The delighted and envious uproar over my cache of vintage perfume finds the other day (at a run down underground Tokyo arcade), led more than one reader to ask the obvious question : why? HOW?! Why is it that a country famed for its attraction to subtlety; barely perceptible scents, and soft, smudged ambiguity in general, should turn up such treasure troves of unwanted, pungent, classic French scent? How did it get there?
It gave me food for thought….
I am no social anthropologist, nor Japanologist. I can speak the language passably (though that is debatable), but cannot read or write it all, and thus do not have the abilities to bore my way properly into the country’s own literature and current thought, to turn up answers from the inside (without this ability, I don’t think you can ever really get to know a society inside out). I am not in a position, therefore, theoretically, to make great, general and sweeping generalizations about a country that is famous for its impenetrability.
Except that I am. I live here. And I personally reject the idea of PC enforced, ‘balanced’ objectivity: the idea that you can’t make any convincing analyses or value judgements on another culture because you are biased from your own entrenched, cultural perspective, much as I understand and admire that way of looking at the world (the world would surely be more peaceful if more people took their stance…)
Personally, however, I can’t be so cerebral and removed, because otherwise the sensory and mental overload I have been constantly infused with over the last seventeen years would, for me, have no meaning. To make sense of living in Japan, I have never been able to merely passively accept the ‘cultural differences’ (such a tired expression). Instead, when I am not just simply having fun somewhere, I have had to analyze, constantly, as that is my nature: wonder, mull, accept, reject, admire, detest, whatever aspect of Japanese culture happens to be stimulating, thrilling, bugging or appalling me on any given day, at any given moment. For the outsider, as many a long-term foreigner will tell you, this country is in many ways a very easy place to live in indeed, practically a ‘dream playground’, yet to one who is extremely sensitive to his surroundings, to the Japanese and their lives themselves, the depths of all the contradictions: truth/lie; face/heart; private/public; strict, oppressive conservatism/vast, liberal permissiveness, the tenderness but also the cruelty, Japan can feel sometimes like an ever-shifting quicksand of stubborn, deliberate vagueness which can be quite excruciating for the supposedly more ‘grounded’, and logical, western mind.
In short, Japan is complicated. Which is probably why I have lived here so long: ultimately it still remains a mystery, its depths seemingly endless, like a taunting, vertical hall of mirrors (and I am innately drawn to the mysterious). Which isn’t to say that it cannot be prised apart nor understood (they’re not that clever, though many people here I am sure would beg to differ). No, I think I have a fairly good handle, basically, on the whys and wherefores of ol’ Nippon: its stark neuroses, its pride and its prejudices, and have in fact long been planning to write a book on the subject, tentatively titled ‘ Death and Love in Japan’. It has been gestating within me for some years, following several shocking events that I have witnessed or been part of personally : the earthquake and the tsunami, of course, but also the suicide I saw at the my local train station one cold, freezing November morning; the leaping of one the students at my school to her death from her sixth floor balcony; the burning down of the house two doors down from ours by a man who was so obviously severely in need of psychological help but was totally ignored: this soul-jolting conflagration, the flames roaring, a life incinerated down to the ground, with people standing in the street, tears in their eyes as the ambulances took his mother and him away for to some unknown place for good.
These events, and other incidents – so many more – with their personal effect on my life, but more interestingly, their ramifications for Japan as a whole, most definitely provide enough material for a book. Yes, the death parts might be shocking, and disturbing. But the love parts, trust me, will be more overwhelming.
Which brings me to perfume.
Something as supposedly superfluous as personal scent might seem unconnected to what I have begun to discuss above, but in fact it forms the main body of an article that I have written, ‘Perfume Haters’, which is soon to be published in the upcoming inaugural issue of ODOU, a publication devoted to the olfactory, curated and edited by Liam Moore. It’s something of a polemic, actually, and I’m slightly apprehensive about some people’s possible reactions to it (do my presumptuous ‘observations’ on the olfactive cultural preferences of different cultures, their phobias, their taboos – Japanese, American, German – constitute nationalized stereotypes? Are people going to possibly take offense? I’m not sure). But if it is true that there are some seeds of reality sewn into the lining of every cliché, then the olfactory stereotypes – the animalic, dirty musks of the French, the (overbearingly) polite flowers of the English, the sweet, floral confectioneries of the Italians, and the dirt-phobic cleaner-than-thou laundry musk perfumes of the Americans, must have cultural precedents and affinities. Why do people, actually, like the smells that they do?
