When Bathing Suits None and All

Sounds like a riddle. But in Japan it can be (and is) both at once. And not only that, the subject at the heart of this riddle turns out to be one of the most important aspects of popular culture in the ReDot world — bearing on themes as diverse as the religion, family relationships, sexuality, the Japanese mafia, discrimination against foreigners, community-building, and solidarity. Framed this way, one might agree that deciphering the riddle merits serious attention.

To understand that, we have to start somewhere else: like with the query: “when is water a topic for readers of popular culture?” The answer could be: when discussing Olympic swimming, or else boating competitions, or maybe water rides at amusement parks. For those who dwell in the realm of ReDotPop that could also be when contemplating one’s daily lifestyle options.

We know, for instance, that water is an important topic when conversation turns to sake (Japanese rice wine), Japan’s second most-consumed alcoholic beverage. Often the claim made that the water of a specific locale tips the taste balance in a certain sake’s favor. Water also arises when discussing the plot twists of the once popular manga, Ranma ½ (a comic featured in one of the earliest ReDotPop columns on these pages). In case you don’t recall, that comic featured, a boy who, when traveling in China, fell into the cursed “Spring of Drowned Girl” and emerged female. Thereafter, any contact with water — be it a dip in a pool, a shower, or even an inadvertent spilled drink — has the effect of generating a non-invasive sexual reassignment. Copious confusion and grand entertainment thereafter being had by all.

But, above all, water is most prevalent in popular consciousness in something that is performed every day: bathing; which, in Japan, has been elevated to a form of religion. And, actually, this should come as little surprise, as bathing was actually originally tied to worship. One would suppose a purification tie-in here (and that is probably true); empirically, though, what is clear is that the origins of ReDot bathing culture is traceable to Buddhist temples in India, which came to Japan, via China, during the so-called Nara period (710–784). Back then, then, Japanese baths were found in temples and were public to those who came to pay homage to the deities.

For culturalists, a survey of the history of bathing is fascinating insofar as it provides a window into the evolution of ReDot society. For instance, shortly after baths were installed at temples, wealthy merchants and members of the upper class began including soaking spaces in their residences — a form of conspicuous consumption and, thereby, status aggrandizement.

It was five more centuries, though — in 1266 — before bath houses became a commercial concept. These public facilities were mixed sex (which may have been one of their major attractions). By the end of the Edo period — and here we mean between 1603 and 1868 — authorities in the Tokugawa Shogunate periodically sought to segregate the baths by gender, in an effort to preserve public morals. However, even then, bath house owners understood what contemporary marketers shamelessly trumpet today: sex sells. Imagine folks being that astute that early.

The end result was that any efforts to segregate the sexes were generally symbolic and at best, token: a small board in the middle of a common bath. With little visual obstruction to dissuade wandering eyes, the moral codes ended up lacking any substantial potency (so to speak). More efficacious measures involved setting specific bathing hours by gender (an intervention still employed at some public baths today) or else entirely limiting clientele to a particular gender.

Photo Credit: By JNTO (partial) from Travel in Style

However, by and large, in one form or another, until the end of the Edo era, the sexual dimension prevailed. And one reason certainly had to be the female bathing attendants (whose name, “yuna”, translates — no kidding — as “hot water woman”. As in: “you use her services, pal, and that woman could really get you into a lot of hot water!”). Officially, these attendants were paid to scrub customers’ backs; unofficially (and not uncommonly) they often sold patrons additional body-related services after hours. The concept of women cleaning male customers in a private bath-space has persisted into the present, with brothels dubbed “soapland” specializing in this front-stage activity.

Meanwhile, back at the public baths . . . reference texts suggest that mixed-sex bathing was finally given the heave-ho under pressure from American Commodore Matthew Perry, whose “Black Ships”, you may recall, forcibly opened Japan to trade with the West. Confronted with a cannon, what do you think a ruler equipped only with swords, arrows and the random gun would do when he was told “oh and by the way: those mixed sex bathing houses? Real bad for the preservation of public morals. Why don’t you think about getting rid of ‘em?”

By 1854, the bathhouses were shut down.

