Wearing a Tank Top and Walking Down the Street on the Wrong Side While Drinking: How I Live in Constant Fear of Being Offensive in Japan

I live in a constant state of "Am I Being Rude? Offensive? Both?"
Publish date:
October 1, 2014
travel, etiquette, japan

I first visited Japan a few years ago.

My husband, then boyfriend, was living in Kyoto and I was excited to see him after several months of not-by-choice singledom.

I wanted to look somewhat attractive when we were reunited, even though the 10-hour flight had the instant effect of making all grease in my body come erupting to the surface, thus molding my then shaggy bob into what some would call "The Dudley Moore."

So it was up to my clothes to do the talking.

I had on a cute grey tank top, with some retro layered texture (I thought it looked kinda 1920s) on the front, scoop neck but not low cut, just enough to show off my collarbone area (one of my best features). The straps were about two inches thick, definitely bra-strap-covering.

I paired this with my "good butt" jeans, and I thought the overall effect was something like "cute, scrappy traveler who might smell a bit curious, but overall looks like someone fun who I'd like to share some sushi with." The goal was not sexy or provocative. NOT SEXY OR PROVOCATIVE. (See Dudley Moore.)

Upon making it through customs, I saw my boyfriend in the terminal, leapt into his arms in what was only slightly a premeditated movie moment, and proceeded to exit the airport with my boyfriend to catch the train back to his apartment.

It was hot and humid in Kyoto at the time, so I neglected to put my sweater on even in the air conditioned subway. I needed to cool off.

No sooner had I sat down in the train that would carry us from Osaka to Kyoto, when I heard a rather loud, gruff voice barking in Japanese. Coming from LA, I was used to people speaking loudly in public to visible or invisible companions, so I just ignored him and continued chatting with my boyfriend.

At one point, I glanced at the man sitting across from us, and realized he was barking at ME. Flabbergasted, I just sort of wagged my jaw soundlessly at him until my husband chimed in and said something to him Japanese that involved some gentle head bobbing and a smile. He stopped barking after a quick, exasperated exhalation.

"What happened?" I whispered.

"You were talking too loudly on the subway, nobody talks on the subway around here, and your tank top is too revealing -- you're showing too much shoulder. Plus I don't think it helps that you can be mistaken for Japanese and you're obviously 'with' a white guy."

Too much SHOULDER?

I was floored, angry, embarrassed, cranky, and had a juvenile knee-jerk response to talk even louder while stretching my tank top into a tube top. I did none of those things. Instead I quietly sat on the subway feeling awkward all the way to my husband's stop at the end of the line.

That was my first interaction with Japan. Welcome to Kyoto, you ho-bag.

Obviously one interaction does not all of Japan make. I had a lovely time for the rest of my trip in Kyoto and Osaka, and while I did have a couple more run-ins with irate older Japanese men (I got elbowed in the chest at a fire festival, and a man ran out of a 7-11 to yell at me for holding hands with my white boyfriend) I learned that these were simply representations of a more traditional culture that happened to be more prevalent in that region.

Fast forward to now, living just outside of Tokyo, and while the culture is definitely less rigid and conservative, I still sometimes find myself paralyzed by seemingly baffling cultural customs.

Nobody yells at me -- across the board everyone has been relatively understanding of my idiocy. But it's been a month now, and I'm still not quite sure when it's okay for me to drink my drink in public. I'll explain this in a second.

So to make you feel better about yourself, here's what it's like for me bumbling around Japan right now. I've gotten over embarrassment, but the memory of that man in the subway still lurks in my brain every time I exit my apartment, and I live in a constant state of "Am I Being Rude? Offensive? Both?"

Can I drink my drink…now?

Walking and drinking is not allowed. Well, so says my husband, my cultural ambassador.

I see people doing it, both locals and foreigners alike, but not very often. Whenever I do, I point it out to my husband, but his response is always, "Just because you saw a couple people taking a crap outside your office in LA [we did have a poop problem], doesn't mean that everybody does it. One person, even a few people, doesn't make something socially acceptable. Just don't do it."

