It’s impossible to miss Japan’s energy-saving efforts this summer. Japanese businessmen have exchanged starched shirts for polos, and they walk past dimmed vending machines and into half-lit offices where air conditioning has been limited.
But there’s one aspect of the so-called “Cool Biz” effort that is not so obvious: the cool unmentionables that are Japan’s traditional linen loincloths, called "fundoshi."
This year’s campaign kicked off on June 1, but the Environment Ministry first came up with the idea for the summer of 2005. With all but one of the country’s 50 nuclear power reactors idled after the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant disaster last year, utilities are warning of as much as a 15 percent power shortage in some areas, as well as rolling blackouts. Keeping cool under outer garments seems a clear solution.
“We’ve sold out our stock, but the disaster and power shortages aren’t the reason people have rediscovered traditional underwear,” says Keiji Nakagawa, who runs the fundoshi distributor Sharefun, and also heads the Japan Fundoshi Association. The group includes nine firms that still continue to produce the items, mostly based in Kyoto. This year’s fundoshi boom was presaged by having “suteteko”--thin, knee-length drawers warn under trousers--back in vogue three summers ago.
Fundoshi and suteteko used to be the underwear of choice until about 60 years ago, according to the association chief, often hand-sewn by wives for their husbands and children. Western-style briefs and boxers now account for 99 percent of men’s undies in the country. The remaining 1 percent are men who wear nothing.
“We’d be very happy to secure even 1 percent of that 1 percent,” says 35-year-old Nakagawa, who threw away all his briefs once he started up the association last December. “As the head, it would be strange if I didn’t wear them. Besides, once you try out a fundoshi, there’s no going back.”
A former business consultant, Nakagawa was suffering from psychological stress issues when a friend suggested he try a fundoshi three years ago. Not having a band of rubber constricting his waist, he says, immediately improved his condition. Fundoshi are tied with string, and can be as tight or loose as the wearer wants.
“Maybe there’s also some cultural DNA involved,” adds Nakagawa. “There’s a sense of peace about tying a bow just above the ‘tanden’ pressure point”--supposedly the seat of energy, located just below the navel. They also offer more freedom to move.
Fundoshi have been uncool, embarrassing even, for decades, except among the macho gay community, for whom they’re a fashion standard. (Think of Yukio Mishima posing for the photographer Eikoh Hosoe.)
Today’s makers have been able to sell out their stock by refashioning them from traditional white linen into eye-catching colors and prints--and then targeting women, who buy them as presents for their partners. (Fundoshi Day, incidentally, because of one way of reading Japanese numbers, falls on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day).
What’s more, women are also trying them on themselves. Major lingerie maker Wacoal Co., based in Kyoto, for example, has launched its own line of fundoshi-inspired undies, called "nanafun," which come with a top.
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