Despite its checkered moral career, and the fact that we are talking about naked bodies getting wet, bathing is not primarily about sex. It is an element of culture — something generally regarded as a routine luxury; a commonplace pleasure, to be engaged in and shared with others, often in public. And even when it is private, it is still often public (in the sense that, being shared by family members either communally or serially, it is only a semi-private affair). In the home, one fills the tub each evening and a procession of family members make their way for a leisurely soak. Young kids either spend a giddy half hour playing in the water or else sharing quality time with one or both of their parents. This is something that is often referred to in these here parts as “skinship”, but let’s reserve that discussion for later.

For now, know that public bathing comes in at least two forms: sento, which are communal baths stocked with regular water and generally located in urban centers, and onsen which are communal facilities flowing with water from natural hot springs. The hot part of the springs comes from the fact that Japan is a volcanic archipelago, and there is thermal activity aplenty beneath the surface. Thus is it that many a visitor (or native) can traverse the country and plunge shoulder after hip after foot in an onsen in just about every region on the four major islands.

Sento — a vestige, perhaps, of an age where not everyone had a means of cleansing themselves in their own apartment or home — is now a cultural institution in steady decline (and with it, some might claim, a portent of social change; a different kind of indicator, but not unlike, the phenomenon of “bowling alone” detailed in the United States a decade ago). By contrast, onsen is an institution still very much a part of the fabric of ReDot society: a contemporary site for reproducing community and practicing leisure.

Whether one is bathing in a sento or onsen there is a whole rigmarole associated with taking baths which you can find out by reading guidebooks or pages like these; but basically, bathing isn’t just a matter of dropping your shorts and hopping in. Procedure calls for undressing in one room (placing garments and personal items in a wicker basket, fit into a sub-divided shelf-unit), then entering another for the purposes of cleansing, before setting foot in the tubs (which may or may not be in a third room). As for the cleansing, it is often assumed that one thoroughly soap up and rinse off at a shower station, then, prior to entering the bath, pour water from the tub over the body, (it is unclear whether this is for acclimation purposes or to set the minds of those already soaking at ease that you are truly clean). Above all, in Japanese baths: no bathing suits allowed. That is one (and perhaps the only) unwavering, hard and fast rule.

As for all the other rules, what is certain is that not everyone follows them, so if you are comfortable with not caring what other people think, then no worries, you’ve come to the right place. Truth be told, some people don’t bother soaping off first; a recalcitrant few may not even bother dumping buckets on themselves prior to entry. Depending on how elaborate the facilities, baths can include an array of temperatures, with the hottest tubs averaging about 110° F (43.3° C) or hotter. Usually, one bath is all there is in a private dwelling; in a public facility, a health club or spa, separate tubs of ice cold water can also be had, allowing a ping-pong routine of alternate hot and cold treatment.

Naka-dake Onsen – Photo (partial) from The World’s Most Memorable Hot Springs

In most facilities men and women are separated, although there are those baths in which sexes are joined (well, not literally!), in which case strategically placed towels generally are the rule. Even in uni-sex facilities, there’s a lot of modesty; guys walking around with hands cupping their genitals, gals holding towels over their midriffs. In brushing up on this topic, I read something to the effect that “the Japanese perceive bathing as a great social leveler; company presidents rub naked shoulders with truck drivers, priests with publicans — and all revel in the anonymity that nudity allows.”

I wondered what parallel universe that writer came from . . . sure, nudity is an equalizer (in the sense that all humans have the same body, more or less); but it is still someone’s nudity. The fact that that one dude happens to be a company president and the other a trucker may not matter in absolute (read social) terms, but it does in relative (read psycho-emotive) ones. Status anonymity doesn’t burn away grey chest hairs or make flabby stomachs flatten. Which is to say: you get in a bath without clothes on and people surely notice.

Sure, there is etiquette involved in the practiced disregard — in pretending not to notice what is right in front of your face — but, believe me, everyone in the room knows who has the mole and who has the tattoo; who’s got the six-pack and who’s been drinking too many six-packs. The larger point is that everyone gets into the bath despite the fact that everyone notices. And everyone does so — why? For all the other countervailing benefits, of course. Such as?

