Sunday, November 26, 2006

Catering to a Stereotype?

This picture is specified as being in the public domain but I'll credit Wikipedia's kimono information page anyway.

In my student roster post, I mentioned a temporary student who was taking a few lessons with me to practice the type of things she might be asked in her new job at an information booth at a major international hotel. Her final lesson was last Friday and she asked to extend it to two hours because she was insecure about her ability to cope on the job. During the lesson, I asked her an exhaustive (and exhausting) series of questions that a guest might conceivably ask her in the course of her job.

When I asked her what sort of training the hotel would provide, she said they always did "on the job training". That essentially means she will sink or swim when she starts. I'm sure she'll be fine because she knew what the phrase "sink or swim" meant and her English, though far from perfect, is pretty good. The only thing I am slightly worried might be an issue is her tendency to say "saloon" instead of "salon". I don't think it would do to tell guests they can get a pedicure at the "esthetic saloon".

In addition to being concerned about her lack of training, she also said she was worried because the job required her to wear a kimono and she'd have to dress herself. For those who are not well-versed in Japanese cultural points, putting on a kimono is pretty difficult and apparently requires training and/or two people. Early on in my years in Japan, many female students would cite "wearing a kimono" as a hobby. For Americans, who have no traditional dress, the idea of learning to wear a type of clothing as a hobby seems very odd but the fact that people have to take lessons in putting it on is an indication of how complicated it can be.

Besides being difficult to put on, kimono can also be quite heavy though I think contemporary versions are likely lighter than more elaborate, traditional versions. I can't speak to how comfortable they are but I do believe that wearing one day-in and day-out while working in a hotel would probably get pretty tedious, particularly if it's a sticky business getting it on each morning. I'm guessing it's also not the easiest thing to walk around in on the subways or trains.

When I asked my student why she had to wear a kimono to answer her English-speaking guests' questions, she said that the people who run this hotel felt that foreign visitors expected it and find it more appealing when they visit Japan. The hotel is very expensive and caters to well-heeled international business travelers so this isn't some homespun ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) with an idiosyncratic little shacho (president) imposing his notions on the staff. It's the equivalent of the Hilton hotel without the embarrassing heiress to drag down its reputation.

Part of me feels that this is simply good business but part of me, the part that feels sorry for my student for having to parade around in a kimono all day when it has nothing to do with the service she offers, that this is no more than catering to foreign stereotypes of Japan as the land of sumo, rikshaws, Fuji and geisha. It also has just a whiff of being patronizing toward foreign guests who the Japanese may feel just aren't ready to cope with the realities of modern Japan.


Luis said...

Kimonos can also be very expensive, sometimes cripplingly so. Just a rental of a kimono for a wedding can cost more than buying a wedding dress in the U.S.

I understand, however, that there are kimonos specially made so they are easier to put on--hidden clasps instead of wrapping, and so forth.

I wonder, does the company she work for buy her kimono? I would presume so, as it would be terribly expensive, probably more than a month's pay for the worker, I would assume. I then wonder why they would presume to get her one of the ones so difficult to put on--unless somehow one could easily see the difference, and it might look tacky or something.

Shari said...

I asked her if the hotel would provide her kimono and, if so, if they would provide more than one. She wasn't sure but she thought they probably would provide one but she didn't know.

However, she's not a neophyte. She's in her 40's with a grown daughter and an employed husband. Part of the reason they may have hired her is that they knew she had the capability to provide whatever was necessary including the "costume".

This isn't the sort of place that is likely to allow employees to wear anything that looks tacky. The rooms run around the low 20 thousand to 30,000 yen range per night.

Tokyo Rosa said...

hmmm....kimono are expensive, but you can wear the same kimono over and over and even from member to member or from generation to generation within a family, making them more cost-effective than, say, the business suits i was required to wear for work in tokyo.

i doubt the student will have to pay for her own kimono. i also had a student who was required to wear a kimono in the restaurant where she worked and the restaurant did provide kimono for employess.

anyway, i find most dress codes pretty silly, but at least she won't have to wear the ubiquitous air hostess-like monstrosities that most uniformed female employees wear in japan!

Andrew said...

Your stories from this very different culture always fascinate me! Thanks for giving the rest of us a view inside. Also thank you for visiting my site. I appreciate it!

Have a great one!
Andrew ("To Love, Honor and Dismay")