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A sentō (銭湯, せんとう) is a Japanese communal bath house. Typically these bath houses are quite utilitarian, with one large room separating the sexes by a tall barrier, a line of showers along one wall and a single large bath for the already washed bathers to sit in along the other. Since the 1980s these communal bath houses have been decreasing in numbers as more and more Japanese bathe at home, and some Japanese are concerned that without the skinship of mutual nakedness, children will not be properly socialized. A special form of the sentō is an onsen, which is a sentō using water from a natural hot spring.
Sentō layout and architectural features
There are many different layouts for a Japanese sentō, or public bath. Most traditional sentō, however, are very similar to the layout shown on the right. The entrance from the outside looks somewhat similar to a temple, with a Japanese curtain (暖簾, noren) across the entrance. The curtain is usually blue and shows the kanji 湯 (yu, lit. hot water) or the corresponding hiragana ゆ. After the entrance there is an area with shoe lockers, followed by two long curtains or door, one on each side. These lead to the datsuijo (脱衣場, changing room), also known as datsuiba for the men and women respectively. The men's and the women's side are very similar and differ only slightly.
Inside, between the entrances is the bandai (番台), where the attendant sits. The bandai is a rectangular or horseshoe shaped platform with a railing, usually around 1.5 to 1.8 m high. Above the bandai is usually a large clock. Immediately in front of the bandai is usually a utility door, to be used by the attendants only. The dressing room is approximately 10 m by 10 m square, covered with tatami mats and contains the lockers for the clothes. Often, there is also a large shelf storing the equipment for regular customers.
The ceiling is very high at 3 to 4 m. The separating wall between the men and the women side is about 2 m high. The dressing room also has often access to a very small Japanese garden with a pond, and a Japanese style toilet. There are a number of tables and chairs, including some coin-operated massage chairs. Often there is also a freezer with ice cream and a drink vending machine. Usually there is also a scale to measure the body weight, and sometimes the height. In some very old sentō, this scale may use the traditional Japanese measure monme (匁, 1 monme = 3.75 g) and kan (1 kan = 1000 monme = 3.75 kg). Similarly, in old sentō the height scale may go only to 180 cm. Local business often advertises in the sentō. The women side usually has some baby beds, and may have more mirrors. The decoration and the advertising is often gender specific on the different sides.
The bathing area is separated from the changing area by a sliding door to keep the heat in the bath. An exception are baths in the Okinawa region, as the weather there is usually already very hot, and there is no need to keep the hot air in the bath. Therefore sentō in Okinawa usually have no separation between the changing room and the bathing area, or only a small wall with an opening to pass through. The bathing area is usually tiled. Near the entrance area is a supply of small stools and buckets. There are a number of washing stations at the wall and sometimes in the middle of the room, each with usually two faucets (karan, カラン, after the Dutch word kraan for faucet), one for hot water and one for cold water, and a shower head. At the end of the room are the bathtubs, usually at least two or three with different water temperatures, and maybe also an electric bath. In the Osaka and Kansai area the bathtubs are more often found in the center of the room, whereas in Tokyo they are usually at the end of the room. The separating wall between the men and the women side is also about 2 m high, whereas the ceiling may be 4 m high, with large windows in the top. On rare occasions the separating wall also has a small hole. This was used in old times to pass the soap between family members, but nowadays most people can afford a soap per family member. At the wall on the far end of the room is usually a large picture for decoration. Most often this is Mt. Fuji as seen in the picture above, but it may be a general Japanese landscape, a (faux) European landscape, a river or ocean scene. On rarer occasions it may also show a group of warriors or a female nude on the male side or playing children or a female beauty on the women side.
Behind the bathing area is the boiler room (釜場, kamaba), where the water is heated. This may use oil or electricity, or any other type of fuel as for example wood chippings. After the war Tokyo often got power outages when all bath house owners turned on the electric water heating at the same time.
This section describes the basic procedure to use a sentō. While the Japanese are usually very understanding if foreigners make cultural mistakes, the public bath is one area where the uninitiated can seriously offend the regular customers.