So, to the Japanese, and what I see as their typically complicated attitude to smell and the wearing of perfume. As I have written elsewhere, this country, essentially, is not a perfume country, if by perfume country you mean somewhere, like the Arab countries, or France, Italy, Spain, places where a bottle of scent is sold somewhere every few seconds or so and is seen as something enjoyable, natural, a part of one’s public, and private, identity. Something to be enjoyed. Splashed on, used up, and bought again when you run out, with abandon. A bottle to be drained. This is emphatically not how it is seen in Japan. There are no perfume shops, the ‘profumeria’, like there are on practically every street corner in Rome or Barcelona: just a limited selection sold in particularly designated department stores. And even these are not frequented with anyway near as much enthusiasm as the clothes floors, accessories, and particularly make up concessions like Kanebo and Shiseido (Japanese women do love their skin care). Perfume, here, is very much an afterthought.
That huge 28ml bottle of Chanel Gardénia parfum I found the other day, now mauled and in rabid, delighted, regular use by this messy western perfume maniac, could possibly, and probably, have sat wrapped; unused; contained for god knows how long before I happened upon it. Probably passed from owner to owner with golden tongs, a commodity, or else, I would conjecture, a gift to the owner’s friend of friend, someone moneyed, who had been staying, or maybe working, in Paris, London, New York, and brought it back with them as an expensive omiyage, or souvenir. I don’t know where, of course, or even if this is in any way true. But I do know that in almost any other country the perfume would have been used, at least opened! (wasn’t this person even the tiniest bit curious as to how the contents of this bottle might have smelled?!)
Probably not. Because on the whole, the wearing of perfume, in this country, is simply not something commonplace or even ‘natural’. It is sold; it is worn; there are customers milling about the perfume stands at the department stores as you would expect, but even here there are crucial distinctions between the pleasurable act of perfume shopping in Berlin or Los Angeles and the museum-like, hygienic perfection of the testing out a high-end scent at at top level deparment store such as Isetan, Shinjuku – the busiest, biggest, and most gleaming fashion emporium in all of Tokyo. Unlike Liberty, or even Harrods, where you can plonk your bags down, pick up some testers and spray and sniff to your heart’s content with the friendly and often humourous assistance of one of the frequently very knowledgeable staff, you would certainly not feel comfortable doing so in the immaculately frigid new perfume floor at Isetan, or Ginza’s Matsuzakaya (don’t even get me started on the Hermès boutique in Marounouchi…I can feel my blood boiling again just thinking about the time I stormed out shouting in fury, slamming the door and terrifying the staff, after an altercation with a snooty faced bitch who had behaved so condescendingly towards me that I could quite easily have strung her up on the spot from a coatstand; the look on her face one of dismay that I would even be in the shop, as I was clearly not one of the usual customers in their extravagantly expensive attire (even if I knew aeons more about the perfumes she was selling than she did..) was enough to truly turn a florid perfumista into a violent murderer.
I have never experienced quite the same level of coldness anywhere else in Japan, but there is, on the whole, this unbearable sense of seriousness about the entire enterprise – that we are in the awesome presence of expensive foreign goods and should therefore behave accordingly. Japan is of course world-famous for its level of service. But this can work both ways. I personally find it ingratiating, overpolite, and often false by and large, and in this regard, Isetan (which has most of the niche brands you could desire) is in a world of its own, with a sales staff to customer ratio that feels like something approaching 3 or 2:1, though on slow, quiet weekday afternoons this can almost be inverted. The sales ladies outnumber you. And as a customer, a potential taker of of these holier-than-thou imported products, you therefore immediately stand out, and thus, before you know it, some impeccably made-up, immaculately turned out beauty will hover her way towards you; eyes a pinned butterfly; the level of high-voltage politesse turned up to a nerve jangling 110%.
Gloved, she will reach so elegantly for the bottle in question (in Europe, after living in Japan, no one seems to have this elegance of movement – we are like orang utans in comparison; lumpen, ungainly); mutter some words about its merits, its ‘citrus’, its ‘freshness’ , as the customer, nodding in deference to the ‘expert,’ looks interestedly (but often slightly worriedly), on.
A spot of this precious product will then be sprayed, oh so delicately, onto a test card, and the unwitting recipient will sample it cautiously, head tilted questioningly, unconfidently (always put your trust in someone more knowledgable than you…)
Will she walk away with this perfume after not even having tried it on her skin?
