed cream turtleneck jumper, a black and white dog tooth coat and leather ankle boots. They have a dainty engraved silver ring on their little finger and highlighted hair in a pixie cut. Out of the large tote carried in the crook of their arm, made of expensive plaited leather, they remove their wallet, one of those long stiff patent numbers with a jangly zip that goes all the way round, and a cow-skin pencil case. The person is a man, and not at all atypical. Judging by the teeny-weeny, incredibly pretty girlfriend who then sidles up next to him, and the slight swagger with which he brushes his highlighted pixie cut out of his eyes (an ability which suggests greater masculinity than we could possibly imagine in the Western world), he’s probably hot stuff.
Obviously it’s not a blanket phenomenon (any more than it’s all men in England who wear skinny jeans and winklepickers, or, come to think of it, self-tan and manscape a la TOWIE), but from my own narrow-eyed observations, I’d say the effeminate male thing here is not only quite widespread, but aspirational. Passing posters of boy bands in Takeshita-doori (great name, yes?), the Tokyo equivalent of Camden high street on glitter-speed, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between the boy bands and girl bands – and it would be a lot more difficult if the girl band members weren’t dressed in head-to-toe gender-clarification pink ruffles with bows, either like tissue box covers in elite retirement homes or as if they’re all auditioning for the role of Jordan’s baby daughter.
I’ve tried without success to foist pink cardigans, ginger hair dye and neck-breaking tonnes of man-jewelry on Tim, but to no avail. He says he’s doing me a favour, because if he metrosexualised, I’d have to become feminine to compensate, and it’s because most Japanese men aren’t enormously macho that the girls have had to become so über girly. Putting aside the various possibilities for taking offence in his statement (which after years of living with the guy has become my particular skill set), I think he might have a point. Regardless of the reason behind it, Japanese girls are unarguably some of the most feminine I’ve ever seen. I find it personally offensive that none of this femininity seems to have rubbed off on me; I seem to have inherited the bow-legged farmer DNA rather than the delicate elegance and porcelain skin. Genetics are a bitch.
The girls here (and again, clearly it’s not all of them, but to have to clarify that each time will be very dull) walk with their toes turned in, and legs slightly bent. It makes them look like disabled geese – apparently it’s supposed to be attractive because it makes them look more vulnerable. I suppose to make someone who carries a tote and wears a cardigan feel that he might be able to rescue you, you have to make yourself look very feeble indeed. And it helps their vulnerability / femininity cause that they’re naturally minute.
Now that Western brands are big, especially in the major cities, clothes-shopping isn’t the toe-curlingly excruciating business it used to be, but if I found a skirt I liked in Tottori and asked for it in an XX super-duper-obese-gaijin large, the best I could usually hope for was that I might be able to wear it round my head as a fascinator. Things are better in Tokyo, but girls are still expected to be much more petite than I am: my sister and I tried to test drive some pastel-coloured pedal-cars in Odaiba, with signs everywhere advertising free trial runs. The people running the outfit looked at our gargantuan gaijin frames and then at the (totally normal-sized) pedal cars. The panic that struck their faces, the managers that had to be called, the urgent discussions in low voices that had to be held, with one man even trying to measure our height with his arms (he couldn’t, oddly) and transfer it to the pedal cars. The sighing, the uncomfortable elongated humming, the pained facial contortions worthy of someone deciding whether or not to drop a third atomic bomb, all of which would have ensured that any polite, sensitive Japanese person would have taken the hint and given up on the venture. Not so us haafus, sturdy in spirit as well as in body. In the end, we Titans heaved our enormous selves in with no problem and ample legroom, so despite perception, it turns out we’re not actually Gullivers in a land of Lilliputians.
Not that that prevents them pointing out the differences – a non-Japanese speaker would be forgiven for thinking the Japanese for “Hello darling, it’s been a year, how wonderful to see you!” was “My god, you got so fat AGAIN!” since that’s how my grandma greeted me on each of my annual visits. I’d like to point out, with the defensiveness only years of this kind of commentary could breed, that I’m not fat, I’m just built like an ordinary Westerner (which, as far as my grandma is concerned, is probably the same thing. She was also fascinated and disgusted by an old boyfriend’s green eyes, and put it down to him eating too much spinach). There’s also the odd trap here and there to encourage anorexia – there are some horses you can ride round the back of Yoyogi Park, but only if you weigh less than 60kg. I’m looking forward to trying it out one day after a few pretty severe consecutive stomach flus.
