Sunday, March 1, 2009

Fun with Fundoshi

(This post is courtesy of Mike. He found a lot of pretty amazing images--I'm only putting up three, including the one I found most hilarious. Thank you Mike!)

As we have seen in class, ritual and tradition are both integral to the everyday functioning of Shinto. Not only does Shinto prescribe cleansing rituals and walks beneath torii but custom carries all the way down quite literally to underpants. Fundoshi is the traditional Japanese version of a loincloth, first mentioned in the Nihongi as early as the eighth century and typically made from a lightweight cloth like cotton, gauze, or silk. Originally fundoshi was simply the ordinary form of underwear in Japan, formed from a single piece of cloth that is twisted and wrapped to form a sort of male thong (though fundoshi may be worn by women as well). While in the past fundoshi have been worn for the purposes of swimming, their use in the present day has been mostly restricted to ritual application during the many matsuri throughout the year. Most commonly, during matsuri men who carry the mikoshi (a miniature mock-up of a Shinto shrine) around to the people who worship at a particular shrine are required to adorn fundoshi in combination with happi, a traditional coat.

can appear in multiple forms, u
sually designed for different tasks or contexts. For instance, rokushaku fundoshi are one ‘shaku’ (Japanese version of a foot) wide and six ‘shaku’ (about six feet) long. Another variant is the ettchu fundoshi (literally ‘which exceeds half’), a shorter piece of fabric with a string sewn on one end that is tied around the waist such that a rectangular piece of cloth hangs in front of the groin like an apron. Ettchu fundoshi are said to have roots in China, supposedly appropriated from an earlier Chinese loincloth. In addition there is the mokko fundoshi, a hybrid of the rokushaku and ettchu that lacks the front apron of the ettchu and adds a larger piece of cloth to cover the buttocks than the rokushaku. Fundoshi have also appeared on haniwa, the terracotta figures used in ritual and burial during the Kofun period. Perhaps made most famous by the samurai who wore fundoshi under their armor, today fundoshi function both as the Japanese version of a jock strap and as the sole piece of clothing worn by the world renowned Kodo group of traditional taiko drummers. Fundoshi were also issued to Allied prisoners of war by the Japanese during World War II, however when the war ended Western-style underwear was introduced to the country and fundoshi were phased out even among the local population. Unconventional appearances of fundoshi include the Kanamara Matsuri (Festival of the Steel Phallus) in which a group of women adorned in nothing but fundoshi carry a giant model penis to celebrate fertility culminating in the ‘erection’ of the penis to a vertical position.

Fundoshi have appeared in the popular culture of the West as well, prominently displayed in such films as The Blue Lagoon and Zardoz (Sean Connery fundoshi!) along with the cartoon series Samurai Jack. Interestingly fundoshi appear in all colors and patterns except for black, which is considered to be a sign of the Yakuza, a Japanese organized crime gang, such that men who appear at matsuri with black fundoshi are considered to be dangerous. As for fundoshi’s ritual purity, a Japanese parable tells the story of a family whose bucket fell into a well. A young man who happened to be walking by disrobed down to his underwear (which must not have been fundoshi) to climb into the well and retrieve the bucket. When he returned the bucket to the family they would not drink from the well for days, complaining that the well would have been pure if he had only worn his fundoshi.

Be sure to check out the image that explains how fundoshi are tied so that next time you’ve got to jump down someone’s well and grab a bucket at least they won’t be mad afterward.

~guest poster, Michael Tauscher