There are exceptions, naturally: pluckier Shinjuku madams, high class Tokyo gentlemen who are more exacting, knowing precisely what they are after in terms of perfume, but, on the whole, from what I have been seeing over the years, this is the pattern of contemporary perfume shopping in Japan. The perfumes have been sprayed, diligently, onto the tester card with their names written on them in tiny, hand-written script, but these are not to be moved; you are to lift them, inquisitively smelling, gently (although dipping one’s nose into the scent is seen as rather coarse, uncouth, so the perfume is usually experienced more by beckoning the hand over it towards you, hoping that it will in this way gently reach your nostrils, and you can make your (totally ill-formed) decision, probably made in advance in any case, based on some magazine or online article ‘introducing’ the perfume to you.) Taking the bottle up personally, and spraying it on liberally ( because, er,well, don’t you actually want to know what the bloody thing smells like, how it develops on your skin? Are you not going to wander about with it for a while to make sure it doesn’t suddenly develop some horror basenotes or stages you just weren’t expecting?) No no no, you don’t spray on liberally the way I do – most definitely frowned upon – and as for getting samples, you know where you can go. Even when you have spent a fortune on one of their perfumes, you will be very lucky to get one of these frigid wenches to procure a sample from one of the carefully guarded sample drawers (even when you know full well that they are there…..I was v e r y persistent about this point at Hermès, I can tell you!). No. Even these, these tiny samples, are viewed with such reverence: as preciousness, as vials of luxe to be retained, that you can damn right be sure that they are not just going to hand them out like candies to a roomful of sweet-toothed children at Halloween.
And herein lies the crux of the matter. Ultimately, like non-Japanese or gaijin (the derogatory-tinged word that is applied to all foreigners, white ones in particular), perfume, of the expensive, western variety, is seen, I think as The Other. And The Other is basically something you don’t (want to) understand, you fear, or conversely have an untoward level of respect, even deference, for, but, for me, the fact remains that ‘the other’ is a huge and integral part of the general Japanese psyche, and I would personally place perfume within its unloving, distancing, and paranoid frame.
The true proportions of the Japanese Inferiority/Superiority complex towards westerners, bound up viscerally within most Japanese in my view, is something I will never be able to fully fathom. But trust me, I do know that both sides of this neurotic equation are very strong, and that they surface, alarmingly, at different times. This is far too complex for me to elaborate properly on right now, suffice it to say that while many Japanese seem to profoundly (if silently) believe their exquisite culture to be superior to any other that has ever existed on this earth (as do most cultures, I suppose) there is a strange double standard – foreign influences can be adopted, adapted, and mastered (the Japanese do master other countries’ cuisines to the extent that they are sometimes superior to the originals; western classical music is something seen as perfectly natural , as is Shakespearean acting: even the Sound Of Music was on recently in a Tokyo theatre with an all Japanese cast (a bit weird, if you ask me, an oriental Maria), but westerners trying to ape Japanese culture will always be seen as crude buffoons: attempting to make sushi, play the koto, or even participatein sport: the ex-mayor of Tokyo, that monstrous fascist Ishihara, not that long ago described the karate matches between foreign competitors at one of the Olympic Games as watching ‘beasts’.
I remember when Duncan took part in a ‘kimono competition’ at Kawasaki city Hall a few years ago at the urging of a woman he had met who wanted to ‘teach him kimono’ (how to assemble each garment, the order in which to do it, and how to perfect the eventual ensemble). The contest was divided into different categories: men, married women, children, unmarried women and so on and so forth, the object of the contest being to see who could put on their kimono the fastest, with the most natural, elegant, precision. Once the clock was started, the participants would hurriedly assemble their elaborate kimono, from inner, to outer garment, to obi, and make their way, briskly, to the front of the stage. When it came to the ‘gaijin’ section, ‘Kimono are not just for theJapanese! Let’s watch the foreigners try!’ commented the presenters, unconvincingly (this was also being presented on TV, apparently). I felt such embarrassment, and yet strange tenderness for the motley, overweight, bunch of multi-ethnic foreigners, who looked like such bumbling, well-meaning fools (you see how I have internalized the racism? ), despite the lavish compliments of the adjudicators (oh why did they have to select such inelegant, garish designs? I felt as if I could read the minds of the collective hall, mocking them secretly in private). And I wondered, if this was, in fact, the point, just some cruel joke….
