Hierarchy at work, hiding in underwear drawer


Here’s a dating story with a twist: One of my girlfriends had finally started dating a guy she had liked for a long time. She was the one who did the kokuhaku (admission of love), the one who did the calling and messaging, the one who offered to come to his apartment and cook dinner on a Saturday night. He metaphorically sat on his behind and let her do all the work.

She wasn’t happy about this, but was afraid that a kujyo (complaint) would destroy their already precarious relationship. Then, after about two months the guy roused himself from his cryogenic state to call her cell phone and offer to pick her up from work. “Meshi demo kuoyo (So let’s get something to eat)” was his line, and the breezy, macho way he said it immediately alerted her to the fact that this was no ordinary dinner but his way of saying tonight was the night.

Exhale now . . . because what my girlfriend replied, was: “Zettai muri (absolutely impossible)” and asked for a “sakinobashi (extension).” She wasn’t playing games, nor was this some tactic. The one and only reason she had for putting him off was: shitagi ga attenakatta (unmatching lingerie).

Tasteless combination

To the foreign observer, this may sound arienai (unbelievable, improbable), but to many Japanese femmes, it makes perfect sense. Yes, on that fated day my girlfriend’s brassiere was dark beige but her panties were blue: She knew the combination was distasteful and unwise but she had been in a rush that morning and had also suffered a laundry crisis.

It was, to put it bluntly, Bad Lingerie Day. Her “boyfriend” must not catch her in this vulnerable and unattractive state, however hard she wanted to see him. She turned off the phone and resumed working. Unfortunately, he never called again and they stopped seeing each other. Still, she insists that the pain of losing him is nothing compared to the pain of disappointing him.

Such is the attitude many Japanese women have toward dating and underwear; in their minds, love and lingerie are inextricably intertwined.

Another woman I know says she always knows when a relationship has run its course when she finds herself getting careless about choosing her lingerie before a date. My friend Naoko says the turning point comes when she doesn’t mind wearing a supotsu bura (sports bra) in front of her boyfriend, and he doesn’t seem to, either. “Mo dodemo yokunattanokato omo (It’s like he’s saying he doesn’t care about me anymore),” says Naoko, and points out that a surefire indicator of love and passion is when a man notices and praises a woman’s choice of the lingerie du jour.

For Naoko and many others, what happens after the praising is less important than the supreme moment when she is appreciated and worshipped for her selection. Talk about style over content.

The inordinate obsession with lingerie has spawned a whole new lingerie culture. There’s a structural hierarchy at work among all the sweet lace and frills of the underwear drawer, and a woman will measure the value of her most intimate clothing by how she plans to deploy them.

Lingerie fit for battle

Shobu shitagi (lingerie fit for battle) is everyone’s term for the sexiest, raciest, laciest set of skimpy underwear that doesn’t so much cover the skin as exist over it in a kind of aerated cloud — often French or Italian luxury brands and costing up to 40,000 yen per set. These are for that special occasion when a woman needs to unleash all her powers of allure and still convey an other-world fragility.

A little cheaper than the shobu shitagi, but still beautiful, are the koisuru shitagi (lingerie that evokes feelings of love) for those dates where you don’t really like the guy yet, but want to give it a shot anyway.

Then there are the nachuraru shitagi (lingerie that’s attractive, but also comfortable to wear as its made from natural materials) that one wears to the office or on overnight trips with girlfriends. Lastly, there’s the rakuchin (just really comfortable) items that must never be worn anywhere except in the privacy of your apartment or jikka (parent’s house) and at a time when the phone’s not ringing, you’re feeling blue and stuffing your face with sunakku gashi (junk snacks) in front of the TV.

As Naoko puts it so succinctly: “Tokiniwa shitagimo oyasumi ga hitsuyo (Even lingerie need to rest, sometimes).”