I’m also going to take this opportunity to mention my favourite activity in Tokyo if I ever feel my self-esteem wave a feeble and presumptuous tentacle off rock-bottom: I watch a Japanese diet programme. Girls whose body shapes are normal as opposed to androgynous skinny are laughed at on TV, then lose weight through a diet of konnyaku (rubbery grey jelly cubes made of seaweed, diet food of choice) and, often, the use of some dubious plastic invention, and then cry with happiness at the results.
So Japanese gals, either through lucky genetics or the peer-pressure of volcanic plates pre-eruption, start their look by being extremely slim. They also have what my Australian friend calls “tough skin” – tough not as in rough, but able to hold everything in like a very durable oilskin bag. Hence no cellulite, ever, and few bulges or wrinkles. And that milkmaid-of-dreams complexion, glowing white and soft as a peach (not that I’ve weirdly gone around stroking alot of them – just enough of them), isn’t just down to the jackpot in the genetic lottery. To keep that vampiric look going, in the summer Tokyo is an army of parasols and potential multi-coloured fashion-conscious terrorists with not an inch of skin showing, faces covered, gloves firmly on and possibly a surgical mask to pull the whole look together. Not to mention the shelves of bleach you can apply to your face in various formats, and the capsules you can drink to ensure whiteness from within. Because genetics, of course, can always be improved upon and nowhere more than here, the capital of striving. Similarly if you haven’t started off quite skeletal enough, there’s a procedure that atrophies any unslightly muscles in your legs, lest you, god forbid, look strong or like you might be able to run away. So having achieved the desired miniature, smooth base canvas, everything that Japan is best known for is then applied to it: diligence, perfectionism and excellent consumer products.
At six in the morning, a time I’ve only ever been on the tube either jet-lagged and revolting travelling from the airport or rumpled and revolting (and possibly drunk) coming back from a night out, the girls already look immaculate, their skin poreless and matte with the soft glow of blusher, their manicures pearlescent, their clothes freshly pressed and mostly brand new – not for Tokyo the scruffy charm (such as it is) of Converse with the soles falling apart and ill-fitting ‘vintage’ dresses. Even their white trainers are blinding, which seems less of an achievement when you compare the swept pavements of Tokyo with our well-loved rivulets of dog excrement and chewing gum wrappers back home, but are intimidating nonetheless.
Needless to say, it gets worse (or better, depending on which way you look at it) as the day goes on, the perfection of the appearances and the mystery behind the motivation for the perfection (an endless, mind-boggling question, the ‘why’ of Japan, arguably rivalled only by the great ‘why’ of existence) peaking in bars and clubs late at night, where dancefloors and barstools are mysteriously devoid of any members of the fairer sex. Because they’re all in the bathrooms, trapped in a perpetual cycle of touching up to retain the doll-like appearance of their living and breathing selves.
I was thinking when I first got to Tokyo that the girls didn’t look as Asian as I remembered from when I was small, and coming up with fantastical anthropological conclusions about how, like owners and pets who start to look like each other, globalisation is starting to make everyone in the world look the same. Which it kind of is, but not because, as I hypothesised, as everyone in the world subconsciously takes on the body language of Beyoncé while drinking Starbucks and eating Subways, not only do our body types merge in terms of size and height, but we also develop muscles and movements that even start to make our faces look more similar. The hypothesis was very exciting because evidently in a few decades time, we’re also all going to be the same colour as Beyoncé, with fair-skinned people tanning and dark-skinned people bleaching, so that globalisation will in fact be felt as an army of Beyoncés booty-shaking around the globe. But, not so much. I’ve decided to hold back the PhD on the subject, because it turns out that actually, almost disappointingly, the Westernisation of Japanese faces is just down to cosmetics. (Although there might still be a PhD in why Japanese girls want to look Western as opposed to, say, Japanese. Alot (aLOT, from advertisements and TV characters to the faces of cosmetics) of beauty inspiration seems to come from manga; but why are those faces so Westernised? See, they why of Japan, spinning out of control again.)