And apparently it's all about socially acceptable here, so best to err on the side of super politeness.

Like I said, it's not so rigid here in Yokohama, but regardless, walking and drinking any beverage is not polite.

If you have a beverage, you should stand off to the side, drink your drink, then proceed. Don't drink in the subway. Don't drink in the elevator. If you can find a bank of vending machines in a corner, best to go there and drink in shame.

I'm kidding. I think.

For some reason my brain has chosen this as a point of obsession. I see locals just stepping off to the side and taking a drink, or drinking their drink while waiting for the subway train or for the crosswalk light to change. They make it look so easy.

But without fail, as soon as I retrieve my water bottle from my bag, unscrew the top, and decide to dare a sip, I feel like all eyes are on me, and the old man from the subway will appear and tell me I'm a rude water drinker.

Can I wear this in public?

This is what I've noticed about typical Japanese fashion amongst city dwelling women:

Ass good, shoulders BAD.

It's cool to traipse around the town in super short shorts or a skirt, with one's ass peeking out. But show a little shoulder, or let your bra strap slip out and you get LOOKS. Shoulder baring, potentially bra-strap-showing tank tops are not considered entirely "appropriate."

I've seen more mini skirts with stripper heels, topped with mock turtle necks or buttoned-up button-down shirts than ever in my entire life. Unfortunately this is the exact opposite of how I like to dress.

I like knee grazing skirts, long pants, and skimpy tops. Really, I just hate short sleeves. They bunch up in my armpits, and then I'm constantly picking pit wedgies. When it's hot out, I'm all tank top, all the time. MAYBE a cap sleeve.

I've had to negotiate a bit on this one. I refuse to throw out ALL my tops, but I also hate the LOOKS. I have five reliably, mostly respectable shirts. So I'm constantly asking people -- my husband, this cool gal from his program with lots of tattoos who doesn't seem to give a f**k -- if it's okay to wear this or that.

Most people say some version of "just don't show cleavage and make sure your tank straps are thick enough to hide your bra strap." My friend Serina, who grew up in Japan, says to dress in layers so it just "looks" like you're trying to be modest.

I try, really I do. I layer everything now. But I've basically had to become okay with either being a little sweaty in a long sleeved shirt, or a little slutty in a shoulder baring tank.

I don't know where to walk.

Watching me walk through a crowded train station, or negotiate my way down a busy sidewalk is like watching "Frogger."

I'm never quite sure which direction I'm supposed to be walking. Therefore I always feel like I'm in everybody's way. Which, I know, it's not my job to make way for EVERYBODY, but when I'm in a place where I'm not sure if I'M being rude or if HE'S being rude, I tend to assume it's me. If you're ever in Yokohama, just listen for the midwest/Texas accented voice asking, "Was that my fault or his?" and you'll find me.

Flow of foot traffic is GENERALLY on the left. Except when it isn't. Most people walk on the left side of the sidewalk, stand on the left side of the escalator, walk down the left side of the stairs.

However, sometimes the laws of traffic change and suddenly I'm full-body bumping into people and shouting, "Sorry! No!-I mean…SUMIMASEN!"

When I try to pass a slow-moving walker, I actually have to ask myself what is the appropriate side to pass on. When a cyclist is riding down the sidewalk toward me, I have a momentary panic as to which side to step to let him or her by. Sometimes, on narrow sidewalks, I end up doing this weird cha-cha with the poor person walking toward me in an uncomfortable attempt to figure out which side is the most correct side to pass them on.

Most people laugh at my weirdness. Some scowl. Mostly, I try to avoid rush hour.

So there's a little more insight into my life in Japan. If any of you can offer any tips on the above or other local customs, please TELL ME! You guys have been so wonderful helping me get through my first month in Japan, hopefully I'm on my way to being a less offensive or obtrusive gaijin (foreigner).