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Friday, June 3, 2005

COLORFUL 'FUNDOSHI' NOW 'POWER UNDERWEAR'

Lowly loincloth making a comeback


Staff writer

Tartan, paisley and geometric patterns in red, blue and other colors are catching the eyes of young shoppers in the men's clothing section of Mitsukoshi Ltd.'s Ginza store.

News photo
An employee at Mitsukoshi Ltd.'s Ginza store shows off a "fundoshi" traditional loincloth, which is now enjoying a resurgence in popularity thanks to new colors and patterns.

But the flashy fashions attracting their gaze aren't on ties, trousers or handkerchiefs. They're on loincloths.

"Fundoshi," traditional loincloths that went out of fashion decades ago, are worn only rarely today, usually by elderly men.

That seems to have changed, thanks to media exposure about the wide variety of prints and colors the lowly fundoshi is being revived in.

Ranging in price from 500 yen to around 3,000 yen, Mitsukoshi's Ginza branch sold 441 fundoshi in April and some 800 in May. Sales had been about 80 a month prior to the loincloth's sudden revival, according to store officials.

"Women seem to be buying them for their boyfriends and friends," said Yoshimi Shuma, manager of the men's clothing section. "Non-Japanese customers and Japanese planning to go overseas also buy them as souvenirs."

Many businessmen are buying fundoshi as "power underwear" to wear when they want good results at work.

But many younger women are also snapping them up, he said.

The simplest type of fundoshi is a long rectangular cloth with straps at one end. To wear it, one ties the straps from back to front so that the cloth is hanging over the buttocks. Then the other end is pulled up between the legs and threaded under the strap, with the rest of the cloth hanging down like an apron.

Hawking them as "classic pants," Mitsukoshi began selling colorful fundoshi about 10 years ago, targeting elderly men who wore them in their youth. It was not until a few years ago that it began offering the item in various prints and fabrics, including silk.

Big-name emporiums are not the only places where the fundoshi revival is visible. The loincloths also line the shelves of Ryogoku Takahashi Co., a mom-and-pop sumo goods shop in Sumida Ward frequented by local residents and people looking for sumo souvenirs.

Ryogoku Takahashi first began making fundoshi some 20 years ago for an elderly customer who said he couldn't find the traditional undergarment sold anywhere else.

Although most of the store's fundoshi purchasers had been elderly men, more young people started buying them a few years ago after they started coming out in traditional prints, according to store clerk Kyoko Takahashi.

Now the store sells fundoshi printed with lions or dragons, available in both black and red.

"Some mothers buy them for their children and young women purchase them as presents or bingo prizes," she said.

Often worn by feudal warlords during the Sengoku Period (1477-1573), fundoshi spread to the general public in the Edo Period (1603-1868).

Although Imperial Japanese troops were provided with fundoshi during the war, the practice of wearing them gradually faded in the postwar era.

Many experts on Japanese customs say fundoshi were rapidly replaced by Western-style underwear because many people associated fundoshi with militarism.

But Masatoki Minami, author of the book "Fundoshi Monogatari" ("Tales of Fundoshi"), said foreign dignitaries who came to Japan in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) are partly to blame for the clothing's decline in popularity.

At the time, many carpenters and laborers wore only fundoshi when they worked. But the foreigners urged the Japanese government to do away with this custom, saying it was "inappropriate" to show one's buttocks in public, the travel writer and photographer said.

"But now, some people consider fundoshi to be cool," said Minami, who wears a loincloth every day.

Minami says fundoshi should not be subjected to the ups and downs in popularity other articles of clothing go through.

"After all, it's just underwear," he said.

Nonetheless, he hopes people will continue wearing fundoshi.

"Japanese culture remains alive in that meter length of cloth."



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