Category Archives: Fashion

Humor Among Different Cultures

Yesterday, I was reading a good blog post by reader “Johnl” who has lived in Japan for 30 years. The article is about the importance of fashion and image in Japan (and why it matters), but it also talked about the differences between Japanese and American humor.

John writes:

Early on, I noticed that Japanese people do not react to sarcasm. Much of my sense of humor relies on sarcasm, but they just didn’t get my jokes. I have come to believe that the intentions implied by speech are not trivial.

I noticed this same thing. Sarcastic jokes don’t seem to work. Japanese people didn’t seem to really notice the sarcasm. If I joke in English, they understood the joke, but if I tried in Japanese people would often take me literally. Being American, sarcastic jokes are very common but I slowly realized that it doesn’t always work in other cultures.

But it’s not just Japanese/American culture. For example, when I lived in Ireland, I found the same thing: sarcastic jokes were not common. Instead, Irish humor was more subtle and witty. Friends and co-workers would say something subtle and clever, just a few words, but I often missed the joke until too late. When my Irish friends were drunk, and slip into really Irish-English, it was hard for me to follow the conversation sometimes. There were many subtle jokes I missed. ;-)

In the same way, I noticed that Japanese jokes tend to state the obvious. Someone is doing something kind of silly, but no one says anything. Then, someone breaks the ice, states what they’re doing and thinking, and everyone has a good laugh. It’s hard to explain, but it makes sense in the context. Plus, I noticed Japanese love puns or oyaji gyagu (“Old man gags”) a lot too.

Interesting how people enjoy humor, but different cultures have different ways to express it.

P.S. Read Johnl’s article if you can. :-)

A Brief Look At Korean Hanbok

Hanbok for man and female

(Photo courtesy of’s Flickr page)

Many traditional cultures have some kind of clothing that embodies the culture. When you see a girl in a kimono, you think “Japan”, if you see someone in cowboy clothes you think “America”, or áo dài for “Vietnam”, etc.1 For Korea, the national clothing is the hanbok (한복) also called joseon-ot in North Korea (조선옷) which literally means “Joseon clothing”. You will often see Hanbok in formal occasions, and celebrities wear them as well during New Year’s celebrations or for Seollal and Chuseok.

Hanbok are interesting because they originally have origin from Siberian-Scythian culture in north Asia. Since the Scythians were nomads and rode horses most of their lives, they needed clothes that would keep them warm, but also work well in combat, especially while riding a horse.2 This kind of style was eventually adopted by other north-eastern Asian cultures because it was practical and easy to move around in. Later, a big change occurred when the Korean Goryeo Dynasty made peace with the Mongol Empire, and Mongol princesses married with Korean royalty. They brought styles that later influenced the Hanbok by causing the jeogori (저고리) jacket to be tied with a large ribbon and shortened above the waist. Meanwhile, the woman’s chima (치마) skirt became shorter. Mens’ trousers, or baji (바지) have remained more or less the same all these generations, while trousers for women are now hidden under the skirt.

Also, I kind of think the Korean black hats or gat (갓) look cool too:


Such hats were mostly only worn by middle-class men or above, and especially for married men. I think I read somewhere that the color black was especially for men who had passed the Confucian civil-service exams and were “certified”. But I can’t find the source.

Anyhow, this basic style has been preserved since Goreyo Dynasty, though the lengths of clothing have become longer and shorter depending on the times. One thing I like about Hanbok is the variety of colors. It’s really interesting to see the different many combination of colors used. With Japanese kimono, the styles are reflected in the many kinds of patterns used in the cloth, but for Korean hanbok, the color combinations themselves come in many varieties. The photo above shows more traditional style Hanbok, and you can see similar styles in concert video from KBS featuring the famous folk-song “Arirang” (mentioned previously here):

…but as I said earlier, younger generations will often adopt more flashy, colorful styles:

This is a New Year’s video by the group “Secret” for example:

And here’s a New Year’s video by label-mates, B.A.P.:

As you can see, the girl’s jackets are hiked up just under the bust-line, while the men wear much longer, flowing jackets. But each person has a unique color pattern too.

It’s fun to see how “nomadic” fashion has become so refined in the 21st century. ;)

P.S. The last 2 videos above have English subtitles if you click on the “CC” icon. Thanks to whomever did the translation.

P.P.S. For those interested, I’ve also written a book-review on the famous Japanese diary, the Gossammer Years in my other blog. I felt it fit that blog-theme better.

1 When I studied abroad in Vietnam, I found a nice tailor who made me a custom red-silk ao dai, complete with the round hat, etc. Very touristy of me, but I was 22 years old then. Since I am pretty big, it had to be custom fit too. ;p I still have it, even though I gained weight since then, and haven’t worn it in many years. Maybe I’ll post a picture one of these days, but I don’t want to insult Vietnamese people who probably look much better in ao dai than me. :)

2 Interestingly, high-heels for ladies have a similar origin.


Toe-socks 2

Hi Everyone,

Recently, I started wearing five-toed socks or gohon yubi sokkusu (五本指ソックス) recently after a purchase at REI and they feel great.1

Five-toed socks are pretty common in Japan, and my wife and her family often wear them. The advantage is that your toes are separated and can spread out more easily, so it’s healthy for your feet. However, my shoe size is US13 (UK12 or 31cm in Japan), so my feet are quite large. I’ve been to Tabio stores and sometimes I’ve been to big-and-tall shops in Japan2 but they usually just don’t make five-toed socks in that size or anything near it. If I order online through Rakuten and such, they still don’t always have my size (but the selection is still pretty good).

