Rokushaku Fundoshi (六尺褌)

Rokushaku fundoshi is Japanese male underwear composed of sarashi (bleached cloth) which is approximately 180-300 cm long and 16-34 cm wide. It is marked by its style which exposes its wearer's buttocks. Presently it is more often used in rites and festivals or as swimwear than as underwear.

The name 'rokushaku fundoshi' derives from its length of 6 kujirajaku (long foot: approx. 37.9 cm), which totals approximately 228 cm. It is worn by passing it between the legs and then wrapping it around the body. When worn without making a maedare (apron), the length of a rokushaku fundoshi should be equal to the length from one hand to the other hand when both arms are stretched out horizontally plus the length from the center line of the body to one hand the arms are stretched out horizontally (approximately three times the circumference of the waist). Generally the full width of sarashi is used, but according to the wearer's physical type, sarashi can be cut in half or into a piece which is two-thirds in width, or folded inside out.

In the Edo period, rokushaku fundoshi were 6 shaku according to a carpenter's square, which totals to about 180 cm, and were often worn by tying it behind the wearer's back, with a maedare hanging down (often folded into a triangle). It was approximately two and a half times as long as the circumference of the waist.

The style of fastening Fundoshi with a double front sack was adopted mostly by old-time fishermen and sailors. There are various styles of fastening or tying fundoshi peculiar to certain areas and ancient schools of martial arts or swimming.

To tie a fundoshi, place one end on the left shoulder and let the other end drop to the floor in front of the genitals, pass it through your legs, wrap it around your body from the coccyx in anti-clockwise direction, allow it to intersect with the part which runs vertically (tate-fundoshi), and hold it temporarily. Next, drop the maedare from the shoulder on which it has been placed, use it to cover the genitals and pass it through the legs as before, allow it intersect with the other parts of the fundoshi and take it to the tate-fundoshi, let it intersect with the other end of the fundoshi on the coccyx, wrap both the maedare and the end of the fundoshi around the yoko-fundoshi (parts of the fundoshi which run horizontally) several times and tie them. Any excess fabric is cut off.

When you intersect different parts of the fundoshi, the fastening strengths of the yoko-fundoshi and tate-fundoshi should be adjusted.

In order to fasten fundoshi properly, the yoko-fundoshi should be wound above the hipbone, the front sack should be below the navel, when the maedare is dropped it should be crossed with the tate-fundoshi many times before fastening, the front sack should be formed into a perfect isosceles triangle, in fastening doubly the upper cloth should not wrinkle up at the point of the front sack or be dislocated vertically from the under cloth, the genitals should be totally covered, the tate-fundoshi should not slant horizontally and should be wrapped tightly around the yoko-fundoshi, the cloth of the fundoshi should be fastened in a bilaterally symmetric style and should not be too long, and the pubic hair should not show. It is said that one can tell how long has been wearing fundoshi by observing how it is tied. In the Edo period, male adults had the decency to remove their pubic hair with pumice stones or incense sticks at sento (public bathhouses) so that it did not show.

As underwear which exposes the wearer's buttocks can be seen in Southeast Asia, Polynesia and Latin America, it is strongly believed that the rokushaku fundoshi has its origin in the south, and some people even insist that ancestors of Japanese people came from the south. However, the rokushaku fundoshi did not exist in ancient Japan because cloth was so expensive, and it did not become common among the Japanese as underwear until the Edo period, when it started to be made of cotton instead of hemp.

The history of rokushaku fundoshi as underwear is limited to the period between the Edo and the end of the Meiji period, during which time it was the most common form of underwear worn by Japanese male adults.

With the establishment conscription in the Meiji period, ecchu fundoshi, which were easier to put on and take off and more economical due to their shorter length, were supplied by the army and spread throughout Japan, following which rokushaku fundoshi were more often worn during rites and festivals or as swimwear than as underwear.

It is currently worn by some males as underwear or swimwear, and is also used in some rites and festivals or as swimwear at summer seaside schools (of long-distance swimming) conducted by schools of traditional Japanese swimming. Furthermore, it is sometimes worn as underwear at some events which involve swimming in winter.

Rokushaku fundoshi as swimwear
It was when Meiji period army surgeon Ryojun MATSUMOTO recommended that bathing in the sea was good for the health that Japanese people started to bathe in the sea, beginning with some members of the upper class. Until then, swimming had been limited to fishermen, sailors and the samurai class as one of the military arts but the establishment of swimming beaches throughout Japan and the adoption of swimming as part of physical education at schools in the name of "Kokumin Kaiei" (swimming for the whole nation) were the first steps toward the popularization of sea bathing (swimming) among commoners.

In those days people in the upper class enjoyed sea bathing in western-style swimwear (bathing suits), but western-style swimming suits were still too expensive for commoners and so they swam wearing fundoshi (rokushaku fundoshi) or mizugoromo (water robes). Furthermore, each school of traditional Japanese swimming opened suiren-jo (swimming practice areas) at beaches. Suiren-jo was a term used by people connected to traditional Japanese swimming, referring to separated areas of the sea, rivers, ponds or moats for learning to swim, and these were generally called 'suiei-jo' (swimming areas).

