Scents and Sensibility: Perfume in Japan

December 16th, 2009By Category: Uncategorized

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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?

Author of this article

Sylvia Saracino

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  • Fiona says:

    Have a look at – wow!!!

  • somethingsmells says:

    Mono_locco…..cigarette smokers are not trying to make you die but your spelling, punctuation, and grammar is killing me.

  • Mono_locco says:

    I think the same thing happens to me. I myself wear perfume and deodorant….unlike alot of people here…YUCK!! And i know for a fact some don’t like my perfume….but let me ask all of those japanese people who complain about perfume smell….. what would you rather smell…. a person who has a nice perfume or an old , middle or business man who stinks like sweat, cigarette or has unbeleivable bad stinky breath (probably because he does not know what a tooth brush or a dentist is) or teenagers, young elementary, junior High and high school kids who smell like they have not bathed for 1 week. So now you grumpy people ….. tell me which one you prefer LOL.
    I have had my fair share of smells on the trains I travel everyday and I am dreading it as I type this comment , having to wake up tomorrow morning and catch a train with someone sitting next to me who doesn’t know what a bar of soap is, doesn’t know what a tooth brush or tooth paste is or does not have the common decency to not make other people die of their bad cigarette smell just because they can’t kick the habbit. If you want to die do it in your own time and don’t make us people smell it.

  • Omicron says:

    The Japanese are very sensitive with the smell of perfume, I had the same experience after wearing a few drops of perfume, some old folks on the train beside me stood up as if I was something from fear factor.

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