But when I was at REI looking for good winter shoes, I found some socks by a company called Ijinji. These are not Japanese-style socks, but they do have five-toes and are basically the same. Since they are high-end “performance” socks, they were pretty expensive.

I was worried the first time I tried them on, but they fit my feet really well. It was very strange at first, because I am not used to having something between my toes all the time, or having my toes wrapped individually, but I got used to it quickly.

Now I wish I had purchased more pairs. Thankfully though, my office is located very close to the original REI store, so I could probably walk over there during lunchbreak and purchase more.

If you have foot problems, you may want to gift five-toed socks a try.

Happy Walking!

1 A good friend in Japan wanted to try out the big-and-tall shop in her neighborhood near Yokosuka, and invited me along as the test “subject”. :) I found some good items there, but no five-toed socks. Some items were a bit touristy (I don’t usually wear things that say 武士道 on them), but I did find some great socks I regularly wear among other items.

2 REI is a good place to go to get that “Seattle style”. Everyone here dresses like they are going camping. :)

Understanding Women’s Fashion In Korea/Japan

I grew up in the Seattle area almost my entire life. Until recently, people here dressed like we’re all going camping, or at least doing something outdoors, but this was basically all I knew. It is the Pacific Northwest after all. I’m joking of course, but Seattle definitely is not a place to find high-fashion.1 Then I went to Japan with my wife and it was a bit of a culture shock,2 as people were so stylish. Lots of name-brand clothing, but the women are really stylish. Almost every girl was wearing skirts, boots, or just really short shorts.

For me, it was a bit of a sensory overload at first, but once I got acclimated to the fashion-conscious culture, I realized that here it seemed so normal. If young women dressed like that in Seattle, people might get the wrong idea, or at the very least they might stop traffic.

If you think I’m exaggerating, watch this music video by Girl’s Generation:3

Pay attention, I am being serious here. :)

Yeah, this is Pop music, so of course everything’s extra polished and “cool”. No one looks like that without an army of stylists, make-up artists and fashion experts to support you, but this actually is a pretty good example of the kinds of fashion you see women wear in Japan and Korea. Even in cold weather, too. Still, while it’s pretty awesome to see so many stylish girls, I have to admit it’s always kind of wondered why so many girl’s wear such leggy clothes. But lately, I’ve been watching an awesome show online by a Canadian couple living in Korea called Eat your Kimchi, and they cover the subject of fashion:

Watching this, when I go back and watch the Girl’s Generation video, it kind of makes a lot more sense now. Notice in the video they almost always cover the upper body. This really got me thinking is how subjective, and culturally-influenced notions of “beauty” are. Showing shoulders or midriff in the US isn’t really that risqué, but it is in Korea, and to a lesser degree in Japan too, based on limited experience. On the other hand, showing so much leg in the US will get a lot of attention.

Of course, beauty is something that everyone can agree on, but it’s interesting how culture and beauty mix to produce social rules about what’s acceptable and what isn’t. I have no idea why that happens, but it does.

Just fascinating to me I guess. But as my wife tells me, I am such a nerd. :)

P.S. Messed up schedule again. This was supposed to go out Monday.

P.P.S. Not the first time I’ve talked about women’s fashion in Asia. ;-)

1 My poor wife misses a lot of clothing brands and stores in Japan that you can’t find in Seattle. We found many of them in London or Dublin though, so it’s a Seattle issue. Plus, the sizes are not for Asian women either, which makes life hard. I have a post about my mis-adventures with clothing in Japan too coming up. :-p

2 Living in Ireland too. People in Ireland, like most of Europe, are a lot more trim and stylish than Americans, without being over the top.

3 I like listening to Girl’s Generation in the original Korean (even though I can understand the Japanese lyrics more easily). It just sounds more natural in their native language. But I have to admit that the Japanese versions of their music videos, such as the one above, are much better produced and choreographed. Japan as a culture really does have a talent for aesthetics.

A Look at Jinbei

Speaking of Bonodori, fireworks, and summer barbecues in Japan, another aspect of summer are jinbei (甚平):


Jinbei shouldn’t be confused with kimono. They are very light, cotton robes, usually indigo in color, but as you can see below, the seam is very loose:

Jinbei 2

This is very helpful for helping your skin to breathe, and allow a fresh breeze to go through. I had my first jinbei many years ago as a gift when my mother-in-law visited the US for the first time, but the one shown above is a more recent gift. Because I am 180cm tall and 226 pounds (102.5 kg), I am pretty big. In the US, I wear XL-sized shirts, but XL in Japan is much smaller,1 so this robe is actually XXL (extra, extra large). This is probably “tourist” size. :)

But if you do go to Japan in the summer, or see a festival there, you are pretty likely to see men wearing jinbei. It’s almost required in the sweltering heat and humidity there, but you might also be able to find one in your size too. Jinbei can be scratchy, a little bit, if the robes are new, but get softer after a few washes. I wear mine around the house sometimes if it is summer, and I am stuck oncall and can’t leave the house anyway.

P.S. Quick trivia: Whale sharks are called jinbeizame (ジンベエザメ) in Japan because the pattern of their skin looks like Jinbei.

P.P.S. Because I am a huge nerd, I updated Wikipedia similarly. In case anyone noticed. ;p

1 I learned this the hard way when buying shirts and jackets at stores in Japan. I saw the size XL tag, and assumed they would fit, but they are usually one size too small. Still, the styles are a lot better than what you can find in Seattle (where everyone dresses like they are going camping), so I buy clothes anyway and just try to fit as best I can. I am also happy that I’ve been losing weight lately through a combination of exercise and a more balanced diet (more vegetables, less junk food).