Nihonbashi, Tokyo, December 16, 1932, around 9:15 am: a massive fire breaks out on the fourth floor of Shirokiya, a famous department store. It enters the annals of history as the infamous "Shirokiya department store (白木屋百貨店) fire disaster".

The Shirokiya was a high-rise building with eight floors above the ground and two underground levels. The fire broke out in the toy section located on the fourth floor and blared up all the way up to the eighth floor. Twenty-nine pump trucks and three ladder trucks were dispatched to extinguish the fire, illustrating just how big the fire was. In the end, the death toll amounted to fourteen, eight of them women, who died by falling from the sixth and seventh floor. It was the first fire disaster in a high-rise building in Japanese history.

Many Japanese associate the Shirokiya department store inferno with female underwear. Why you may ask. The disaster is believed to have triggered the era when Japanese ladies are starting to don modern underwear. You might wonder if Japanese women were naked under their clothes back then. The answer is both, "Yes" and "No". The staple garment for women back in the 1930s was still the kimono. Underneath, women just wore what is called koshimaki (腰巻 waist cloth), wrapped around from their waist down. Although koshimaki were nothing equivalent to modern Western-style underwear, their private parts were not naked.

It was reported that in the Shirokiya department store fire disaster due to their sense of shame, female workers in the midst of catastrophe would instead plummet to death than disgracefully show their private parts to curious onlookers on the ground. Learning a lesson the hard way, Japanese women picked up the practice of wearing undies. That is how most of the people believe female underwear was introduced to Japan.

Well, this is a mere urban myth, counters Professor Shoichi Inoue. According to him, the female workers at Shirokiya's were escaping from the disaster by the skin of their teeth. They could not afford to pay attention to curious spectators. He argues that women back then were used to publicly exposing themselves so that they must have been quite insensitive to onlookers. There are some stories to support his postulation: on the way back from their groceries, when caught by a gust of wind, most women instead held tightly onto their shopping bags than clasping the bottom of their kimono to avoid it being lifted. Also, it was common to see women clad in kimono casually stepping over someone lying on the floor. More shockingly even, up until the beginning of the 1960s, in farming villages, women were working on the fields with their kimono gathered up around their waist, and people often saw them urinating standing on footpaths between the rice paddies in bright daylight. From these stories, we can conclude that women back in the days of koshimaki did not have the same level of physical shame as women nowadays. They seemed to have accepted self-exposure as an inevitable daily practice.

Then, where did this myth originate from? To sum up Prof. Inoue's findings:
  • As opposed to the female clerks on the upper floors, the employees on the lower levels of the Shirokiya department store on the day of the disaster might have paid more attention to the onlookers on the street. It is possible that the stories of both groups were somehow confused in later accounts of the event.
  • When interrogated, Shirokiya's security personnel might have attempted to dodge their responsibility by claiming that "the dead employees had failed to escape by jumping the net because they were not wearing any underwear". It is possible that these statements were later conveyed in an exaggerated fashion.
  • Irrelevant to the Shirokiya inferno, it was the time when female fashion was transitioning from Japanese to Western-style. It was only a trend, but the Shirokiya fire just so happened during those times of social transformation.
  • The legend of "women without underwear plummeting to death due to their tremendous sense of shame" would easily stick to everyone's mind and became an urban myth of sorts.
So, that's that. Some questions remain. What was the actual reason that modern underwear gained so much popularity and prevailed among Japanese women? When and how did that happen? Since when did women start developing a sense of shame about self-exposure?

It was not until the late 1950s that modern underwear started playing its predominant role in Japan. In the Meiji era, Western culture began to pour into Japan. Along came Western attire, with undergarment called "drawers" (ズロース, see picture below). However, Western clothing did not take off immediately; it was only worn by the wealthy. Commoners still preferred kimono, hence koshimaki retained their importance.

In the Taisho era, Western clothes gained more popularity due to the introduction of uniforms at girls' schools, and female empowerment, resulting in women tapping into the world of business. Western-style clothes were preferred as they offered women more mobility. Thus, drawers became more common among women, yet not by a significant degree, as women still did not feel comfortable with garment snug around their private parts.

In 1939, when World War II broke out, monpe (もんぺ), loose trousers with a drawstring around each ankle, were promoted for women (see picture below). Since they could not wear koshimaki under these trousers, women had no choice but to wear drawers. Thus, the ratio of underwear usage dramatically increased among women. However, when the war ended, Japan went into extreme poverty, and the only women who could afford to wear drawers were "pan pan girls", prostitutes consorting with the occupation troops, and the image of drawers turned into something sleazy, radiating the image of sexual promiscuity. We can, therefore, conclude that the war and postwar experiences were only one of many reasons that contributed to the hype of Western underwear among Japanese ladies, despite their slightly doubtful reputation.

In the mid-1950s, Japan pulled off its post-war economic miracle. In the wake of the economic rise, a veritable underwear boom epitomised by the iconic panty set in. Due to the shortage of textiles, women who so far could only care about their outer fashion now could afford to spend more money on their "inner fashion" as well. Fashion shows specialised in undies were ubiquitous, and underwear sections in department stores expanded. Behind all this was the start of private broadcasting, the development of modern media, and also the emergence of the fashion industry, with lingerie pioneers such as Wacoal Corporation. Modern underwear had finally taken off.

Interestingly, once Japanese women started wearing underwear, a stronger sense of physical shame evolved. Once covered by underwear, their awareness of private parts gradually increased, according to Professor Inoue. And the Japanese government played a great part in this as well.

After World War II, the government campaigned for women to wear underwear to uphold their chastity. When these national efforts started to take effect, the number of women wearing undergarments increased. The concept that private parts should be hidden from people's eyes became commonplace. Hence, shamefulness women felt when their private parts were visibly increased, although a sense of shame regarding underwear being in plain view of others had not yet developed. This was because an intricate understanding of Western-style underwear disseminated much slower than the knowledge of how to behave when clad in Western clothes. Japanese women were unfamiliar with how to comport themselves in a way so that their underwear was not visible. On top of that, since Japanese women around this time were feeling liberated by wearing Western clothes instead of constrictive kimono, their "footwork" was slightly unpolished so that people found women sitting on the train with their knees wide open.

In the late 50s, the underwear boom swept Japanese women into the panty era. Women started to realise that underwear should be hidden in skirts. What changed the female mindset was widespread westernisation ingested in classes at dressmaking schools, through manner books, the behaviour of Western ladies visiting Japan, Western movies (see "Seven Year-Itch" screened in 1955), etc. Japanese women had been shaped by Western concepts of demeanour and style.

This is how Japanese women's sense of physical shame developed: not because they were disinclined to exposure, but because they started hiding their private parts by adopting Western-style underwear. In the same fashion, once underwear had become standard practice, Japanese women began to develop a strong sense of shame about displaying their underwear.



Shirokiya Department Store

Shirokiya Dept. Store on fire, 16 Dec 1932 (click to enlarge; photo credit)


Girls pearl-divers wearing koshimaki (woodblock print by Kitagawa Utamaro)


Drawers ズロース


Monpe もんぺ


Correct female behaviour on the train