The transition from English speaker to pseudo Japanese happens so quickly that newcomers to Japan find themselves woefully unprepared, both personally and professionally. Those hoping to make a positive first impression upon arrival would be well advised to espouse certain unspoken values from day one.
What’s the biggest pot hole just waiting to receive a foreigner’s foot? His or her artificial fragrance of choice.
While perfume overdoses are rightly taboo in most cultures, even a tiny whiff of store bought scent could be deemed inappropriate in a Japanese workplace.
Consider some unfortunate cases:
“One day, after a pretty great lesson, my head English teacher approached me. Assuming that she’d heard about the students’ participation, I asked for her opinion and was met with this awkward silence. With what looked like a great deal of difficulty, she finally said, ‘Your perfume is very strong! The children can smell it.’” Despite the temporary embarrassment, Leela concedes that it was better to have been informed of her inadvertent transgression early on. “I got the message and, clearly, wanted to die,” she continues, “but the woman insisted on clarifying that the only ladies in this country who wear perfume are either ‘very important’ or ‘working at night’.”
“Japan is not a perfume market,” declares Simon, a European transplant who completed a post graduate program at a Japanese university. He recalls the philosophy of a respected female professor he met there: “Looks wise, she wasn’t bad, but she consciously concealed anything and everything that could be considered potentially appealing. The lengths she went to masking her appearance fascinated me: black or gray clothes every day, no makeup, orthopedic shoes, and definitely no perfume. She once told us that all students have the right to focus only on learning, and that any physical enhancements will distract people from getting the education they deserve.”
While those with a different perspective on the laws of attraction might not feel so guilty for getting a little positive attention, the importance of an open mind cannot be overstated. Efforts to straighten out a curvy waistline or assemble an entirely monochromatic wardrobe might seem extreme to some, but to others, they are a necessary courtesy. Of course, as Japanese society continues to change, many people’s views on such topics are shifting.
“I studied abroad in Europe as a teenager,” explains Emiko, a young mother in Akasaka. “I love perfume! On the subway one day, I was wearing some and an old man yelled, ‘You stink!’” Momentarily miffed, Emi, then in her early twenties, took it upon herself to teach the heckler a lesson: “I got up out of my seat, went over and sat down right beside him!”
In the end, personal style will always be a matter of choice. Your thoughts on perfume in Japan?