Uncovering Japan’s Zentai Fetish Scene
What is it that drives a particular fetish? As I pondered this question, I stood in the glorious Tokyo humidity, sweating in my poorly chosen chinos and button up shirt. I was at a subway station just outside of Shinjuku, waiting for my guide to take me to a dedicated zentai party, where I would hopefully find an answer. Boy, was I in for something different.
In addition to being known for ramen, anime and the Shibu Inu, Japan – a place so far culturally removed from the west it has spawned websites dedicated to its epic weirdness – is famous for its left-field kinks and sexual oddities. There’s kigurumi – dressing in animal onesies, which has applications outside the fetish community; hentai, the international catch-all term for anime porn (honestly, Rule34 has nothing on some of the manga porn in Japan), and the usual BDSM whips-and-chains and gimp masks. Many westerners have some knowledge of these, but stumbling across what I can only describe as human skittles writhing around on a blow-up bed one late night on YouTube had me sold. I had to know more.
Zentai — which is a contraction of the term “zenshin-taitsu”, meaning all-over tights — began in Japan sometime in the mid-’90s. An invention of enigmatic Japanese photographer Marcy Anarchy, the phenomenon reached a level of relative popularity all over the world. As a fetish though, it still remains a very underground practice. Commercial offshoots such as morphsuits are now readily available in all colours, patterns and national flag designs. Nary has a cricket match gone by without rowdy Australians covered head-to-toe in spandex heckling the other team. Cosplayers regularly pick up Spidey costumes from websites such as ZentaiZentai, and even triple j’s Tom and Alex wore Zentai suits one morning on their breakfast show.
But I wasn’t interested in exploring this more sensible side of zentai. I wished to delve into the colourful spandex pit, headfirst. I would bounce back up equally baffled and intrigued.
Nervously, I asked myself why I’d asked to come to a Japanese fetish event. I had no idea what awaited me, and still cannot quite process what I witnessed. A short Japanese man in a smart suit greeted me and asked if I was waiting to go to a “party”. I said I was and followed him to an apartment block a few streets away from Yotsuya San-Chome subway station. We descended a flight of stairs to a basement studio, the door to which was shielded by a black cloth. I half expected to see Bruce Willis tied to a chair with a red ball stuffed in his mouth. Thankfully, we would not be re-enacting Pulp Fiction today.
Upon entering, I was met by a girl covered neck to toe (her hood was down) in matte-black spandex. Aiko* bowed, introduced herself and offered me some Oolong tea on a nearby table. Across from the table sat 10 or so other partygoers, some in zentai, some still in their normal clothes. They seemed apprehensive about my presence at first, but greetings were warm. They all seemed to know one another; I was the only stranger. After some nervous snacking, many Oolong teas and skirting around translation problems, clothes were stripped and the epic weirdness unleashed.
The first guests to hit the blow-up beds were Aiko and Hiro.* Both were in their early 20s and very good looking people; however, once their hoods were donned, I could only tell who was who by body shape and suit colour. Helmetless Power Rangers sliding around in a hedonistic heap. They were soon joined by another couple, and a fifth, all clad in skintight garments, twisting, grinding and petting one another. I couldn’t tell if it was an orgy or a theatrical performance. Blues, whites, blacks and greens intertwined almost rhythmically with one another. The only noise was of the shuffling of bodies on the beds and the sleek zip of spandex on spandex. I could hear Aiko and Keiko,* the other female, sighing heavily as touching progressed to all (and I mean ALL) body parts. It was at this point I realised I was in deep.
Keiji* is a 20-year-old student. He identifies as bisexual, but is primarily attracted to other men. By all observations, he appears to be a regular Japanese millennial. He enjoys skateboarding and Marvel comics. He says that he owns 12 Zentai suits and that wearing them makes him feel sexy. He also enjoys looking at both men and women in shiny suits, as there are no “bumps” on the outside of a zentai.
Mariko* is 23. She says that she likes the feel of the material on her skin, and that she prefers touching others wearing zentai than being touched herself. She is heterosexual and has an eye for one of the other guests, a very fit dude in a tiger-striped suit. She jumps into a white nylon tube and allows three of the others guests to caress her while she’s inside.
The partygoers were all ordinary people underneath their second skins. They laughed and joked, enjoyed the few beers someone had brought and took turns brushing up against each other. I imagine it must be an enjoyable sensory pay-off that attracts zentai wearers to enjoy the intimate caressing. The guests take turns, swapping out turns on the mattresses to join in the twisted jumble of shiny arms and legs. I’m beginning to understand that while it’s about pleasure, it also is about fostering a community of like-minded individuals who seek to validate something most would see as perverse. Underneath the nylon, they just want to feel normal.
While these particular parties often take on an overtly sexual nature, the fetish isn’t necessarily sexual itself. Many of the guests specifically say no to touching certain areas, and boundaries are always respected. Any breaches result in expulsion from the party and the club in general. While the covered faces freak me out (like, really, this is the biggest aspect of this party that concerned me?), I can understand the appeal in complete anonymity and the desire to succumb to what essentially is an exercise in relaxation. In modern Japan, most people are overworked and at the mercy of extremely high ethical and moral standards, so a gathering that flies in the face of every custom in Japan is appealing for very obvious reasons. After all, humans love to rebel.
I’m offered a suit to try myself, and to “sri-sri” (pronounced suri suri) with the guests on the bed. For a split second, I’m tempted for shits and giggles, but I’m not sure my girlfriend would be comfortable with me tangling with another girl, even separated by a thin spandex medium, and my own Spiderman cosplay gets annoying to wear at comic cons, so I decline and sit back and marvel at Lycra in motion.
*All names changed to protect privacy.
Cover and all photos by the author