Haramaki, the Japanese belly warmer

Haramaki is a type of Japanese undergarment. It literally translates as ‘belly wrap’ (腹巻). I first learned about haramaki when shopping at Japanese clothing store Uniqlo. In the underwear section, I saw a tube-like knitted item that seemed perfect for keeping my neck warm at night. Shortly after having bought two ‘neckwarmers’, I saw a tv program where foreigners were being interviewed about life in Japan. The foreigners commented on the peculiar Japanese habit of wearing belly warmers. Hence my introduction to the haramaki. Ever since discovering its intended purpose, I wear haramaki in winter for extra warmth or whenever I have lower back pains.

haramaki

Japanese belly warmer called haramaki

When looking for background on haramaki, I was surprised to find mostly fashion related information. I had thought of the haramaki more as an item that one wears for health purposes but apparently it is making a comeback as a fashion piece. This is remarkable because the haramaki was traditionally considered an out-of-date item worn by old men.

The history of the haramaki goes back to feudal Japan, where it was a type of armour worn by infantry soldiers. According to Wikipedia, haramaki refers to any Japanese armour which is put on from the front and then fastened in the back with cords.

haramaki armour

Haramaki armour – Image from Worldantiques

Later on, during the First Sino-Japanese War and World War II, a soldier going off to fight was often given a senninbari haramaki (“1,000 stitch belt”) by his family. A mother, sister, or wife would stand on the street and ask passing women to contribute a stitch until 1,000 had been collected. The garment was meant to both provide warmth and serve as a talisman to ward away harm.

senninbachi haramaki

Senninbari haramaki for Japanese soldiers

The haramaki then evolved to its current form: a circular tube of fabric worn around the midriff and hips. During the 70’s and 80’s, it was considered an out-of-date type of underwear for old men. Contributing to this image were various characters from popular culture like the manga series Tensai Bakabon, which stars a dim-witted boy and his insane father. The father always wears a haramaki.

tensai bakabon otousan haramaki

The dad from manga Tensai Bakabon, wearing a haramaki

Another example is Tora-san, the main character in a series of movies about a kind-hearted vagabond who is always unlucky in love.

torasan haramaki

Tora-san from the movie series Otoko wa tsurai yo (“It’s tough being a man”), wearing his signature haramaki

The transition of haramaki from out-of date underwear to fashionable mainstream item is mostly credited to Japanese game designer and entrepreneur Itoi Shigesato. Itoi had been wearing haramaki for years despite their old-fashioned reputation and perception as an unfashionable undergarment when he started selling haramaki in 2001 through his company Hobonichi. Hobonichi reinvented haramaki as fashion items to layer with your clothes. He even worked with Nintendo to make Nintendo-themed haramaki. If you are interested in buying some trendy Hobonichi haramaki, you can go to the English language Hobonichi webshop. You can wear these haramaki directly over your skin, over an undershirt and under your shirt, or completely over your shirt. If you are more into plain haramaki, you might try British shop Nukunuku.

hobonichi haramaki nintendo

Nintendo themed haramaki from Hobonichi

While not everyone may agree about the fashion merit of haramaki, there is no denying that haramaki help to keep you warm. Have a look at the chart below:

haramaki heat chart

fig. 01: low body temperature; fig. 02: slightly warmer with a summer blanket; fig. 03: even better with a winter blanket; fig. 04: high core temperature and therefore overall higher body temperature with haramaki. A haramaki is also supposed to improve circulation.

The Japanese love to talk about how important a warm stomach is to staying well. They attribute all sorts of health benefits to it. In any case the added heat provided by haramaki is very welcome during cold Japanese winters without central heating systems. If you want to know more about keeping warm during winter in Japan, you can read my post 6 ways to keep warm during Japanese winter.

What do you think about haramaki? Is it a fashion-do or don’t? Only for grandpa’s or great for young people too? Let me know what you think in the comments section!

Advertisements

Why ‘The Japans’ as a blog name?

When I first decided to start this blog, I spent a lot of time thinking of a good name. One thing that kept popping up in my head was ‘The Japans’.

The term comes from the novel ‘Shogun’ by James Clavell. ‘Shogun’ is the story of an English pilot, John Blackthorne, who washes up on the coast of Japan and is confronted with feudal Japan around 1600 AD. He is forced to adapt to Japanese ways and even becomes involved in the power struggle between daimyo’s Ishido and Toranaga (based on Tokugawa Ieyasu).

Shogun by James Clavell Cover

Shogun cover design

Blackthorne and his crew consistently refer to Japan as ‘The Japans’. It is a fabled island kingdom where no Englishman or Dutchman has ever set foot before. In the beginning of the book, the crew even expresses some doubts as to the existence of these mythical Japans. But soon enough they discover that The Japans are very real indeed.

I remember watching the TV mini-series as a child. When I grew older, I read the book and have reread it multiple times since. Both the TV series and the book made a big impression of me. Although the book is perhaps not 100% historically accurate, it really helped me to get a better understanding of Japanese culture and history. I was fascinated by the culture shock that Blackthorne went through. Although the book deals with feudal Japanese culture, I found that it helped deepen my understanding of modern Japanese culture as well. ‘Shogun’ played a big part in my fascination with Japan. I would therefore like to dedicate this post to the late Mr. James Clavell. Thank you for writing such a wonderful book!

Japanese landscape through a cat’s eyes

I have written about my favourite internet cat, Shiro, once before (click here to read the article). Usually Shiro and his fellow feline housemates are featured sleeping, with an array of odd household items on their head.

Shiro and his feline friends

Shiro and his feline friends

Cats with towels on their heads

Beautiful blue skies and cats with towels on their heads

My favourite videos of Shiro however, are the ones where you can see in what kind of stunning environment Shiro and his owner live. I have the impression that they live on an old Japanese farm somewhere in the mountains. The scenery always makes me long for Japan and its beautiful landscapes.

