Here’s Japan’s latest trend: ‘Zentai’


Members of Tokyo Zentai Club chat at a park in Tokyo on Jan. 25. (Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images)

They meet on clandestine Internet forums. Or in clubs. Or sometimes at barbecue parties, where as many as 10 adherents gather every month to eat meat and frolic in an outfit that falls somewhere between a Power Ranger’s tunic and Spider-Man’s digs.

This picture taken on February 7, 2014 shows Hokkyku Nigo posing before a mirror at a bar in Tokyo. She dresses in a skin-tight, all-in-one Spandex body suit that covers everything -- including her eyes -- and sits in bars, alone but liberated, she believes, from the judgement of others. Hokkyoku Nigo is part of a small subset in Japan with a fetish for wearing outfits called "zentai" -- an abbreviation of "zenshintaitsu", which means "full body suit" -- who say they are seeking liberation through the complete sublimation of the physical self. (YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)
Hokkyku Nigo before a mirror at a Tokyo bar on Feb. 7. She dresses in a skin-tight, all-in-one Spandex body suit that covers everything — including her eyes — and sits in bars, alone but liberated, she believes, from the judgment of others. (Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s called “zentai.” And in Japan, it can mean a lot of things. To 20-year-old Hokkyoku Nigo, it means liberation from the judgment and opinions of others. To a 22-year-old named Hanaka, it represents her lifelong fascination with superheroes. To a 36-year-old teacher named Nezumiko, it elicits something sexual. “I like to touch and stroke others and to be touched and stroked like this,” she told the AFP’s Harumi Ozawa.

But to most outsiders, zentai means exactly what it looks like: spandex body suits.

Where did this phenomenon come from and what does it mean? In a culture of unique displays — from men turning trucks into glowing light shows to women wearing Victoria-era clothing — zentai appears to be yet another oddity in a country well accustomed to them.

The trend can take on elements of prurience, however, and groups with names such as “zentai addict” and “zentai fetish” teem on Facebook. There are zentai ninjas. There are zentai Pokemon. There are zentai British flags and zentai American flags.

An organization called the Zentai Project, based in England, explains it as “a tight, colorful suit that transforms a normal person into amusement for all who see them. … The locals don’t know what to make of us, but the tourists love us and we get onto lots of tourist snaps — sometimes we can hardly walk 3 steps down the street before being stopped to pose for another picture.”

Though the trend is now apparently global, it was once just a group of Japanese climbing into skintight latex for unknown reasons.

This picture taken on January 25, 2014 shows a member of Tokyo Zentai Club fastening a zipper of another person at a park in Tokyo. Some meet through Internet forums and through gatherings like the Tokyo Zentai Club, whose ten members get together every other month, just like any other group, to hold barbecues or parties. Unlike any other group, they are covered head-to-toe in skintight Lycra.They are part of a small subset in Japan with a fetish for wearing outfits called "zentai" -- an abbreviation of "zenshintaitsu", which means "full body suit" -- who say they are seeking liberation through the complete sublimation of the physical self. (YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of Tokyo Zentai Club fastens a zipper of another person at a park in Tokyo on Jan. 25. (Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images)

“With my face covered, I cannot eat or drink like other customers,” Hokkyoku Nigo says in the AFP story. “I have led my life always worrying about what other people think of me. They say I look cute, gentle, childish or naive. I have always felt suffocated by that. But wearing this, I am just a person in a full body suit.”

Ikuo Daibo, a professor at Tokyo Mirai University, says wearing full body suits may reflect a sense of societal abandonment. People are acting out to define their individuality.

“In Japan,” he said, “many people feel lost; they feel unable to find their role in society. They have too many role models and cannot choose which one to follow.”


Members of Tokyo Zentai Club on a street in Tokyo on Jan. 25. (Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images)

So what has that caused them to wear neon-red body suits and prance in the streets?

“In a way, they are trying to expose their deeper self by hiding their own identity,” said Daibo. “I find it a very interesting way of communication.”

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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