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White gloves

by Alice Gordenker

Dear Alice,

I’m curious about the prevalence of white gloves in Japan. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, all sorts of people wear white gloves on the job here, including taxi drivers, police officers and elevator girls. I have no idea if this is true, but I once heard that this dates back to 1966, when the Beatles came to Japan. Apparently the police in charge of security knew they’d be facing surging crowds of mostly young women, and the male officers felt uncomfortable about having to use bare hands to keep the girls back. So someone came up with the idea of using white gloves to add a layer of propriety between hands and fans. Supposedly this decision got a lot of media coverage and the custom spread. In any case, can you find out why the heck shiroi tebukuro (white gloves) are so popular?

Allan M., Tokyo

Dear Allan,

I admit I was skeptical when I got your email, feeling pretty sure I’d seen white gloves on workers in photographs that predated the Beatles. Still, I didn’t want to dismiss your question out of hand; after eight years in the “What the Heck” business, I’ve come to trust my readers’ instincts for news. At worst I’d waste a few hours of research. At best I’d have a ticket to ride.

Before we talk about white gloves specifically, let’s look at gloves in general, which were of course worn long before the Fab Four graced our shores. A very early depiction of hand coverings can be seen in the Shigisanengi, a narrative scroll that dates from the 12th century and is now a designated National Treasure. During the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), warriors protected their hands with a piece of armor called a teōu, a hard fingerless stump that fitted over the hand and sported a nasty barb on the end. The National Museum of Ethnology near Osaka has several examples of hand wear from the 19th century, including some very uncomfortable looking mittens made of straw.

Hoping for more up-to-date information, I put in a call to the Japan Gloves Industry Association and spoke with executive director Masashi Ohara. He had never heard your story about the Beatles, and advised it would be difficult to pin down how or when white gloves became popular. They were adopted in various industries gradually, he said, and for different reasons.

Domestic manufacturing of Western-style gloves dates back to 1888, when a man named Shunrei Futago started making cotton gloves on a treadle sewing machine in Osaka. Futago sold his gloves — which in those days were called tegutsu (“hand shoes”) — mostly to dock workers. Later he moved his business to his hometown on Shikoku and taught the neighbors to make gloves. That town, now called Higashikagawa in Kagawa Prefecture, is still the center of Japanese glove-making, accounting for more than 90 percent of domestic production. Yet despite the popularity of white gloves, no one in Japan makes them anymore; the market has been completely taken over by imports from China. Domestic manufacturers now focus on specialty products, including thermal sports gloves and a new summer glove that protects the hand from UV rays.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of white work gloves in Japan, the tailored sort made from woven cloth, which are called doresu gurōbu (dress gloves), and an inexpensive knit sort called gunte (literally “army gloves” but “work gloves” would be a better translation). Gunte are everywhere and widely used for everything from gardening to construction work; when my kids attended Japanese elementary school, I had to supply them with the child-sized gunte whenever there was a chiiki seisō (neighborhood clean-up). People can pick up gunte just about everywhere — in home-center stores, ¥100 shops and even convenience stores — and seem to drop them just as quickly: I’m forever passing flattened ones on the street. In fact, I’d venture to say that gunte are the most common type of road kill in Japan, at least here in Tokyo where faster moving targets are rare.

White gloves are perhaps most strongly associated with people who drive for a living, including taxi drivers, bus drivers, pilots and railway engineers. For drivers, the original attraction was visibility; before trains and automobiles had automatic signals, those at the controls had to use their hands to signal their moves, and white gloves make the hands easier to see. While drivers no longer need to stick their hands out of windows to signal, the preference for white gloves persists. “I feel more professional when I’m wearing white gloves,” one taxi driver told me. “It looks smarter too.” A bus driver said he wears white gloves because they look “clean” and “trustworthy.”

White is indeed associated with cleanliness, which is one reason many workers in the package-delivery industry wear white gloves. “Gloves reduce wear and tear on the hands,” one of my local delivery guys told me. “But we also wear white gloves because many of our customers are concerned about dirt and germs. They don’t want their packages to come into contact with anyone’s bare hands.” The association between white gloves and honesty is also why politicians wear white gloves on the campaign trail.

This was all very interesting, but I still hadn’t found any connection between white gloves and the Beatles. I was about to give up when I stumbled upon a 2010 newspaper interview with Hideo Yamada, the police officer who had been in charge of security for the Beatles’ visit 44 years earlier. Lo and behold, there was a paragraph about white gloves. At the time, the only police who used white gloves were the Imperial Guard, but Yamada, concerned that his men were going to be thrown together with young girls, decided to outfit his entire force with white gloves. His hope was that the gloves would reinforce reigi tadashisa (propriety), and encourage his men to be as proper in action as appearance.

Apparently, all you need is glove.

For more on this topic, please visit my blog at alicegordenker.wordpress.com. Puzzled by something you’ve seen? Tell me about it: whattheheckjt@yahoo.co.jp or Alice Gordenker, A&E Dept., The Japan Times, 4-5-4, Shibaura 4-chome, Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-8071. On March 29 I’m launching a new column in The Japan Times ST, a weekly publication for English learners. In it, I challenge readers to respond in English to a question about Japan, providing helpful hints and an example. And don’t worry, “So, What the Heck is That?” will continue in this space, the third Tuesday of every month.

  • http://twitter.com/geeptbee Donald Duck

    Superb question, brilliantly researched answer; I’m sure that Sir Paul would be interested to know that the Japanese police were exercising propriety at the same time as the government was keeping him out … anyway, all this information on white gloves has been very helpful but contradicted my simple ideas that it was because the train guards could have more fun making their elaborate hand signals and so we could see their hands better, or someone was making money out of washing powder.

  • http://twitter.com/geeptbee Donald Duck

    Sorry, my real name, shinjiraranai, isn’t DDuck, it’s Graham Bathgate. I used DD because I felt like being silly using Twitter or Tweet or Quack, which I never do, so it’s ironic it now appears on something else … do you think maybe gloves keep hands warm?

  • AmIJustAPessimistOrWhat?

    Apparently, all you need is glove.
    Nice one!