Well, in the case of onsen, the minerals. And, if you are fortunate to be in an outdoor onsen set in the mountains, you go there to drink in the furry critters that traipse through the breath-taking natural scenery. And if you happen to find yourself in water with the other sex, then you partake of that for the novelty. And, if you happen to be in a tub with someone of your own sex (and regardless of your sexual predilection), you enjoy the chance for communal bonding (since the ReDot bath is really all about community-building and shared experience).

But…just in case it is also also about sex, a couple of concerns that seem to be the vestige of Victorian morality implanted by past Western conquerors: the matter of attendants and kids. In the case of the former, sentos have attendants who take money and attend to customer needs. To do so, their seats have traditionally been positioned in an elevated posture, so that they can see into both the male and female bathing areas. Since this has tended to make customers of the opposite sex uncomfortable, the attendant has typically been a woman (as if that reduces male discomfort!). In the case of the latter, children (regardless of gender) have generally been allowed to bathe with a parent, which can engender concerns about unhealthy ogling by patrons and/or by children who take an inordinate interest in adult anatomy. To address these concerns, the upper limit on children entering an opposite sex bath has been fixed by law at ten.

There are other aspects pertaining to bathing where the law has entered the discussion — for instance, in the matter of yakuza (Japanese mafia) and foreigners. This because both groups have often been banned from using public facilities. In the case of the former, a mere tattoo sighting once was sufficient to result in a refusal of service; however, tattoos are now becoming so commonplace among ReDot youth, that this proscription is loosening. Which is, unfortunately, not so in the matter of foreigners.

The case of Debito Arudou, a former American (now naturalized Japanese citizen), has made just about everyone’s radar because of his long-standing court battle to reverse onsen policies in northern Japan which often exclude foreigners from patronizing their facilities. While Arudou won personal satisfaction for the wrong done to he and his western-featured daughter, the court also ruled that the city had no liability for allowing private establishments to peremptorily exclude patrons based on their appearance.

The matter of foreign-blowback in Japan is a topic that extends far beyond hot springs, but many on both sides of the racial divide view such hot-spring exclusion as mainly the result of too many drunken Russian sailors failing to follow rules of etiquette, rather than a systematic effort to institutionalize racial discrimination a la the segregated American South — no matter how vituperatively and vociferously Debito Arudou might spin it.

The concern that foreigners might pollute the public bath is more often a case settled not by exclusion but simply by posting a few signboards showing what is permissible and preferred behavior. When such signs are posted in English, Chinese, Portuguese, Tagalog (and Japanese), no one seems too discomfited.

In the ReDotworld, a bath is part of the ReDot way of life. A daily ritual, a constant therapy, a perpetual way of reclaiming and reintegrating the self. A daily soak is viewed as restorative, capable of inducing relaxation and dissipating the day’s accreted tension. This mundane treatment of self is often pointed to as one of the core elements of everyday culture. In a society where very few will take care of the self, here is one simple way to care for oneself, to assist one’s own survival.

Japanese Bath photo from Evan’s Blog

It is also a way of connecting with family, at home, and fellow man, out in the community. For many, at least in years’ past, bath time was one of the few moments a parent — especially a father — could spend with a child. For this — these moments of intimate, non-sexual contact — Japan has become famous for its so-called “skinship”. As controversial as this is for old-school Dr. Spockies, the notion of intimate connection between parents and children has a growing base of support, not simply in Japan — where it has always been accepted — but outside the country, as well.

Such bath-based skinship is captured in this cartoon (Mangarama, “Furo / Bath”), where a father sits in the evening bath with his young son. In this particular panel, the joke is that the authority figure announces that once the kid has counted to 100 the two can leave the bath together. In many a household, this is one tactic parents employ to assist kids in working on their math skills (and, thus, bathing may just account for why Japanese are historically better in arithmetic than their Western counterparts). In any case, in this cartoon this particular kid isn’t fully in command of his numbers just yet and, after botching the count one time (skipping from 59 to 70), he begins again, only to falter in the high 90s (jumping from 92 to 95). Therein the punchline: the father (and son), who are by now literally cooking in the hot stew, still cannot exit. Since the father has proclaimed they can’t exit until the kid gets to 100, they both have to endure another 100 count. Captive to the kid’s command of numbers, one wonders if they will ever make it.

Whether they do or don’t, the underlying message cannot be missed: in the ReDot realm, while no bathing suits are allowed for any at bath-time, bathing suits one and all.