Here is a video of Shiro walking outside in the snow:

And below is a more elaborate video where you really get a good look at the environment. Also notice the crow sounds in the background, which to me are very reminiscent of Japan.

Poor Nyan Cat

Never have I seen tamer cats than during my stay in Japan. I have seen Japanese cats submissively undergo treatments that would have sent any Belgian cat into a hissing, clawing and biting frenzy.

You can imagine my surprise when I came across the following scene in a shopping street in Okinawa:

Cat on a leash in Japan

How often do you see a grown man walk around with a cat dressed in a pink cape decorated with bows, flowers and what have you not? In most cases, the answer to that question will be “not very often”. Unless of course you live in Japan, in which case you will be forced to respond with “occasionally”.

My amazement increased when I saw that the cat would lie down and get up again on command. As the man walked off, the cat meekly followed at his side. Although obedient, the cat looked far from happy. My initial tendency to laugh at the scene soon changed into a feeling of pity for the cat.

Cat walking on a leash in Okinawa, Japan

Cat walking on a leash in Okinawa, Japan

Let’s have a closer look at the cat. Don’t you think it looks a little bit like Nyan Cat? Only Nyan Cat looks a lot happier.

Poor Nyan Cat

Poor Nyan Cat

 

Kaomoji or Japanese emoticons

One of the things that fascinate me about Japan, is the fact that they mostly have the same stuff we do, but in a different version. It makes you realize how many different ways there are of doing the same thing.

A very good example is the way Japanese people use emoticons. For the more digitally challenged among you, I will start at the beginning: an emoticon is a depiction of a facial expression using punctuation marks, numbers and letters. Emoticons are often used to express emotion while chatting or writing informal e-mails. Western emoticons are faces ‘lying on their side’. For example:

:- )   smiley face        –>  Happy birthday! :- )

:-s   embarrassed       –>  Oops! I’m so sorry :-s

;- )   winking

Japanese emoticons are called ‘kaomoji’, from the words for face (kao) and emoticon (emoji). And as you might have guessed by now, they are nothing like Western emoticons. If you ask me, they are so much cooler! For starters they are not rotated. You ‘read’ them as they are. For example:

^_^    simple smiley face

(^_^;)    embarrassed face (there is a sweat drop to the side of the face)

(^_~)    winking

Aren’t they cute? There is a lot more variation in Japanese emoticons than in Western ones. Some of them are pretty elaborate. Have a look at these:

(*´▽`*) infatuated

(@_@)      feeling dizzy

>^..^<       a cat

(*^▽^*)      very happy face

I also find it interesting to see how some emotional expressions are different in Japanese culture, like for example the drop of sweat to express discomfort or a bow to apologize:

m(_ _)m   person bowing down in apology, the letter m represents a hand

.
What is your favourite emoticon?

Japan’s most famous cat

I once heard somewhere that 80% of all content on the internet is porn. But surely that can’t be true. If you ask me, 80% of all content on the internet consists of funny cat pictures.

The most famous website with funny cat pictures is ‘I can has cheezburger‘. It features pictures of cats with comments in slightly distorted English. While some people might argue about the comic value of ‘lolcats’, as these pictures are commonly known (geek humor is not for everyone), there can be no doubt about the fact that this site has made a huge contribution to the explosion of cute and funny cat pictures on the internet.

lolcats

An example of ‘lolcats’

Since Japanese people love all things cute, naturally the Japanese also participate in the phenomenon of cute online cats. Japan’s most famous online cat* is called Shiro, which means white. It’s owner has a YouTube channel and a blog where he or she posts daily video’s of Shiro. Shiro is apparently quite famous in Japan, because I have come across Shironeko merchandise like calendars and birthday cards.

shironeko blog

Close-up of Shiro

 The Shironeko videos are not just videos of a cat doing your average cat things. The reason that Shiro is so famous, is because its owner has a habit of piling things on top of Shiro’s head. And amazingly, Shiro puts up with it. When I imagine doing the same thing to my cat, scenes of a madly screaming and flailing cat come to mind.

Have a look at Shiro with a ramen bowl on his head:

If you think a ramen bowl is impressive, check out the video below:

Apparently the owner has several other, equally docile cats:

The thing I love most about these videos is actually not the cute cats, but the glimpses of Japan that are in the background, like the beautiful screen doors in the ramen video or the scenery of the Japanese mountains in the videos outside. Apparently the owner lives in a beautiful secluded home somewhere in the mountains. Having lived in an almost entirely flat country like Belgium for most of my life, the beauty of the Japanese mountains has made a big impression on me.

;

Just as I was finishing up this article, I found out that there is another Japanese internet cat that is a lot more famous than Shiro. His name is Maru, his videos get millions of views and he has been featured in the New York Times. There is no denying it, the title of most famous cat in Japan goes to Maru. But I do remain a Shiro fan. The Shiro videos are just so wonderfully odd!

The meow song – Nekomeshi

I recently came across a Japanese song which is too cute for words. The song imitates a cat talking to its owner. Not only is the song extremely catchy, a noble stranger has taken it upon him- or herself to illustrate the song with beautiful photos on YouTube. Check out the result:

The repeated ‘nya-nya’ means ‘meow’ in Japanese. The cat is talking about what it wants to eat for lunch and dinner, and it is urging its master to not work too much. Click here to read a translation of the complete lyrics.

This song appears on a single with music from the anime ‘Arakawa Under the Bridge’. The singer is Etsuko Yakushimaru.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll be singing nya – nya nya – nya for the rest of the day.

Japanese singer Etsuko Yakushimaru

Japanese singer Etsuko Yakushimaru