Here are 8 cultural differences in Japan that sneak into the seemingly simple task of – pick out clothes, try on clothes, buy clothes!
1. Shoes off!
So you probably know that Japanese people take their shoes off at home. But did you know… the Japanese shoes-off habit extends to many public places too? In Japan, it is not uncommon to remove shoes when entering offices, museums, libraries, temples, and even restaurants. The fitting room is another place where shoes are discouraged. The cue to remove your shoes is the change in floor covering (often from tile or wood outside to carpet inside the fitting room) and a slight raised elevation inside the fitting room (raised surfaces separate “clean” shoe-off areas from the “dirty” ground).
2. You’ll be asked to cover your face (especially if you’re a girl).
When you enter the fitting room, you will probably be given a gauzy square of fabric. It is a “face shield.” The first time I went shopping alone in Japan, I had absolutely no idea what this square of fabric was or how I was supposed to use it. BUT I did understand that there was a strong expectation for me to use it. In fact, I was pretty sure that I was being asked to use it… somehow. I was too embarrassed to ask for clarification. I was also too embarrassed to look like I was ignoring the cultural expectation. So I unfolded the square in the fitting room and scrunched it around in my hands to make it look “used.” Then I left it on the floor as I tried on clothes. Now I know what the face shield is for! It protects your make-up and hair products from smearing onto the clothes. It also helps the clothes slip smoothly over your head. It might seem like a bother, but it makes trying clothes on faster and it also means that the clothes you buy will not have someone else’s lipstick stain!
3. Service is pretty excellent.
Maybe too excellent… The attentive service almost felt intrusive when I first moved to Japan. I was used to being left alone to wander the aisles and try on clothes undisturbed. If you are the kind of shopper who is used to a solitary shopping experience, then shopping in Japan might seem unfamiliar at first. As soon as you enter the store, you will be greeted with shouts of “Welcome!” from the shop staff. When you find your arms full, an employee will approach to offer you a basket. In the fitting room, the staff will knock on the door and make sure you have everything you need. It took some getting used to but now I am happy for all the attention. I never have to go hunting for the size I need. I just ask a staff member to bring it for me. If I am uncertain about what color to buy or which size fits better, then I have someone ready to offer expert advice. I have gotten some excellent pieces of clothing thanks to the suggestions of experienced staff. Thanks!
4. Sizing might be a little different…
The average height of a woman in Japan is 5’2″. The average height of a man is 5’8″. Further, the Japanese “Asian” body type tends towards longer torsos and shorter legs. The clothes that are sold in Japan are cut and sized accordingly. Depending on your body type, you might find it hard to find clothes that fit well in Japan. I often struggle with the sleeve length in Japan. My arms are pretty long. Someone once told me I had a “wide wingspan.” The result is that clothes in Japan hit my wrist at an awkward length, somewhere around 7/8ths. The sizing works well for some people though! My brother is tall by Japanese standards (over 6 feet) but he has a slightly more Asian build – flatter rather than rounder body, and a longer torso. In particular, shirts tend to fit him better in Japan and seem better suited to his frame.
5. Fitting “rooms” are often tiny platforms with curtains.
Some stores in Japan have expansive fitting rooms like the United States. But smaller stores in Japan often have just one tiny platform surrounded with a curtain. Sometimes the fitting space is positioned right in the middle of the store, so when you draw back the curtain to show off your potential purchase all the other customers can see you. During my recent trip to Jeans Street in Okayama, I got an approving look for another customer. I was trying on a jean overall jumper. The customer smiled at me and gave me the “ok” sign. It was fun to get an outside opinion. One downside of these changing spaces is that I’m always worried that I will trip while changing and tumble out of the curtain in front of everyone. (Fortunately that has never happened!) But it does take a certain acrobatic skill to change inside these tiny spaces.
6. SHOES come in S, M, L, and XL.
The general shoe size system in Japan uses the length of the foot in centimeters. I wear a women’s 7.5 in the U.S. ( = 24.5 cm in Japan). But some shoes in Japan come in just a handful of sizes ranging from S to XL! These shoes are usually cheaper and sold like accessories without any expectation of long term use. If you want to try a new style or enjoy a trend, these “disposable” shoes can be fun! I bought a pair of “M” size faux leather boots with fringe in Harajuku. Not sure I would have wanted to spend real money on these shoes, but $12 sounded just right! And at that price, I did not mind too much that the sizing was not perfect.
7. Be careful when washing your new clothes!
Japanese homes do not normally have drying machines. Instead, people hang their clothes outside to dry. In my experience, my Japan-bought clothes do not take kindly to the high heat of the dryer. I have completely ruined my clothes, shrinking them several sizes. And I am not the only one! My mom’s English student from Japan also learned this lesson, when his sweater went from adult to child sized after a single trip through the dryer. To be on the safe side, I would recommend hang drying any clothes that you buy in Japan.
8. You might experience some self-consciousness.
Okay now I am just talking from my experience but sometimes shopping in Japan takes a toll on my self image. First of all, I don’t consider myself a “stylish” person but I do make some effort about my appearance. So (in the U.S.) I feel at least reasonably dressed. Not so, in Japan. In Japan, I feel SO UNCOOL. My clothes feel cheap, and ill fitting, and downright plain. It does not help that I usually visit Japan in the summer, when it is so hot and I feel like I am practically melting. Yet all the women around me seem to have perfectly arranged clothes without a wrinkle or sweat stain. How do they do it…? Second of all, I feel ENORMOUS when I am in Japan. One day when I was shopping in Japan, I picked out some clothes. Most were “XL” but one was “L.” When I went to the dressing room, the staff handed each item to me one at a time, while saying the size out loud. Here is a dress, size XL. Here is a long sleeved shirt, size XL. Here is a skirt, size XL. She reached the last dress and saw that it was a “L.” Are you sure you can fit in this L-size? she asked. The whole experience left me feeling exposed and awkward. It also challenged my body image. I think of myself as a relatively normal-sized person but at the end of the day I guess it is all relative. In Japan, I tower over many of the women around me.
Thanks for reading! Do you have any favorite spots for shopping in Japan? Share your recommendations below.