Uniforms and Foreignness
Late afternoon, as school lets out, children pour into the streets, lithe and exuberant. They are unburdened by the texts they must read, the exercises that must be completed, and the kana to be memorized, the heavy load carried by their blue and red leather packs will be ignored until after their okashi.
They all carry the same backpacks. Red for girls. Blue for boys. Subtle differences can be spotted, if you look closely: this one is a pinker shade of red; this cheaply constructed, ignoble in it’s vinyl exterior; this one crafted of the finest leather, whispering of luxury expense, and doting grandparents. But they’re essentially all the same. Same shape. Same size. Same. Same. Same.
I asked my friend, a mother to a gaggle of Japanese-born foreigners, if the backpacks were a requirement, a uniform of sorts. “Not really,” she replied. “But what if they wanted, like, a Thomas The Tank Engine school bag, or something? What about individuality? What about personal expression? What about fostering a sense of uniqueness,” I challenged. “You just wouldn't do that. It’s not really done. And anyway, my kids are all blond. I wouldn’t want my them to stand out more than they already do.”
Japan is a nation of ingroups and outgroups. Its a place where belonging, and conforming are more important than in any other country which I have ever visited. Japanese wear uniforms their whole lives. At birth, babies are dressed alike, in a kimono provided by the hospital. They enter kindergarten with white shirts and blue shorts, knee socks and blazers. By high school they’re in mao suits or plaid skirts, all sporting the same hair cut --straight black hair, bangs, low pigtails. By adult hood the uniform is less obvious, no less important. Spiky orange hair, fussed over endlessly, and flashy suits for too-cool-for-school young men who hope to emulate red-light district pimps. Sensible dark suits, sensible blue shirts, sensible striped ties for salary men. Perfectly quaffed housewives, in perfectly matched skirts and twinsets, LV bags on the crock of their arms. Young women in the same floral romper, the same pot-pie hat, the same chambray shirt. Belonging is important. Sameness evokes acceptance.
Stella is just starting to notice difference, I mean, for what I can deduce based on gestures and the odd utterance of ammmm!!! (cat). Last week at breakfast, she was mesmerized by a group of caucasian children pictured in a German magazine. She kept pointing to her hair and then stroking her own, as if to say, “Look! they’re like me.”
I don’t know when, exactly, children start to become aware of ingroups and outgroups, of difference, of race, of cultural vairances. I don’t know, really, if my child feels left out, if somehow she is, already, at the tender age of one-and-a-half, having a minority experience, longing for role-models who look “like her”, feeling the prick of isolation and exclusion, or if her heart aches, even if only slightly, for feeling different. I have no wise words to offer here, no thoughtful conclusions. I just wonder, and hope that she feels good. (Wise words and thoughtful conclusions would be greatly appreciated from you, though).
If she wants one, though, I’ll probably buy her a Thomas the Tank Engine backpack.