Yukinko has been an active member of Tokyo Zentai Style for nearly a decade. That is, one of the oldest zentai organizations in Japan, which launched in 1997. Its 25 members dress in skin-tight bodysuits for all kinds of events, whether art-related or for fetish’s sake.
On most days, the 27-year-old is a bank employee who goes by her birth name—one she likes to keep secret. On weekends, she proudly calls herself Yukinko, a zentai performer clad in a polka-dotted zentai suit. She first learned of zentai at an art event in Tokyo in 2015, while she was still in university.
“It drew my attention because it obviously looked weird but interesting. I asked a guy at the booth, ‘What is this?’ Then he said, ‘It’s the zentai, want to try?’ So, I tried it with no hesitation. It was a whole new world, with a sensation I had never experienced, and I got hooked straight away,” Yukinko told VICE, adding that she joined Tokyo Zentai Style almost instantly.
“Zentai” comes from the word “Zenshin Taitsu,” which refers to a skin-tight bodysuit that covers the entire body, including the head. People started wearing these garments made of polyester or nylon in the 90s as a new kind of fetish. The suits were solid-colored (no patterns) and did not have holes for the eyes. At the time, it was mostly men wearing them. However, the trend eventually rose from the underground fetish society and into the realm of performance art.
Many of these events still include fetish play but for many enthusiasts, like Yukinko, it’s about freedom, a tool to liberate oneself from societal pressures and stereotypes.
“I can be myself when wearing a zentai suit,” Yukinko said. “The real me is playful and likes playing pranks, but I was brought up in an old-fashioned family [and was expected to have] a steady job.”
She said her mom was strict growing up and that she felt pressured to meet her parents’ expectations. When she was young, she let off steam by joining the school’s drama club. As an adult, zentai does the same for her.
“I’ve always liked getting into a character. So, when I first saw and tried the zentai, I thought I finally found a place where I could be myself,” she said. “Because when wearing a zentai suit, it feels like I’m taking off the armor of the person I should be and letting myself be the real me with complete anonymity.”
Yukinko believes in the power of zentai to help with mental health.
“Because when wearing a zentai suit, it feels like I’m taking off the armor of the person I should be and letting myself be the real me with complete anonymity.”
“Nowadays, young people, especially girls, are particularly conscious of their appearances and often suffer low self-esteem from comparing themselves to others on social media, like Instagram. That may lead to social anxiety or depression. I know the zentai first unfolded as a kind of fetishism, but I feel like there are actually many zentai users who wear the suit for psychological relief,” she said.
Yukinko said that some people in their group have trouble communicating with people in daily life, but come out of their shells when wearing a zentai suit, able to look people in the eye and wave to an audience with a smile.
“When I first found out about zentai, it wasn’t famous at all. In the last few years, I now feel it’s been better recognized as an artistic form of performance by the public. I’m now hoping to help people in psychological needs by introducing the zentai as a support for mental health,” Yukinko said.
Below are colorful photos of zentai performers.
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The post Freedom, Not Fetish: Inside the World of Japan’s Zentai Community appeared first on VICE.