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Japan: A nation in the naked flesh

by Amy Chavez

Recently at the local “sento” (public bath), as I was changing back into my clothes, an old woman said to me, “Oh, what nice underwear you have!” Usually, when people start talking about my underwear, I either ignore them or feign not understanding Japanese. But as she spoke in that fashion of an old person who lives alone, I lent a sympathetic ear. Perhaps she always started conversations in the sento this way. Besides, as a foreign woman, you get used to questions, as Japanese women are always spying on the beauty products of foreigners to find out what gives them their blue eyes and blonde hair.

“The way they tie on the sides in bows,” she continued, pointing at my hips, “reminds me of Japanese ‘fundoshi.’ ” Fundoshi (traditional Japanese men’s underwear) is knotted underwear. No, not underwear in knots, but underwear made out of one long strip of cloth that is wrapped around the person as if they were a spool and is secured with an industrial-strength knot. How the old woman made the connection between my underwear and men’s fundoshi is still unclear.

“Up there in Tokyo,” she said, gesturing as if it were the North Pole, “the department stores are selling fundoshi in all kinds of new colors and patterns. Japanese people are rediscovering the fundoshi!” She seemed particularly excited about this, and it didn’t take me long to understand that it wouldn’t be an understatement to say an underground underwear revolution was coming on.

But why the Japanese categorize fundoshi as underwear is beyond me. It’s too bulky to wear under something. If anything, it’s worn over something.

So securely is it tied on that I wonder if you need an instruction manual to put it on and take it off. You definitely wouldn’t want to wear one of these on your honeymoon.

Since the fundoshi is usually worn as is, for all to see, we could all be in serious trouble if it comes back in style. Soon, the entire nation could be in the flesh. Classrooms full of students wearing fundoshi, men on the bus, waiters — all baring their buns. And you know what would come next: women wanting to wear them too, which would bring Hello Kitty fundoshi. Noooooooooo!

Come to think of it, I have seen a large number of the Japanese population in the flesh. I have even seen one of my male university students in fundoshi. Let me explain. There seems to be a bit of habit in Japan of men walking around in fundoshi. From festivals where men carry “mikoshi” portable shrines while wearing fundoshi, to the “mawashi” sumo wrestlers wear, one sees a lot of bums on a year-round basis in Japan. Fundoshi, a glorified thong, would be illegal in my country, which is why I’m glad I don’t live there.

Even cold winter weather doesn’t prevent Japanese men from walking around, outside, in fundoshi. Especially if it is the third Saturday of February, as this is the date of Okayama’s annual Hadaka Matsuri (Naked Festival). It’s nice to know that even in the coldest weather, up to 10,000 men will strip down to fundoshi and run through the streets in this traditional test of manhood. For over 400 years, men have been doing this in Okayama, and I am not about to try to stop them. The fact that I occasionally recognize the participants makes it all the merrier.

It was still disturbing, however, that the old lady said my underwear reminded her of fundoshi. What next? Someone trying to recruit me into the sumo ring?

Don’t miss the Hadaka Matsuri, on Feb. 18 this year. Take the shinkansen to Okayama Station, on the Sanyo Honsen Line. Switch to the Ako Line, and go to Saidaiji (30 minutes). When you walk out of the station, listen for “Wasshoi! Wasshoi!” and head in that direction. It starts in the evening.