By Mikki Halpin

Browsing through a Tokyo newsstand, I came across "What Are Pants!", an innovative moment in underwear vending for only ¥1500. What Are Pants! apparently has a chain of stores in Tokyo and Osaka, as well as this catalogue. But it's more than a consumer pleasure center: "What Are Pants!" presents a unique epistemological enterprise (see the What Are Pants! philosophy). Amid spreads of over 600 different trunks and briefs are tastefully lit buttock shots with pithy observations on underwear's role in society, explanations of weave variations, a spread of the cotton plants a-growin', and a lengthy profile of the firm's founder, as well as a few of the designers. The taxonomy of What Are Pants! is bewildering; sections entitled "Pants in the Forest", "Greenish", and "Ecolog Inner" are cheek to cheek with the James Dean collection and the Polo Club. Because Japan's visual culture disallows representation of genitalia (courtesy of Douglas McArthur), underwear has become a titillating image in its own right. Shots of young women in clean white panties fill magazine racks throughout the country, and rumors of a large underground trade in used women's underwear have been around for years. The catalogue claims that "Underwear is the barrier between pleasure and trouble." Maybe it's just the starting point for both.

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