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My Jacket is Japanese, Not Me

My Jacket is Japanese, Not Me

Last week, I walked out of the tube station and a man chased me all the way down the street calling, “Are you Japanese?” I couldn’t avoid him at the traffic lights, so I replied in my rather English voice, “No, I’m not.” This happens not only in London, but all around the world, and all because I am wearing a grey silk haori jacket that I bought in a vintage shop behind an industrial estate in the very unexotic Birmingham.

The jacket’s draped sleeves echo a kimono, the iconic symbol of a fantastical Japan immortalised in cinema and Orientalist imagination. My Japanese friends confess that they would never choose a haori, finding it stiflingly traditional. Garments bound up with associations of national dress always seem to evoke the past; dressing in them somehow conjures an elevated state of being, outside of contemporary life. It’s no secret that many forms of seemingly traditional dress are recent constructions, and their meanings shift  as the garment materializes in differing locations. Fashion allows the individual the freedom to combine clothing and choose styles. In the context of urban London, it seems that anything goes; but on what bodies are the national costumes of others off-limits for bricolage?

I am what colonial-era writers called a Eurasian, with the eyelid crease and pointed nose that many women pay good money to incise upon their faces. [1] European features are widely seen as desirable in many Asian countries. [2] In China, it is impossible for me to find a face cream that does not contain skin-whitening chemicals. In Hong Kong, make-up shops sell a special glue to artificially bond the skin above the eye into a fold. [3] Different cultures read my embodied whiteness in vastly differing ways, ranging from understanding to interrogation; from being ignored to being praised. A multi-racial body occupies an in-between space in all countries of heritage. Corners of the globe can be glimpsed beneath the skin, emerging or disappearing in the eyes of the watchers.

A flash of dark hair, a glimpse of high-seated cheekbones, and suddenly a sartorial logo - those hanging sleeves - stands in as a shorthand for ethnicity. These hanging sleeves allow a foreign land to be transported in the imagination across several oceans, the opposite of the prince riding an ebony horse to find his destiny in the Arabian Nights. Well, the haori is the prince and I am the place: Japan lands squarely on my shoulders.

Certain sartorial details become unchangeably iconic, flattening any external variations for the signified ethnicity therein. My multi-cultural self is an expression of a vast and energetic city, containing as many problems as it does ideas. The localised sense of place inherent in my jacket as well as my person can be seen as style lines or as history. As I move and travel outside of Japan, details of my multi-racial body are blurred as I become the embodiment of specific tradition. I am Orientalism personified: people see the clothes and not the wearer.

Note: the author has never travelled to Japan.



[1] See, for example, W. Somerset Maugham, Far Eastern Tales. (London: Vintage, 2000) and More Far Eastern Tales (ibid.).

[2] Eyelid surgery and rhinoplasty are the most common surgical operations performed on women in South Korea, in a bid to make the face seem more European; see Laura Kurek, “Eyes Wide Cut: the American origins of Korea’s Plastic Surgery Craze” in Wilson Quarterly (Fall 2015): 2.

[3] The blogger Salskiii has written an in-depth review of the process of using eyelid glue purchased in Hong Kong. Salskiii, “Fake Eyelids?! Eyelid Glue and Tape Review”, Salskiii, November 19, 2014. Available at: [Accessed 22 August 2016].

(Illustration by Mike Thompson.)

The Girl Next Door: A Crossdresser Explains her Wardrobe

The Girl Next Door: A Crossdresser Explains her Wardrobe