October 27th, 2006


All about wristbands

"Where are the red woollen wristbands?" I ask Hisae; it's morning, and I'm dressed, but without wristbands we just can't leave the house. You'd think it would be enough for me to have to tie a sort of felt-and-knicker-elastic headband around my bad eye every morning. But no, this year I've added wristbands to my list of essential accessories. Without these little splashes of colour at the cuff, I just don't feel fully dressed.

Where does a new need begin? Perhaps mine started in Osaka in January, when, scouring the uniform shops of Shinsekai for something to wear as the Unreliable Tour Guide at the Whitney Museum, I bought a pair of velcro-fastened white carpenters' wristbands, or tekou, designed to keep sawdust out of the artisan's sleeves. Far from merely practical, Japanese workmens' uniforms are full of mystical touches, references to nature, clan loyalties, hints at the hidden sacred character of various kinds of work. These bands are decorated with a dark blue sea pattern crossed by stitched white thread. I don't know what they "mean", but I do have a practical use for them; although I don't encounter much sawdust in my run-of-the-mill activities, I do own a lot of women's sweaters with sleeves way too short for me. The bands cover up my hairy forearms and keep me warm.

This year I've often found myself in tune with articles running in PingMag, the Tokyo-based webzine "about design and making things". (In fact, this entry is a bit of a parody of a PingMag entry, images and all.) So it's no surprise that back in January they were also celebrating Construction Worker Fashion. Their current lead story is the equally entertaining Jockeys' Funky Uniform.

I make reference to another PingMag story in this week's Wired Column, It's Madvertising!, which starts with a PingMag article about advertising saturation in Tokyo train stations. I pick up this saturation idea and run with it all the way to Coke ads on the moon, and triggered supernova explosions spelling out slogans in the sky (that's the "madvertising" part).

Throughout, I'm sort of ambivalent about advertising. Technologies like TiVo, which allow us to skip ads, are great. Then again, what would Tokyo be like without the neons of Shinjuku or the plasma screens of Shibuya and Harajuku? As usual, I find myself striking a position something like: advertising should either be banned entirely, or it should go much, much further.

Ironically, the podcast for the article, read by a voice which might be a robot or might be a human -- I'm genuinely not sure -- is surrounded, for the first time, by advertising; no sooner have I signed off with "Now that's what I call madvertising!" than a voice announces "and now a word from our sponsors", and a trailer for a Hollywood movie plays.

What does this have to do with wristbands? Well, I wonder whether we mightn't see people paid to wear branded wristbands at some point? After all, lots of people wear brand names all over their bodies voluntarily, for no money. Why not do it for money? Flying back from Barcelona this weekend, I noticed that Hisae was still wearing her CCCB entry band. When I asked her why, she said: "I like wearing things around my wrist, like hair elastics. With the CCCB band, I liked the bright pink colour."

We started talking about some KitKat ads we saw on a subway train in Tokyo earlier in the year. These showed the arms of some third year high school students as they made a star shape with spread fingers on a school desk. "We are supporting the jukensei!" read the KitKat copy, referring to girls in the last year of high school, applying for university and about to sit their exams.

The decorations around their wrists are misanga, lucky charms made of twined thread. It seems that Brazilian footballers originated the custom, but it's been adopted in Japan. The idea is that you wear the thread all the time, tied around your wrist. When it breaks naturally, the wish you made when you tied it will come true. Perhaps wrists are too sacred a place for ads after all.