Suteteko: Hanging out in underwear is a cool way to survive the summer heat

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

Picture this: A man comes home from work on a summer evening. The intense heat of the day has abated and he goes into another room to change out of his suit. He emerges wearing a simple ensemble of underwear consisting of an undershirt (sleeveless or not) and a pair of suteteko — which can best be described as a loose, thin, crepe cotton version of long johns. Suteteko are roomy around the waist for comfort but taper in slightly from the thighs and extend to a few centimeters below the knee.

The man sits down, maybe in front of the dining room table but more likely cross-legged in front of the TV and calls out to his wife to bring him a bottle of beer. If he’s lucky she’ll have some boiled edamame beans ready too. He picks up an uchiwa (fan made from thin strips of wood and paper) and relaxes. There you have it — the stereotype of a Japanese man at his most content.

That image of a man lounging around in his underpants — as undesirable as it may sound — is as familiar to the Japanese as summertime itself. He could be a father, an older uncle, a friendly neighbor or an elderly grandfather. So what if the classic suteteko-clad man is only seen in TV dramas and movies these days? Suteteko, are embedded in the collective subconscious of the Japanese, and they are part of our vision of how summertime should be.

Suteteko made their debut in 1881, and were designed to be worn under the kimono. They were named after a song that men sang while dancing in their underwear, possibly while they were a bit drunk. The dance became known as suteteko-odori, and soon the long trunks became known as suteteko. Until the early 1990s, they also remained popular as an understated but prevalent summer icon. Perhaps not on the same level as frappes and surfboards, but they still evoke emotions that stir something deep and nostalgic in the Japanese heart — even it’s sometimes a bit embarrassing.

Minoru Ogiwara, a 70-year-old who wore suteteko throughout his 45-year career as a clerk in a Kasumigaseki government building, recalls that the garment used to only come in white.

“I remember times when my daughter was in high school, she would scream and run from the sight of me in suteteko. She said they made me look like an old man and begged me to wear jeans or chinos,” he says. “But after a long day at the office, changing out of a suit and into something as restricting as jeans was torture for me. So during the summers, I went on wearing suteteko.”

Originally designed and manufactured to keep sweat from seeping into kimono and suits, suteteko were not meant to be seen publicly. But recently they have been making a comeback — not in a nostalgic grandad’s pants way, but as a trendy manifestation of an old tradition.

Reinvented in all kinds of colors, patterns and fabrics, what Ogiwara’s daughter once ran away from in horror have been turned into perfectly acceptable casual summer wear. Perhaps best suited to men of a slimmer frame and shorter stature, the new suteteko are comfortable, look like regular long shorts and are — most of the the time — still priced like underwear.

“Now, I hear they’re all the rage, that they come in a lot of different designs and young people wear them,” Ogiwara says. “I say, why couldn’t they have done this sooner? It would have made the relationship between me and my daughter a whole lot better!”

Ogiwara also remembers a time when salarymen often owned only two suits — one for the summer and one for the winter — and they wore suteteko to protect their suits from sweat as well as to avoid getting heat rash. Back then, suits were expensive and could only be dry-cleaned, whereas suteteko were cheap and could be laundered everyday. But like all underwear, they were not designed to be worn as a fashion item.

“For men of my generation, it’s still unthinkable for people to wear a pair of suteteko out on the streets,” says Ogiwara. “I have trouble coming to terms with that concept.”

Twenty-three-year-old Tadanobu Oiso, on the other hand, describes his suteteko as “date wear.” He wears them on the weekends, when his girlfriend comes over, and he’ll happily wear them to go to the neighborhood convenience store to stock up on food.

“We don’t like crowds and prefer to stay in, and suteteko are great for that. I feel like I’m nicely dressed, but not overdressed — and they’re so comfortable.”

One company in particular has been accredited for pushing underwear to make that leap from ubiquitous and traditional to fashionable and modern. Steteco.com launched a series of brightly colored and patterned suteteko in 2008, which were stocked in arty outlets, such as the museum shop at the National Art Center Tokyo. Emiko Miyahara, one of the store’s staff, says she was struck by how “beautiful” they were. At first, “sales weren’t that good,” she recalls. “But all of us at the shop agreed that really were works of art because they made life a little bit more wonderful.”

Four years later and suteteko are no longer the graying trunks of old men but a must-have summer item. Steteco.com has even upped the ante in style with a series of designer collaborations, including using bold patterns by textile designers Hirocoledge (known for its modern kimono and tenugui towels) and Nuno Works. Quick to cash in on the trend, Uniqlo released a whole series of suteteko, with prints ranging from military camouflage and Keith Haring designs to Walt Disney characters. Uniqlo’s Ginza branch opened its Steteco Bar in June and has devoted its entire 10th floor to the pants. Customers marveling over the array of designs and nodding approvingly at the ¥990 price tag include plenty of men of Ogiwara’s generation.

And Uniqlo is not the only one. Underwear manufacturer Gunze has a range that includes loose and snug fits in crepe cotton or quick-dry mesh and available in all manner of colors and patterns, including old-school white. Clothing brand Comme Ca Men also released a range of dotted, striped and floral suteteko — and these are just a couple of many companies that have jumped on the bandwagon.

Underwear manufacturer Wacoal has even released a range of suteteko aimed at women, with the catchy name of jyoshiteco (women’s teko), which can be found sold in lifestyle-goods stores such as Loft and Tokyu Hands. Shorter in length and markedly cuter than their menswear counterparts, jyoshiteco could be the new wave in women’s room wear.

The floor manager of Tokyu Hands, Ginza, Michie Shindo, says: “Women like to be comfortable at home, but they tend to be more discriminating than men. So the kawaii factor is a must. No woman wants to feel completely relaxed at home, she wants to look presentable for whomever might drop by — even if it’s just the guy delivering pizza.”

And let’s not forget the suteteko bonus point: They are very environmentally friendly.

Since the March 11 disasters last year and the ongoing nuclear power issue, Japanese summers have become more traditional. As people conserve energy, they are learning to accept higher levels of heat and humidity. Instead of firing up air conditioners, people are more likely to splash water on pavements, grow greenery around their windows and wear lighter clothing. And now that more companies have adopted summertime working hours, salarymen find they have the time to rediscover the small delights of the evening: a glass of beer, a ball game on TV, a cool breeze coming in through an open window and a pair of suteteko.

“The room wear of choice used to be sweat pants or sweat shorts. Sweats take longer to dry after washing and are bulky. Suteteko, on the other hand, wash easily, dry much faster and can be folded into a little square,” says Shindo. “Also, because it’s cool on the skin, you need less air-conditioning.”

If you’re thinking of ways to get over the dreaded Tokyo summer, a pair of suteteco is a good place to start.