05 July 2011
Fundoshi Diaries, Part Two: Two Colors of Thought
I spent the day in the water; a hot, bright July day that also included lots of driving to-and-from, plus a couple stop-and-start traffic jams. I had opted for a new pair of blue board shorts, and in retrospect, the amount of time I spent in the car made that a good choice. When I got home, though, I decided it was time to put on a fundoshi.
Once again, I selected a snowy white fundoshi, and as I started to put it on the cool fabric felt refreshing and soft as a cloud against my skin. Before I had a chance to do more than start tying it, a friend stopped over unexpectedly -- so I let the fundoshi cloth fall to the floor and pool at my feet, and hastily pulled on some khaki cargo shorts.
Later, I excused myself for a minute, went upstairs, and finished donning my fundoshi. I put the cargo shorts back on over top of the freshly-tied fundoshi and returned downstairs.
It truly did feel remarkable on my lake-softened skin. But I got to thinking about my decision earlier, to go with the conventional (shorts) instead of the article of cloth I'm really passionate about (fundoshi). It started a whole chain of thoughts.
I think I've alluded elsewhere that for some Japanese, the fundoshi is an item of fierce national pride: something gaijin such as myself should not ever wear. For this minority, my wearing fundoshi is an insult.
I can see this perspective -- it's like any other incidence of cultural co-opting. And to be fair, they probably feel this way about Westerners wearing any sort of traditional clothing (kimonos, etc.). Like it's some sort of dress-up, and the Western wearer can never truly appreciate the amount of ceremony and refinement that goes in to wearing these items. I think I get that. Westerners dressing like Easterners is our own version of cosplay, scratching the superficial surface of the tradition but not engaging it on a truly personal and respectful plane. Everything worn in traditional Japan took time to put on, and required an enormous amount of care. A new silk kimono can be worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars these days. Everything from the sleeve length to the colors and patterns has an underlying meaning or connotation that Westerners are -- most likely -- too culturally tone-deaf to see.
So, it made me wonder: on foreign hips, is a fundoshi still a fundoshi?
I think it takes me about a minute to tie my fundoshi. While I'm engaged in twisting and cinching the cloth, I think about each move: How long is the "apron" that I let drop to my ankles, before tossing it over my shoulder? Am I laying the cloth flat against my skin as I draw it back between my legs and circle it around my waist? I'm careful to not let it bunch up anywhere, both for comfort reasons and for aesthetics. I think about my day, whether I'll be active or inactive, and adjust the tightness accordingly. Is this appropriate respect to show toward the process of tying the fundoshi?
I don't agree with the fierce nationalistic stance. I believe we, in the 21st century, live in a pluralistic world. Nothing is really native to anywhere any more. It could even be argued that the fundoshi is older than Japan itself, descended from ancient loincloths worn by seafarers who colonized the island nation. Also, I think the Western yearning for cultural connection is a result of the void of culture we've created for ourselves. Surrounded by mass consumerism and temporary goods, we reach for something with a past -- not the "pre-distressed" appearance of a past, but an actual, rich, even mysterious past. Which of our contemporary automobiles will ever be collectible? How many of the McMansions will still be standing in 50 years? 100 years?
Styles have come and gone -- many times -- in the last ten centuries, but fundoshi has remained largely unchanged. For an "undergarment," an "unmentionable," that's a pretty impressive legacy. It's an entire chapter in the book of humanity that has gone unwritten, for whatever reason. Perhaps in the past, when everyone wore fundoshi and it was unremarkable, it was a dull subject. Later, after Commodore Perry and the arrival of Christian shame, it was made to feel embarassing. Later than that, after A-bombs and reconstruction, it seemed old fashioned -- an anachronism for old men. Boxers and briefs were what the modern man wore. Fundoshi were relegated to winter festivals, where even Japanese men sometimes have to have help tying them on (since it's the single time they ever wear fundoshi). The Western eye, and maybe even the sensuous eye in general, may be necessary to keep fundoshi from slipping into a guarded past where it will be doomed to be a footnote. The fundoshi, for all its versatility and ingenuity, is a humble garment. It connects kings to peasants, fishermen to warriors.
For nearly every region of the world, there is a prevailing loincloth style: the kilt-like schenti of Egypt, the buckskin loincloths of the American plains, the langoti of the Asian subcontinent, the perizoma of ancient Greek fashion, the bahag of the Oceanic islands, the malo of Hawaii, the maxtlatl of Central America, the xai of South Africa. It's a list that could go on and on, and probably could include modern variations -- since they're all dignified ways to contain the male genitals. The jockstrap of athletes, the briefs and boxers and boxer-briefs of the average contemporary male. Outside of the appearance of elastic in waistbands early last century, there have been very few remarkable changes in the evolution of basic male attire.
Pants, fairly unknown outside of northern Europe and the arctic -- and considered savage and unsophisticated by the occupying Roman armies with their subliga culum (loincloth) -- somehow found a way to become the prevailing masculine coverage, despite countless generations of proud, intelligent, self-sufficient loincloth wearers. Is it an example -- perhaps the most egregious example -- of cultural imperialism? And is a renewed Western interest in fundoshi and other loincloths just another dalliance with exoticism? An effort to paste a past -- someone else's past -- onto our own relatively undefined commercial culture? We don't hunt, we don't even court in the same manner as pre-19th century men. The cultural markers are now fancy watches and sporty cars. The rules have changed, yet we still behave like bower-birds, stockpiling the latest item in favor to impress those around us, especially those we hope to mate with.
My tangent is getting pretty far afield here, so I'm going to attempt to wrap it all up. One of the things I'll always advocate is a return to simplicity. Not necessarily living primitively, but making changes in our lives that approach greater simplicity -- that reverse the course of disconnectedness and sociopathy that seem to creep further into our lives with each new gadget or financial obligation. I'm not saying we should put Calvin Klein or Fruit Of The Loom out of business. I think they do a fine job. And I think some will always prefer the safety and conservatism of tighty whiteys or plaid boxers. Even I do sometimes. But consider the resources we might save if we made our own undergarments: less trucks and trains and ships burning less fuel to transport less rubberized waistbands around the world. Less young children in poor countries sewing garments for strangers that they will never be able to afford -- just so they can eat.
When I make my own fundoshi, they often cost me less than two dollars each. I buy 3 yards of soft cotton or muslin and tear it into 7 or 8 fundoshi. The cloth might be $4 or $5 a yard. For me, this is an effort toward greater simplicity. I spend the extra few dollars I've saved on better food; something organic, and local, from farmers I know. It tastes better. I feel better. My money circulates in my community more, instead of being funneled away from my community by Walmarts or catalogs.
Plus, I feel hotter when I look in the mirror. That makes me stand up a little straighter, shake hands a little firmer, give good eye contact. I made my own underwear! It's kind of cool. And it's not even really "underwear." It's something older, that connects me to men of hundreds of years ago. It makes me think about the most prosaic, mundane acts we act every day, and how those have great importance and carry immense potential to transform the world -- if we would only pay more attention and act with greater thoughtfulness and respect.