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Friday, Oct. 12, 2001


Underwear -- what else is there to talk about?

One of the more interesting things about being female and Japanese is being at the center of a national obsession: women's underwear.

There's a whole other world out there made up entirely of fujin hadagi (ladies' lingerie). It's a world females enter immediately after stepping out diapers and exit only upon death or reversion to seijin-yo omutsu (diapers for grownup people), whichever comes first.

Little girls start with what are popularly known as kabocha-pantsu (pumpkin-shaped panties) -- thick, voluminous things that cover the navel and flounce out like bloomers. The reason being that grandmothers recoil in horror from anything less and are liable to repeat ad nauseam: "Onnanoko wa hiyashicha ikenai! (Little girls must not be chilled!)"

Interestingly, they don't raise an eyebrow if a kid goes around topless; rather, this is commended for helping build up a strong constitution. No, what matter are the lower extremities and Japanese grandmothers drum into us from birth that terrible things can happen as a result of exposing the navel to the elements.

Around the age of 14, things start to change. It's no longer pantsu but shotsu (shorts). Underwear in general are referred to as in-na (inner), and ordinary clothing is called outa (outer).

Since the great majority of early-teen girls are obliged to wear school uniforms, it is the in-na that everyone takes special care to look nice in.

So begins a lifelong obsessive/romantic relationship based on a wealth of subtexts and stereotypes that analyze color (white is demurely sexy, but mocha is bitchy), texture (stretch cotton is a sign of intelligence) and shape (visible panty lines are now the height of tacky, so try boyish low-rises).

Color coordination is perhaps the golden rule: One's shotsu must be in full correspondence with one's bura (bra). Otherwise, one is branded a chiguhagu onna (mismatched woman) or bara-bara shitai (dismembered corpse) in the girls' locker room and shunned forever.

This passionate interest in women's in-na is by no means a female preserve. Many men get so worked up they resort to shitagi-dorobo (underwear theft) from neighborhood laundry lines just to scrutinize these wonders close-up.

To protect female in-na from prying males, manufacturers have had to come out with mekakushi hoshiki, drying carousels that come with blinders. The criminals are called shitagi-fechi (underwear fetishists) and are duly condemned, but overall, they're considered pretty harmless in the sexual-offender hierarchy.

Even the nonfetishists have much to say about women's underwear, and, nowadays, it's mostly complaints.

"The current craze for hip-huggers is just not sexy," says a thirtysomething friend named Atsuo. He remembers a time in the early '90s when every Japanese woman under 35 wore nothing but "scanties." He thinks it's sad that "the quantity of material has increased so much."

Atsuo does, however, welcome the yosete ageru bura (bunch-together-and-push-up bra), which he considers a feat of engineering on par with the Aibo robot dog.

Then there are people like my boss, who's 47, who says he's ticked off by the change in language. In his day, pantsu meant underpants and zubon (derived from the French word jupon) meant trousers.

Now, in Japanese femme lingo, pantsu (with the accent on the second syllable) means trousers, while pantsu (accented on the first syllable) refers to the underwear of children and men, but excludes that of women. Hope you're still with me.

Once a woman hits 40, all this swerves onto another track entirely. The language of in-na changes dramatically as women begin wearing baba-shatsu (long-sleeved thermal shirts), instead of cute kami (camisoles), and deka-pan (large, loose fitting pants), in lieu of shotsu.

As for the color scheme, everything is unified under one drab shade popularly known as niku-iro (the color of fresh meat).

Ooh. Can't wait.

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