Monday, August 3, 2009

Why I am alone at ChoCo Cro

Japanese culture never ceases to amaze me. There is always some new idiosyncrasy that sneaks up behind me, giggles a little bit, whacks me in the head and runs away. Other times, these visibly small but deep cultural differences are like a flickering monitor, too inherent to notice if you are staring too directly, but easy to discern if you are looking less intently. In a country with unwritten social codes, polite service, and leniency towards foreigners, many interesting cultural quirks go unexplained or unnoticed.

Today I decided to do some writing in one of the many trendy ‘coffee shops’ in downtown Sendai. Trendy because, independent of the taste of the product, they are almost always crowded with yapping women. While this is almost the same as McDonalds in Japan, there is a much more specific crowd for coffee shops. Simply, Japanese patronize coffee shops for one of two reasons: to feel ‘Western’ by drinking Starbucks or Tullys, or to partake in sweet pastries.

In my current location, it is mainly the sweets that drive business. ChoCo Cro is a store whose namesake is their chocolate croissants, and whose origin and flagship store resides in the ever-trendy Harajuku neighborhood of Tokyo. To be fair, the chocolate croissants are very delicious in their own right, and are much better than croissants I’ve eaten in America. With such tasty food, you would expect the tables to be full of caffeine-addled young professionals working on their laptops and the occasional boisterous conversation. However, in this shop I am the only member of the former, and everyone else in the cafe is in the latter group. To make matters worse, I’m the only one in this section not wearing high heels.

In Japan, sweet pastries have only one target audience: women, ladies, and girls. It is seen as a sign of weakness or indulgence for a male to eat sweets past childhood; ironically enough, wearing skin-tight, circulation-restricting jeans, or spending an hour on your man-hairdo, has much less of feminine connotation here than chowing down on a dainty donut or flaky chocolate croissant. Struggling to understand this state of affairs, I consulted a female Japanese friend. According to her, the pressure for women to be unhealthily thin and prim does not conflict with their consumption of sugar-laden snacks; on the contrary many of them simply substitute a balanced meal for a sweet treat and a brisk walk between clothing stores.

Of course there are some men who sit in this store, but they are invariably conversing with one of the opposite gender. It would seem that they are punishing themselves with over-steeped black coffee (or some drink darker than their partner’s) as penance for their presence in a sweets store. The rules of sweets consumption are not quite as black (and white) at a Starbucks, because nearly every drink sold there has a week’s worth of sugar. That said, I’ve never seen any Japanese men pick out a chocolate chip scone from the glass case.

All of this complicated posturing is par for the course in Japan- I’d have to write for a few days to scratch the surface of Japanese psyche concerning gender stereotypes. Needless to say, its no surprise I’ve had little success independently breaking into the underground queer scene in Sendai: if it is common to put so much social judgement into something as simple as eating a chocolate croissant, then I can’t begin to fathom how elaborate and layered the Japanese gaydar must be.