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Sailors and dependents in Japan seen violating the Navy’s civilian-clothes dress code would be reported to their commands for possible disciplinary action — not simply told to correct the offending attire — if a proposed revision to the policy is approved.

However, toddlers would be allowed to wear tube tops, “multicolored hair” is no longer a problem and the difference between the prohibited “shower shoe” and the allowable flip-flop would be fully explained, complete with photos, under the proposed changes.

The recommendations come from several base command master chiefs and CMC Mike Driscoll of Commander, Naval Forces Japan, who recently met to discuss changes to the 3-year-old policy. The policy already has been revised once but is still thought by some sailors in some of its provisions to be unclear and prone to inconsistent enforcement, resulting in conflict, feelings of unfairness and even humiliation.

The proposed changes, if approved in coming months by CNFJ commander Adm. Frederic Ruehe, would offer more “definitive descriptions” of what’s allowed and what’s prohibited, sometimes even including photographs of both, Driscoll said. “What we’re looking for is neat, clean and presentable. For the military, [wearing] civilian clothes is a privilege,” he said.

A tougher stance

Numerous small changes are being proposed. But the one most likely to have the most immediate effect is the change in enforcement. The policy now states that those in “positions of leadership will address discrepancies and, if appropriate, either issue a Minor Uniform Infraction Chit … or otherwise inform the individual’s command.”

But few people have been reported to their commands for violating the policy, the master chiefs said.

The command master chiefs are recommending the phrase “if appropriate” be deleted from the revised policy. And they’ve already discussed making the infraction forms smaller so they’d more easily fit into the pockets of leadership for handy hand-out.

“It has to be understood. It has to be consistent,” Yokosuka Command Master Chief Joe Steadley said of the policy. “It has to be monitored, enforced, and there has to be penalties. Otherwise, it’s just a piece of paper that 99 percent of the people will follow.”

Steadley, who has watched hours and hours of people caught on tape as they come and go from the Navy exchange to see for himself what people are wearing and the level of compliance with the policy, said, “I sit here and I look at it, and say, ‘We don’t have a problem with civilian clothes.’ But I’m the odd guy.”

CNFJ first issued a civilian clothing policy, with guidelines for sailors’ off-duty attire, in 2001. Among the items banned for casual wear were rubber flip-flops, baggy, oversized pants and a wide variety of shirts. “It’s just crap,” a 19-year-old seaman was quoted in response at the time.

Last year, the dress code was revised. For the first time, family members and other civilians attached to the military were subject to its provisions, including the banning of the tank top, tube top and midriff shirt. Other guidelines were loosened. For example, shirts were allowed to be untucked, and halter tops and spaghetti straps became acceptable — after an incident in which a woman in a formal dress with spaghetti straps was told she could not come on base.

Each summer the guidelines become more of an issue as people break out their tops and sandals, and sometimes are refused entry to the Navy exchange or elsewhere because, they’re told, their shirt is a tank top or their flip-flops are shower shoes.

One caller to a recent commanders’ call-in show told Steadley and Yokosuka base commander Capt. King Dietrich that although she was allowed into the exchange in a red sleeveless shirt, the guy behind her in a blue sleeveless shirt was turned away.

“We know we’ve got a consistency problem,” Dietrich responded. “It’s what’s in the eye of the beholder in some cases.”

Fine-tuning the rules

Part of the revision is designed to provide clearer guidelines and a stronger level of consistency, and to do away with some of the more onerous provisions. For example, after an Atsugi Naval Air Facility parent was told her toddler’s tube top violated the dress code, the CMCs recommended that the policy not be applied to children under 10.

Among the most politically sensitive issues in the policy is the ban on do-rags, and no change is being recommended, Driscoll said. Wearing a do-rag — a nylon head covering originally designed for wear to help style the hair, but now something of a fashion statement worn almost exclusively by black servicemembers and their families — constitutes one of the most frequent violations seen on base. Some people, including officers and senior enlisted, argue that as long as baseball caps and cowboy hats are allowed, do-rags should be, too.

There is a recommendation designed to make life easier for women, however, especially black women. They were being hassled about “multicolored hair,” in some cases when it was merely streaked, Steadley said. As a result, the recommendation asks that “multicolored” be deleted from a revised policy.

And the amount of midriff allowed to be exposed would be more clearly defined, from “a minimal amount” to “one inch.”

“Atsugi wanted two [inches],” Steadley said. “I’d be OK with two. In my mind, two is a great number because two sometimes becomes three, and I’m OK with three.”

Taking it seriously

It might be amusing to some to think of a room full of CMCs, all middle-aged men, conferring in meetings about the allowable, viewable span of a woman’s midriff or discussing the spaghetti strap versus the halter top. But Driscoll says how sailors and their families dress is a serious matter.

Three years ago, he said, he stood at a base gate and saw a variety of offensive civilian attire. “One gal, if her pants were any lower, we would have seen her genitals,” he said. “Fashion changes. We should be somewhat within fashion … [But] everyone needs to be reminded, it’s a privilege to serve overseas. So we have standards.”

Dietrich said he believes the overarching purpose of the policy is to ensure two things about Americans’ attire: “Is it decent? Would it be an embarrassment to our Japanese hosts?”

And some people are tough critics. Yokosuka’s mayor, Hideo Sawada, said by e-mail that he thought local sailors looked “rather sloppy,” and that he thought sailors’ tattoos were “inappropriate.”

Only tattoos on the face, neck and hands are prohibited by the policy, and must be covered up. Seventh Fleet, which has a similar dress code, also specifically prohibits “a split or forked tongue.”

Sawada said no citizens ever had complained to him about Americans’ dress.

The idea of the CNFJ dress code should be to reduce the “distance,” Steadley said, between how those in the host country and those stationed there dress. “The idea is not to have distance because distance draws attention,” he said.

And although he has a wider view of what should be acceptable than some of his peers, Steadley also feels some qualms about young sailors’ preferred get-ups.

“We spent a lot of time and a lot of money trying to look good,” Steadley said of his days as a young sailor outfitted for liberty in suits, ties and sometimes even carrying a cane.

“When we took off our sailor uniforms, we became mack-daddy lovers, players.

“Now the culture has changed a lot,” Steadley continued, talking in his office to two young sailors. “I have a problem,” he said, “with the sailors taking off their uniforms and becoming gangsters.”

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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