(for the record, Duncan handled himself admirably; true, his black, men’s kimono was a little too ‘up’ at the back when he did his spin for the judges, but with his slender frame and natural poise, I have to say he carried it off rather well.)
The point of all this is to say that in my (absolutely not even vaguely) humble opinion, Japan, in a myriad of different ways, from food, to manners, to service, to discipline, to ‘love of nature’, considers itself vastly superior to the rest of the world ( ” I love Japan because we have four seasons ” is a frequent refrain that you hear, to which I always respond by asking them if they have ever heard of Vivaldi ).
And this is a beautiful, ancient, highly sophisticated, extraordinarily sensitive and distinctive (yet very sadomasochistic, and monstrously xenophobic) culture, so in many ways, who can blame them?
But, concurrently – and this brings, us finally, to Chanel, and Guerlain – a strange combination of hierarchy and snobbery (the desire to purchase expensive, branded foreign goods; the fierce, ubiquitous impulse to have the latest fashion – Japan is fad/craze/boom central par excellence –the seemingly almost genetic impulse to copy and follow other people so as not to stand out, plus the very deeply entrenched inferiority complex (Western colonization of Asia; the Atomic bomb, American post-war occupation of the country? jealousy of the non-Japanese person to be able to express himself so much more easily? ), all of it creating, in the package of stylish, expensive, and particularly French, designer perfume, a very potent and covetable status symbol.
Like the ubiquitous (and deeply detested by me, I have to say) ‘classic’ Louis Vuitton handbag (which fortunately seems to be finally falling out of fashion; such dreadful and mindlessly empty conspicuous consumption!) I believe that perfume, particularly extraits, or ‘kosui’ in Japanese, for that extra money-flashing, look-what-I’ve-brought-home’ je ne sais quoi, was, for a long time in the boom years of the sixties, seventies and eighties before the bubble (supposedly) burst, merely that: a status symbol; an object. In the same way that those snooty, ice-hearted fucks at Hermès Marounouchi approach the perfumes under their tutelage with literal kid gloves (no, literally: actual Hermès kid leather gloves: you’d think each bottle of bloody Jour D’Hermès (vile, by the way), were a one-off edition, museum piece by Lalique): that perfume, in that box, baby, is there to be admired.
I OWN you, you fancy, little, French imported, kokyu (‘high level’) objet.
And though it is possible that I may, one day, open you, to wear, perhaps, to the opera, or a classical concert, a play, or an afternoon tea party in Ginza with some of my old friends, you know, on second thought, I think that I probably won’t.
Who knows how strong this concentrated perfume will actually be?
What if in some way I were to offend others?
What if the foreign smell makes me stand out too much, and look ridiculous? No, no. I don’t think I will wear you actually. I’ll put you just in this drawer, here by the bedside. Fourth drawer down. There you go….
If you have never been to Japan (and it seems that almost none of you have), you can’t properly imagine, despite the inherent Japaneseness of everything that surrounds you here in terms of behaviour, atmosphere, regulation, smell, architecture, and of course food (the absolute national obsession), how extraordinarily Europhile so much of this country is. Naturally, there are burger bars, and TGI Fridays, and Sizzlers, and KFC, and all the usual American imports as well as the standard luxury Americana as well: Coach, Lauren, Calvin Klein et al, but in terms of snobbish value and cachet, Europe very clearly wins the day. The soaring, gleaming edifices of Ginza, Tokyo’s most prestigious, exorbitant business, shopping and entertainment zone (the very name, Ginza, alludes to streets of silver) is packed with diamond-cut, beautifully designed new buildings commissioned by the fashion giants: Dior: Armani: Chanel: Hermès….the neon may be Japanese (and it can be just so damn beautiful at night there, especially in the rain), but the brands all those fashionable things gliding along its spotless, reflected streets are dreaming of, and saving up for, are all European. There are simply no Japanese equivalents (Yohji Yamamoto, Comme Des Garçons included) in terms of prestige.