The most thoroughly made up Tokyoite is typically either wearing fake (but tasteful) eyelashes, or has had those lashes put in that last for a month or two (which are a mystery; are they spiked in like the needles of a Christmas tree? Because gluing the surface area of the end of a hair doesn’t seem like it would be very effective in terms of staying stuck), and if she hasn’t already been blessed with a double eyelid, has probably used a kit involving a piece of plastic that looks like a toothpick, a thread and some putty to get one. Just in case you don’t already realise how lucky you are, ye round eyes, if you take a look in the mirror you’ll see that above the line of your eyelashes, there’s a fold in your eyelid that is a lot less prominent in people like, say Lucy Liu or Devon Aoki, those well known plain and unattractive ladies. This eyelid fold is sufficiently desirable that eyelids all over Tokyo are complexly glued together to achieve it, and you can imagine the need to keep popping to the restroom for touch-ups as opposed to having your eyelids start to unfold on a date like a blooming alien flower.
For the truly dedicated, or those with less touch-up time, there’s surgery to achieve not just the double lid, but also to make small incisions in the corners of the eyes which will then make the eye larger and, crucially, rounder (what, are you wincing? you fair-weathered follower of fashion). If this goes slightly wrong (and let us not dwell on what happens if it goes truly wrong), you can end up with the permanently shocked, not to say insane, look of your irises floating in the whites of your eyes without the eyelids touching them on either side. Fear not; there is a solution: the iris-largening contact lenses, which will put your (fake) irises back in contact with your (round, double-lidded) eye skin. These contact lenses aren’t, obviously, reserved solely for use after over-zealous surgery; large irises are one of the trademarks of manga characters and lots of girls here are wearing them.
A surgical procedure that doesn’t seem massively popular here is boob jobs; the desired look seems to be more cute, childlike and unthreatening manga character than Lara Croft as manga character. In fact, the child-doll thing is reinforced in the voices; the women here speak at several cadences of shrill. Young girls in groups employ a pitch so high it’s unlikely even dogs can hear them, and if voices lower to something more audible in ordinary, private conversations, they soon rise again to express apology, emotion, in moments of stress or, particularly, if people need something. My own voice, a rich bass worthy of a Southern preacher, obviously, rises about two octaves when I start speaking Japanese, and even then it was the lowest in my Japanese class, conspicuously booming out of key when we had to read aloud in unison (which we had to do alot). I can just about keep it to a reasonable level when I’m talking to my family, but as soon as I’m having a conversation with a waiter or a taxi driver, let alone anyone like a potential employer, my vocal chords won’t actually relax sufficiently to let me sound like anything other than an obsequious little mouse, and judging by the conversations going on around me, I’m not the only one. On airport tannoys, for innstance, if theres a Japanese announcement followed by its English tanslation, both made by the same person, it’s like listening to a flower fairy followed by a troll. Which maybe possibly says something about the way women in Japan are conditioned to behave (never mind anything about the West).
So a nation of girls who naturally look like Mulan (I’d choose a Japanese manga character but… you see the problem) are putting a huge amount of time and effort into looking like Sailor Moon without the boobs and coloured hair. Sailor Moon as a girl-doll, in fact. If any of the above sounds like I’m taking the piss, I’m really not; the list of make up tricks and potential cosmetic surgeries in any other country would be just as large, only probably trying to achieve almost the exact polar opposite of the desired result here, which is, obviously, endlessly ironic and hardly new. And did I mention just how amazing the girls look when it’s all done? Regardless of whether manga, or any other look, is your thing, they just do it so damn well. In fact I feel like it’s a common theme, here, for something to come in from the West, for the Japanese to take it on board, digest it and come up with a version that’s 75 times better. Goths in the UK, for example: more often than not chipped black nail polish, inexpertly applied cheap make up, a whiff of questionable personal hygiene and slightly greasy hair. There are goths here too, Harajuku goths who are to the goths in the UK what the Covent Garden Christmas Tree is to a spineless evergreen twig, who look like more attractive Asian versions of the Twilight characters with added starched black lace.
Lord, essentially all I wanted to talk about was false eyelashes and manicures, but as with everything Japanese, it turns out it’s almost impossible to talk about it, that, in fact, it doesn’t make any sense, without also mentioning the overwhelming high standards and obsessiveness and ways of thinking which appear to be at right angles to Western ways, but then again might not be. Thinking about anything here, even false eyelashes, makes me feel very tired. I’m keeping my factory-worker haafu hands unmanicured and my enormous Western frame un-atrophied, not just because my greatest efforts at beautification would make me look like a Japanese dog, but because I don’t look like Mulan to start with, I don’t think Sailor Moon is an achievable look (never mind whether or not it’s desirable…) and I’m going to do Tim a massive favour by making sure he has to stay extra manly to accommodate my lack of feminine wiles.