It’s not something that’s widely advertised, but Japan is home to a massive shitagi-bunka (underwear culture). The most demure and modest of women will often be the owners of a collection that would put Frederick’s of Hollywood to abject shame. And it’s no secret that lan-pabu (“lingerie pubs,” in which women strut around in underwear) charge more than sutorippu (strip bars). Women scantily clad are more expensive than women unclad — that’s how much lingerie is valued here. So valued in fact, that we have a unique, lingerie-related criminal: the shitagidorobo (underwear thief).
The “shitagidoro” has been around a long time — about five decades to be exact. Since the emergence of BG (business girls, or female office workers) living alone in city apartments, and the increase in urban jyoshidai ryo (female college dormitories) in the 1950s, shitagidoro have lurked around balconies and backyards, preying on women’s undies drying on the monohoshizao (drying pole). Why these guys are drawn to other people’s laundry items is a subject for debate, but they’re generally perceived as the more romantic of the dorobo (thieves). They rarely inflict any real harm, and the ones who are caught profess to be in it for the imagination and titillation. This is what a lot of convicted felons are known to say: “I like to picture the face that will choose to wear these things. I like to imagine her picking these out at the shops.”
While it’s easy to write the shitagidoro off as pathetic pervs, it’s also true that they serve an important social function: to witness changing trends in women’s fashion. The more discerning become commentators on popular culture. In some men’s magazines, veteran shitagidoro will hold a fukumen zadankai (masked conference) in which the participants (faces and names blacked out) trade frank and unabridged views on the state of Japanese femininity as seen through their choice of underclothes. According to recent conferences, the taste of the Japanese female has plummeted drastically over the years. A 35-year-old shitagidoro, for instance, entreated his fellow countrywomen to stop wearing thongs: “They just look so unattractive when drying on a line, like pieces of surume (dried squid ) . . .” He also added that excess skimpiness just killed the imagination and made the wearer seem atama-warui (unintelligent). “I prefer women to be more demure and tasteful,” he said.
Another abhorred the overabundance of black lace:
“Who do they think they are, Sophia Loren? Japanese women should be more subtle. What happened to the days when they went for snow-white lingerie, with maybe pink trimming?”
Indeed, according to the shitagi surveys (conducted regularly in women’s magazines) white has slid from its longtime number one position as the preferred color for undies. The reason? Interestingly, today’s women think that white’s too iyarashii (sluttish) or monohoshige (asking for something) for daily use and are consequently reluctant to hang them out to dry. They’re also aware of the male penchant for white lingerie, and so make it a point of pride not to cater to that fantasy. On the other hand, most women admit to hoarding what they call shobu-shitagi (undies for battle), which are pulled out for that special occasion when the choice of underclothes assumes an importance on par with war. At such times, they will often revert to white, which conveys such ideals as purity, sacrifice and spiritualism — and hope their heart-throbs will interpret accordingly.
Going back to the shitagidoro, many claim the “sport” has become much less interesting.
“Women nowadays are too flagrant, too bold,” said one. “They leave those lacy things drying in broad daylight and think nothing of it.” True, the very reason the crime originated in the first place is because post-war women were too embarrassed to leave their personal items exposed on the clothesline in daytime and so reserved them for the dead of night, when everything was (presumably) less visible to prying eyes. But now women have become much more relaxed about the whole thing and are equipped with all kinds of nifty drying apparatus designed to foil the shitagidorobo (ex: a little carousel with a kind of lamp shade attached).
Some of the bolder women say that if they’re going to hang lingerie out to dry at all, then they would rather it be nice and racy. In their minds, nothing is more damaging to the female psyche than kutabireta shitagi (tired undies), never mind the thieves and their imaginations.