Saturday, January 26, 2008

The mirror

The other day I was in a coffee shop with a friend when a young woman came in, sat down at a table near us, and opened her bag. She was wearing so much makeup she didn't look human. Her face was a perfect, rather grotesque, mask, and her hair was dyed a sort of brown-orange and teased and moussed into what I think of as bath cleaner style.

From her bag she took a mirror. This was not the sort of mirror you imagine someone taking out of their bag. It was probably a bit bigger than a standard business letter, and it had a stand. She stood the mirror on the table, took out her mobile phone, and called someone. Then she chatted on the phone, loudly, while watching herself in the mirror.

She acted as though this was a perfectly normal thing to do.

And perhaps it is becoming normal. When I first came to Japan you would sometimes see women applying lipstick in public, discreetly. Then it became acceptable, suddenly, to apply makeup in public perfectly openly, and within a couple of years the trains were full of women applying their makeup on their way to work. They have full makeup kits in their bags, and mirrors. Then guys started carrying mirrors as well, so they could check that every strand of hair was in the right 'disheveled' place. I know this, because in my classes, if I get something in my eye I can ask the nearest student, male or female, if they have a mirror, and they always do. They're pretty big mirrors, too, probably to accommodate the big hair. I always find this a little disconcerting. The mirror in my bag is the one inside my contact lens case, and it is only big enough for one eye at a time.

But the woman in the cafe had a REALLY big mirror.

I have seen women with mirrors at cafe tables before, applying makeup. I find it rather revolting, actually. When I am relaxing with a coffee I do not want to feel as if I am in someone's bathroom. But that was the first time I have seen someone using a mirror just to look at herself in public. She didn't even pretend to apply or fix makeup, or check her hair. She just positioned the mirror so she could gaze at herself comfortably and chatted on the phone for a while. Then she put the phone down and drank her coffee. She never took her eyes off herself. The wall behind her was mirrored as well, so she might have been seeing herself endlessly reflected, although I'm not sure because I couldn't see if the angle was right for that.

My friend said it was not the first time she'd seen that sort of behaviour recently, but she thought it was fairly new. Is it the next big thing, I wonder? Will coffee shops here soon be full of young people staring at themselves? Is it only in Japan, or is it happening elsewhere as well?

The whole thing – the excessive makeup, the obsession with everything about the 'look' being perfect, the unwillingness to go out in public with no makeup at all (many women are like that, here) – seems to me to indicate something deeper than just vanity or narcissism. It seems to me that the whole idea of 'image' here has become so distortedly overblown it has become more important than anything else, so that if a person does not feel that they are being seen (or at least that their image is being seen) they do not feel real, somehow.

And what better way to ensure being seen than by looking at yourself?


Anonymous said...

It's a bit depressing isn't it - but then a couple of recent visits to Japan - which around 1989 was to be No.1, the yen reaching parity with the dollar - have driven home to me that Japan at present is a bit depressed. Perhaps seriously depressed...

But the the 'sign' becomes everything in post-modernism doesn't it - there's no referenced world behind the sign, the sign is the world, and signs themselves, often in the form of logos, or signed goods such as a Gucci bag, become reality. Even more, 'signed action', such as checking your SMS, or taking a call, establish you as real - it's no wonder Western teenagers say "like" so often, in a world of self-referential signs, nothing is anything, everything is "like". (Saussure has a lot to answer for!:-)

And watching yourself sit in a coffee shop performing 'signed' actions, especially those involving your phone - as I'll be she was - it's the ultimate reality! In a depressing world, it doesn't get any cooler than that!

Anonymous said...

I am from Vancouver, Canada. I have never seen this kind of behavior and today is the first time that I’ve heard about it. If this would have happened here, it definitely would raise eyebrows.
It makes me wonder: are people so shallow that they need to ape what they see on TV? Don’t they have any imagination of their own that they need to obsess so much over their appearance? Peer-pressure?

kenju said...

I certainly have not seen that here. I wonder though, if they are making sure that their expressions match the sound of what they are saying - so that they will be percieved in the right manner?

Brad said...

Great blog! Just found it then! Subscribed straight away!

lina said...

whenever I too the train in Japan, (on my holidays) I almost always see girl/girls primping themselves in public. It's like, don't you have enough time to do your make-up at home? And they always seems to look at mirrors a lot? Self Love, perhaps?

Pkchukiss said...

The workstations at a call centre I worked at last year had nice blue round mirrors next to the LCD screens. We were supposed to use it to check that we were smiling appropriately while we were talking to customers, because surprisingly, you can hear the sincerity of a smile over the phone.

Though you could see your head and hair in it, it was small, so the best preening you could do was to burst your acnes while holding the mirror up close to your face.

Seeing my own face with a headset in the mirror was VERY disconcerting, and I never got over that uncomfortable feeling, so I always turned the mirror away from me. Headsets with microphone appendages make me look weird!

Anonymous said...

I was reminded about your post this weekend...
Last Saturday I had to take the Skytrain (form of metro) and there was a 18-20 year old Japanese man standing in front of me. Every 2 minutes or so, he would look at his reflection in the window and twist his hair, pat it, etc. He spent about 20 minutes looking at himself. Funny thing, there was a glass partition between us, and he leaned against it, so I could clearly see myself in the glass. I had two choices - either look at myself for half an hour, or look outside the window. LOL

Ms Mac said...

That is one of the most bizarre things I've ever heard of. I have a little mini-phobia of seeing people looking at themselves in mirrors- it makes my skin crawl with embarrassment for some reason. Probably because looking at yourself in a mirror is supposed to be a bad thing, a sign of vanity or something. Isn't that weird? Anyway, watching that woman look at herself in the mirror may well have tipped me over the edge. Thank God it happened to you and not me!

Badaunt said...

Ms Mac: That is exactly the reaction I get - the skin-crawling thing. I'm not sure why it is. Even when I use a public toilet, if there is even one woman using the mirror to primp I get all creeped out and leave quickly. I don't even like looking at myself in a mirror.

Where does that come from, I wonder?

Lia said...

Maybe she was on the phone with her identical twin sister and wanted to pretend that it was a videophone?

No, you're right. It's just weird.