I moved into a new apartment last weekend—smaller than the previous one, impossibly—and the first thing I worried about was where to hang my laundry. The washer-dryer set is a rarity in Japan. Low on space but high on energy fees, most Japanese have a washer and an array of air-drying apparatuses that provide perpetually gaudy adornment to a home’s exterior. My clothes line is on a small balcony that overlooks other small balconies belonging to the neighboring apartment building, roughly ten feet away. On laundry day, my blouses and skirts wave in the breeze to the socks and jeans basking in the sun across the way. When I finally gather in my dry, crispy garments, they are filled with the scent of Tokyo’s summer—smog, sweat and a pollen I am allergic to.
Rather than the particular aroma Tokyo infuses into my clothes, my laundry worries center around theft—panty theft. I developed this phobia in Yamanashi, care of Kawabata-sensei, the music teacher at my former junior high school. Kawabata was about three months older than me, but looked three years younger owing to the fact that she’s hardly five feet tall. As the only two teachers at school who weren’t nearing retirement, we liked to spend time together complaining about how Japanese people work long hours, even on the weekends. Kawabata-sensei complained because she actually had to work; I complained because she couldn’t hang out with me on my days off.
Kawabata stopped by my place in Yamanashi one day after school, and as we left my apartment together for dinner, I didn’t lock my door. Knock on wood, but like most gaijin, I believe that nothing bad can happen in Japan; the most dangerous places here don’t scare me as much as some “safe” places back home. Kawabata, however, was scandalized that I would do something so reckless. “But what if someone comes in?!” she exclaimed. “What about your panties?! What if someone steals them?!”
Personally, in spite of an extensive Victoria Secret collection, I am a little more concerned for the safety of my Mac and smartphone, but this conversation is testament to Japan’s relative safety and another weird Japanese fetish. Panty theft is a serious problem in Japan. Since there is no choice but to hang clothes outside to dry, dirty old men have easy access to women’s lingerie. A few years ago, a 50-year-old man was arrested for stealing over 1700 pairs of panties. The excess of that case might make it easy to laugh about, but more disturbingly, men have been prosecuted for stealing the underthings of preschool- and elementary-age girls, including one employee of the child welfare department.
Considering the insidious side of the panty-stealing trend, Kawabata-sensei’s surprise at my blatant disregard for my panties’ safety might seem more reasonable. But still, aren’t more valuable items like my laptop or camera more prone to thievery? Kawabata’s reply? “Yes, maybe those too. But really, be careful of your panties.”