And this extreme sensation of luxury, those well known logos and symbols that singe themselves into the minds and fashion conscious retina of the Japanese, extends, to a smaller extent, to perfume, too. Japan is as appearance-conscious as you can get, and to be honest, while philosophically and ethically this might be suspect, aesthetically it is a great part of the appeal of the country. ‘Wabisabi’, or the Japanese sense of beauty (naturally there is an ethnocentric, self-congratulatory special term for it) – is indeed extremely beautiful and immediately apparent from any visit to Kyoto, or Kamakura (where I live); in the temples and shrines, the teahouses, tended gardens, and traditional arts. But it is also very present in the fashion sense and style of much of the population, particularly in the more trend-setting, fast-forward and futuristic areas of Tokyo such as Omotesando, Daikanyama and Shibuya. It is this contrast, of the old and the sparklingly, techno-new, that makes Japan so utterly stimulating. It is wonderful to just spend a day watching people, taking it all in: the buzz, the energy, the wackiness, the fierceness of their fashion, which makes people in the cities of Europe or America just seem like walking sacks of pudgy, lumpen, potatoes.
At the same time, this sense of quasi-veneration that Les Grands Européens – Gucci, Prada, Cartier – generates, is for me, on the bare moral and ethical level, in its brain-washed unquestioning, acceptance of the capitalist dogma, quite sickening. It is again, in a peculiarly deferential way, a case of The Other. Something Foreign. Expensive. Beautiful, yes, maybe, but to be viewed from a distance: encased in glass.
I was in in Ginza the other night to watch De Palma’s Passion. And after getting my ticket, I fortunately had some time to kill, which I did by wandering the streets of Hibiya, as usual, with a casual stroll into Hankyu Mens’, thought, now, to be one of the most aspirational addresses for High Fashion and also perfumes. But I found it, like most of these places, to be like a mausoleum. Dead. Cold. Chilled. And hushed, with that feeling, again, of profound respect for these bloody ‘BRANDS’ that seem to symbolize something unreachable and striveworthy for many Japanese, but which for me have me thirsting for the more light-hearted irony of the shop assistants I met everywhere in California ( so much more fun: more silly, more multi-layered….must this ultimately vacuous bullshit (cause it is all bullshit, in the end) really be taken so seriously? ) I miss the campness of London’s Harvey Nichols, the wonderful generous, genuine appreciation of fragrances of the perfumeries I have visited in Paris, where the assistants will ply you will samples and enthuse and become truly impassioned about their favourites. Not this gut-clenching, pole-up-arse stiffness that you get from these dolls, who seem to be thinking they are handling holy reliquaries.
Because it has THE NAME. And that, in the end, is always what counts here. I am told, though I can see, perfectly well for myself, at the fleamarkets, that it’s ‘a’ Chanel, ‘a’ Saint Laurent. ‘A’ Dior (Dior Forever edt? I don’t think so, darlin’), as though that name in itself should be what makes me part with my hard earned cash. It doesn’t matter what Dior, or god forbid what it actually smells like. It’s the fact that it’s a Dior. And it is this lack of genuine discernment, name before smell, cachet before genuine scent- love, that led to that delirious vintage extrait find that I found myself rhapsodizing so excitedly about the other day.
You know why all those glorious perfumed treasures were there, waiting for me, in that old, locked up glass cabinet? Because nobody, basically, wanted them. For the vast majority of the people here they would be nothing but a signifier, something that the majority of this perfume-hating nation basically never wants to understand, because, in end, wearing perfume is a foreign custom – it is not Japanese.
Yes, I know you do of course smell perfume in Japan. Young kids love their trashy, pink and blue perfumes, young women smell of their boring, fashionably safe roses (the execrable L’Eau Des Quatres Reines by L’Occitane is practically a de rigeur scented uniform for young mothers in their early thirties everywhere you go); glitzy, dolled up middle aged women will occasionally rock the streets of the city with their Poison, their Coco or their Dune, and men, on the pull, dressed up in their finest, will suddenly reek, glaringly, of a lady-pulling, classically masculine cologne, such as Aramis or Platinum Egoïste. But these are always noticeable because they are the exception; suddenly olfactory explosions that stand out in a generally unscented, unperfumed, cityscape.
As the years go by, and these unwanted gifts or souvenirs from yesteryear sit, unusued, and neglected in some bedroom, they find their way, eventually, to the antique ‘recycle’ emporia I love to frequent; to the fleamarkets, making a bit of extra money for the relatives of the deceased who have inherited them, or else by the little old lady herself who decides, one day, that surely there must be someone out there, someone who can make much better use of this cherished (in its way), but unwanted, unused; old and expensive, chic but not really me; French, boxed, unopened, perfume.