I hadn’t expected it to look so much like a serial killer’s basement.
On the floor there was a box, filled to overflowing, of small brown and black loafers. Above them, on plastic hangers, hung Japanese schoolgirl uniforms, dozens of navy-and-black plaid tailored vests with matching skirts and neckties. Next to the clothing were a number of well ordered plastic bins filled with school supplies. One with protractors and compasses, another devoted to pencil cases, a third with pocket calculators and scissors. On and on they stretched across the length of the store, school day derelicts left to lie under sterile, fluorescent lights.
On the wall behind this panoply was what I, a gawking tourist in Tokyo, had really come to see. Stretching five feet high and ten feet across were small plastic pouches. Each was affixed to the wall with a bronze thumb tack. Each contained a pair of underwear, and, in front of this, a picture of said underwear’s previous occupant.
The pictures were all the same. A featureless white wall in the background. A girl wearing a school issued skirt, shot from the waist down. The skirt pulled up to reveal the undergarment. I marveled over all those pale legs decoupled from their torsos, row after row after row of anonymous donors to the booming Japanese fetish industry. Questions came to mind, Who are these girls? Are they still alive? Just by being here, am I already complicit in a mass disappearance?
The questions were hysterical because this was ROPE, a legally owned and operated burusera. A burusera, briefly, is a fetish shop where schoolgirls sell their used clothing and school supplies for money. Judging by the price tags on the underwear pouches, which started at $25 for a pair and went all the way up to $200, the money must have been good. You can find a lot in a burusera, but not everything. Thankfully—or unfortunately depending on where one stands—in 2004 the Japanese government restricted the sale of used underwear of individuals under 18, and ended the sale of bodily fluids entirely. I’m certain that Arnold Toynbee would have agreed that one of the hallmarks of civilization is the inability to walk into a store and buy a sixteen-year-old’s urine.
I stood before the wall, a monument to mankind’s perverse ingenuity, until the thought I had been waiting for sounded in my brain: This is disgusting.
I felt gratified by this great and secret show of integrity.
Until it was followed immediately by the question, Why were you so excited to come here again?
The fact is that I like to visit places that are disgusting, especially the ones that pay tribute to the unceasing failure of human beings to conduct themselves sexually in a dignified, progressive, or moral manner. I like discovering the viscid, visceral muck roiling beneath a placid surface.
Japanese society was no exception. Beneath all the careful cultivation, the Zen monasteries, tea ceremonies, and flower arrangements, there was a thriving world of chaotic paraphilia. A professional man might work for Toshiba in the morning and come home at night to an idolized protractor passed out of possession by a high school senior looking to make extra money for a designer handbag.
I find this reassuring since I myself am no exception either. In spite of my indignation when faced with ROPE’s off-color wares, there are those times when I feel self-disgust even though I dress well and floss regularly. As much as I’ve tried to completely unshackle my sexuality from the puritanical chains of my religious upbringing, I have only met with partial success. As unfair or exaggerated as it might sound, having sex in the most conservative way possible, in the most unimaginative of positions, seems to me, quite often, as fraught and perilous as fetishizing a schoolgirl’s shoes. In other words, I struggle to know right from wrong, and I don’t know which authority (my own? some dead philosopher? Oprah?) to defer to in this struggle. I’m certain that a number of ROPE’s patrons feel the same way. While I might find myself to be terribly decadent after masturbating to a harmless daydream starring mid-70s Debbie Harry, at least I have learned to see myself as part of a recognized, universal spectrum of grossness and weirdness. ROPE was a further demonstration that tortured, irrepressible sexuality will persist in lock-step with the lifespan of our species.
The space between me and my imagined, protractor worshipping Toshiba employee telescoped. I came to the burusera to practice moral outrage, but, much deeper, my wounded id found something more fundamental: solidarity.
Suddenly, I’d had my fill of the place. I purchased the cheapest pair of underwear I could find while forcing myself not to think of their murky provenance. I’m not perfect.
Back in the United States, I gave them to a friend as a gag gift.
“Can you believe this exists?” I asked.
Ultimately, he declined to take it on the grounds that he wouldn’t know what to say if it was discovered in his possession. I didn’t hold this against him.
I threw it away in the dumpster of his apartment complex.