Coca-Cola Bottlers Japan Inc., which employs about 17,000 people, announced earlier this month it would allow office workers to come to work in jeans and sneakers. Factory workers in the company will still be required to wear uniforms and sales staff will still be expected to don business suits as per regulations in the existing dress code but, for everyone else (about 3,700 workers), the choice of clothing is optional — or, optional up to a point. Polo shirts are OK and women are able to wear sleeveless tops, but the new regulations prohibit shorts, T-shirts, sandals or ripped jeans. In fact, the company released photographic examples of what it calls sawayaka (refreshing) style, a play on the beverage maker’s advertising catch copy, which still incorporates suit jackets.

The purpose, according to an article that was published in the Asahi Shimbun, is to encourage individuality, which will in turn increase communication among employees and boost productivity. In other words, there’s sound business logic behind the relaxation of rules, which, if you think about it, isn’t much of a change. There are still rules, they’re just different from the previous ones.

Work clothing, meaning apparel considered suitable for specific kinds of jobs, divides between social consensus and practicality. Jobs that require interaction with the public or persons outside one’s immediate workplace often require semi-formal attire that reflects an employee’s seriousness and respect for others.

For certain blue-collar labor, the clothing should provide comfort and safety, but practicality can also mean alleviating the need for workers to come up with something appropriate every day. Business suits and uniforms take the uncertainty out of preparing for work. This way of thinking was canonized by Steve Jobs, whose preference for blue jeans and black turtlenecks was not a sartorial preference, but rather a time-saving strategy.

The Asahi Shimbun article about the new dress guidelines at Coca-Cola Bottlers Japan carries a sardonic aftertaste, especially in light of how much coverage the newspaper has given to the matter of socially acceptable appearance this year.

The newspaper’s obsession seemed to start with a verdict handed down by the Osaka District Court on Jan. 16 that found in favor of two Osaka Municipal Subway drivers who sued the city for giving them a negative evaluation because of their facial hair, which has been forbidden under rules enforced since Toru Hashimoto was mayor, the idea being that the transportation bureau was a public organization and thus personnel who were the face of the city must be presentable. One of the drivers had a goatee before the new rules went into effect and refused to shave it off. The court deemed the rule unconstitutional. Then-Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura, insisting the Osaka Municipal Subway is not a “private club,” vowed to appeal.

Individuals are guaranteed certain rights by the Constitution, but how far can one take those rights? This case addressed men whose transgression was tame. It’s not as if they showed up to work in cargo shorts and whiskers down to their chest.

Facial hair is the exception rather than the rule at workplaces in Japan and so what’s problematic is not forbidden modes of appearance, but rather mandated ones. A March 29 Asahi Shimbun article examined the issue of high heels. A woman named Yumi Ishikawa bristled when the funeral services company she worked for sent her to a firm that said she had to wear pumps with 5-centimeter heels, which she finds painful. In response she referenced the Twitter hashtag #KuToo, a pun on kutsu, which can mean “shoes” and “pain” (depending on whether a longer vowel sound is used at the end), that also suggests the anti-sexual harassment #MeToo movement. Her post on Twitter was retweeted more than 30,000 times.

It’s easy to understand why a woman would not want to spend a whole work day in high heels. What was strange about the article is that the reporter felt it necessary to include a detailed history of high heels that framed the issue as one of gender discrimination and, while there is certainly an element of that, the more immediate problem is discomfort, meaning social consensus and practicality are at odds with each other.

A similar issue that more clearly reveals sexism is whether women must wear makeup on the job. A March 6 Asahi Shimbun article examined Virgin Atlantic’s decision to no longer oblige female cabin attendants to wear makeup, though, as with the Coca-Cola dress code, it was discussed as a business decision: Flight attendants could save time. Nothing was said about the freedom to not wear makeup.

The Asahi Shimbun’s fascination with the topic springs from the tension between self-expression and the desire to belong, so the tone of an April 11 article about the entrance ceremony for new Meiji University students was one of concern. Almost all the 4,000 or so freshmen who attended the April 7 ceremony at the Nippon Budokan arena in Tokyo were wearing black or dark blue suits, even though there were no dress guidelines. One 19-year-old woman said, “I don’t like to stand out.”

Professor Daisuke Tano of Konan University traced this phenomenon to the late 1990s and early 2000s, when post-university job searches were difficult. In order to boost their chances, students bought conservatively dark “recruit suits.” Freshmen, who assume they’ll need such suits when they look for a job down the line, buy them early for the entrance ceremony. Some universities seem as alarmed with this trend as the Asahi Shimbun is. International Christian University sent out a notice specifically saying that freshmen did not have to wear suits.

However, it was apparel retailers who came up with the recruit suit concept, not to mention other sales campaigns that take advantage of a target demographic’s desire to blend in.

A separate Asahi Shimbun article described how girls now demand expensive hakama outfits for their elementary school graduation ceremonies.

The message here isn’t the loss of individuality, but the power of marketing. If businesses can influence consumers before adolescence, they’ve got them for life.

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