April 22, 2011 10:08 pm

Dressing in a crisis

The narrative of Japan after the earthquake and tsunami has, in part, been a story told through clothes
 
Yukio Edano

Yukio Edano, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, speaks during a news conference at the prime minister’s official residence in Tokyo

Not long ago the editor of the FT was hosting an internal event and told a story about a recent trip to Japan in which he met chief government spokesman Yukio Edano and broke the ice by asking him about Edano’s ubiquitous blue jacket. No, I am not giving anything away here – I asked permission to reveal the event, because I felt the point of the episode went much further than the jacket. It spoke to the state of the country, of course, but it also struck me that the narrative of Japan since March 11 has, in part, been a story told through clothes; a drama in three sartorial acts.

Early scenes of the immediate aftermath of the earthquake/tsunami, for example, were characterised by the appearance of Japan’s political leaders in blue jumpsuits (it was the jumpsuit’s jacket which our editor was referring to), the uniform of emergency workers in the country. As a detail, it was embedded in every story on the disaster: “Japan’s premier on Saturday visited emergency crew,” went one story from AFP. “Donning a blue workman’s outfit, prime minister Naoto Kan arrived by military helicopter to give a pep talk to the atomic-plant workers, firefighters and troops.”

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Vanessa Friedman

Time magazine wrote: “In a now iconic pale blue emergency jumpsuit, [Yukio] Edano delivered from Tokyo admirably unscripted updates at all hours.”

Then, in a news photo that went around the world, the entire Japanese cabinet was pictured at a meeting wearing blue jumpsuits. The garment became a symbol of the way the country – and especially its government – has pulled together in the wake of the tragedy.

By April 1, however, the prime minister had returned to his usual suit-and-tie to demonstrate a move on to a new stage – Act II: rebuilding the country. Because of the three-week jumpsuit-wearing regime, the return to this outfit became meaningful, the businessman’s garb telegraphing a desire to focus on the economy (though later, on the one-month anniversary of the quake, Kan reverted to the blue jumpsuit when visiting a city devastated by it).

Then, in mid-April, as reports of radiation levels escalated and it became clear that the Fukushima evacuation zone might need to be extended, shots of people in white Hazmat suits, their individuality erased by protective masks, marked a frightening third act of possible further disaster. Taken together, the costume changes were as effective a demonstration as I’ve seen of how useful dress can be as visual shorthand. Though for a while I dithered about writing this column, worried that focusing on clothing in the face of national trauma was overly superficial, ultimately I think clothing has become part of the history of the event, and thus deserves analysis. A uniform, like a picture (especially in a picture), is worth a thousand words. Which doesn’t mean it’s not a complicated decision to employ clothing as communication, especially these spin-sensitive days – Kan’s decision to don the blue jumpsuit was probably not so simple, for example, as Prince William’s decision to don his RAF duds for his wedding (the prince is a symbol and he’s supposed to look like one).

In Japan’s case, there was a risk that instead of representing unity – important when the government was far away from the frontlines of disaster (and safe) – the jumpsuit-wearing officials could look as if they were merely engaged in imagineering. Remember George W Bush’s widely criticised appearance in full flight suit on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln just-before his “Mission Accomplished” Iraq war speech, or Gordon Brown’s appearance during his tenure as prime minister, in everyguy “off-duty” khakis, looking miserable.

Indeed, there was some criticism that the donning of the blue jumpsuits was an effort to assume some of the mantle of heroism bestowed on the real emergency workers in Japan who put themselves in radiation’s way – though as the oddly named awkward squad pointed out on microblogging platform Tumblr: “In Japan it was common practice for executives to wear the same uniform as their workers, and to have offices .... near the factory floor giving a greater sense of equality.”

Besides, what were the alternatives for Kan and his cabinet? Dark suits as usual? The point was business not as usual, and the dress reflected that reality, though I do hope this story doesn’t end here. I hope it runs for another act, so that the white Hazmat cover-all is relegated to the status of interim change and not final visual. For that, for once, I would happily welcome a two-button, pinstriped, single-vent suit, with all the standard, regular political life it implies.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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