In 1917, the first heated indoor pool was opened by Tokyo Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). In those days it was prohibited to bathe with swimwear on and people were instructed to swim naked for the purpose of maintaining water quality. For a while after the war people still bathed naked. This is because it was common to swim naked in the pools of YMCAs and universities in the United States, where the headquarters of YMCA was located.

Pools were opened throughout Japan in 1930s. The pool in the outer garden of the Meiji-jingu Shrine was constructed in 1937.

Those pools were open to the general public, in contrast to YMCA pools which were open only to Christians and people close to them, and as a result, swimming spread among commoners. Commoners still wore fundoshi (rokushaku fundoshi) and mizugoromo as swimwear. At that time, kuroneko fundoshi (a kind of jockstrap) appeared as a simple form of fundoshi and became popular especially among boys.

The popularity of swimming increased when a gold medal was won in swimming for the first time at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, and swimming became a national sport. Japan was globally recognized as 'suiei-okoku' (a nation of the best swimmers) when Japanese athletes won five swimming events at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.

At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, when some Japanese swimmers wore rokushaku fundoshi during practice in Berlin (though it was not used in official competitions), foreign reporters, suspecting that the secret of the Japanese swimmers' speed lay in fundoshi swimwear, bombarded them with enquiries and some reporters requested to have commemorative photographs taken with swimmers wearing fundoshi. In fact, Japanese swimmers wore rokushaku fundoshi for support under swimwear.

Rokushaku fundoshi was still worn at national sports festivals after the war, but the American occupation forces prohibited the wearing of fundoshi at the pool in the outer garden of Meiji-jingu Shrine, which they had seized, for the reason that it was barbaric to expose one's buttocks, so swimmers swam wearing swimming trunks over their rokushaku fundoshi only in the presence of US army personnel.

Following this, fundoshi fell out of use at official competitions due to the appearance of flexible fabrics suitable for swimwear as a result of development of synthetic fibers, as well as due to development of sewing techniques. Furthermore, because cheap swimming trunks became available with the progress of Japan's economic growth, and because Japanese people, with increased national income, started to want fashionable swimwear as an appeal of their individuality, and in 1960s young people gradually ceased to wear fundoshi, ashamed of exposing their buttocks. In the mid-1960s elementary and junior high schools in cities started to discontinue their use of fundoshi as swimwear, and presently fundoshi is used only at a very few schools descended from schools of traditional Japanese swimming. Very few people used fundoshi in general pools where fundoshi had been in common use before, and a myth spread that fundoshi was prohibited at pools when some pools started to prohibit fundoshi which was confusingly similar to underwear as well as trunk-type swimwear with pockets.

In the late 1980s thong swimwear, similar in shape to fundoshi, was introduced to Japan from Europe and the United States, and became most popular among both women and men at the time of the bubble boom. In 1992, there was an outburst of complaints about T-back swimwear which exposed its wearer's buttocks at the Jingu Pool, which a large number of males wearing T-back swimwear visited, and fundoshi, along with T-back swimwear, was prohibited.

With the subsequent development of the internet, it transpired every year that, following complaints from other customers, not only thong swimwear but also fundoshi was prohibited at pools to which men wearing thong swimwear or excessively transparent swimwear with very little of fabric came in droves because it had been stated on the internet that it was permitted to swim there wearing thong swimwear. For that reason a gradually-increasing number of pools prohibit the wearing of fundoshi especially in large cities, but as of 2005 in Tokyo the number of pools which prohibit the use of fundoshi is smaller than that of pools which do not. On the other hand, pools located in areas where many workers from Latin America reside are more tolerant of fundoshi, similar to thong swimwear in shape, because a large number of foreigners, including women wearing thong swimwear, visit those pools. From an international standpoint, one Japanese swimmer proposed swimming while wearing rokushaku fundoshi at the fifth Pan Pacific Masters Swimming Championships held in New Zealand, and as fundoshi was recognized as Japanese traditional swimwear after a long discussion, he was allowed to swim wearing fundoshi and successfully won the race.

Today some schools of traditional Japanese swimming still use rokushaku fundoshi in accordance with tradition.

While rokushaku fundoshi attracts attention as healthy underwear because it presses acupressure points on the waist and between legs including tanden (the inner part of the lower abdomen just beneath the navel), it is not likely to be widely used as underwear in this world of Western-style clothing due to its bulkiness as well as the difficulty of putting it on and taking it off, although it is suitable for Japanese-style clothing. However, it remains the traditional underwear of Japan and indispensable costume for festivals, just like wafuku (Japanese traditional clothes).

The phrase 'kinkon ichiban' (brace yourself) comes from the tightness of rokushaku fundoshi. It indicates that one's nerves become braced by having a rokushaku fundoshi clenched between the buttocks and fixing the genitals, and that the fastening of the garment makes it easy to put strength in the lower abdomen. It is for this reason that it is favored among serious martial artists.

[Original Japanese]