Taking a bath at a public sentō requires at a bare minimum a small towel and some soap/shampoo. Both can also be purchased at the attendant. Often, many people bring two towels, a larger soft towel for drying and a smaller scrub towel (usually nylon) for washing. Other body hygiene products may include a pumice stone, toothbrush, toothpaste, shaving equipment, combs, shower caps, pomade, make up products, powder, creams, etc. Some customers also bring their own bucket. You may also bring some drink, or a small toy for your children.
Entering and undressing
In Japan it is customary to take off one's shoes when one enters a private home. Similar in the sentō one takes off his or her shoes in the entrance area and stores them in the locker. The locker is usually available for free. Afterwards one goes through one of the two doors depending on his or her gender. The men door usually has the kanji for men (男, otoko), whereas the women door usually has the kanji for woman (女, onna). In case of doubt one should wait for the next customer. After entering one will find the attendant on the bandai (stand) between the two doors. Here one can pay the fee, which is usually between 300 and 600 yen. The attendant also sells one a wide variety of equipment like towels, soap, shampoo, razor, comb, and other bath related items. Here one can also pay for ice cream from the freezer. If the bandai is not particularly high, one should keep his or her eyes on his or her side.
After paying, one will select an empty locker for clothes and undress. One will take his or her small towel, soap and shampoo, and depending on his or her preferences also his or her razor, toothbrush, peeling stone, etc. and head to the bathing area.
After entering the bathing area, one should pick up one bucket and one stool and select a free set of faucets. Before sitting one may quickly rinse the stool. Some customers also use the bucket to get some water out of the bathtub to quickly rinse their genitals. Afterwards one should proceed to wash himself or herself at the faucet. One should use the towel to scrub your back, and use soap and shampoo liberally. One should try not to splash too much water on his or her neighbors. It is essential that one is clean before entering the bathtub, as in Japan people wash themselves outside of the bathtub and use the bathtub only for relaxation. When one is clean, he or she should store his or her equipment in his or her bucket and head towards the bathtub.
Important: One should make sure he or she is clean and does not have any shampoo on himself or herself before entering the public bathtub. Keeping the water clean is the one fundamental rule for Japanese bathing. Getting soap in the bathtub will seriously offend all other customers, as will entering the bathtub before washing oneself. In this case, the owner of the bath house has to drain the bath, rinse it, and fill it again, losing time, money and customers. For the same reason one should keep his or her towel out of the water, although some Japanese ignore this rule.
While it is essential to keep the water clean, there are occasionally even Japanese people who enter the bathtub without washing previously. This may be for example at an onsen, where the person has washed already at a recent previous bath, or it may be a Japanese displaying bad etiquette. Also, like everywhere else, Japanese are more likely to break the rules if nobody is looking, as for example the less frequented and smaller semi-public bath in a dormitory.
Anyway, for proper behavior one should clean himself or herself before entering the bath. One should select a bath of his or her choice, depending on the temperature and the special features that the bath has. For instance, one can choose an electric bath. In the bath one should sit and relax as long as he or she likes. As the baths are usually quite hot, this may not be very long. Some onsen are so hot that even experienced customers can stand only three to five minutes in the water. Hot baths often have a ladle to stir the water. Please also note that staying in hot water too long sometimes makes people faint. If one wants to, he or she can go out, cool down a bit with the colder water from the faucet, and reenter the bath. One should repeat as often as desired and then prepare to leave.
In an onsen the water contains minerals, and many people do not rinse off the water from the skin to increase exposure to the minerals. In a regular sentō one may rinse himself or herself off at the faucets. Afterwards he or she dries himself or herself with his or her small towel while still in the bathing area. One should wring the towel out occasionally.
Getting dressed and leaving
In the changing room one may purchase a drink or some ice cream, have a cigarette (if smoking is allowed), relax by sitting near the garden, and slowly get dressed. One may also use a coin-operated massage chair. When one gets ready to leave he or she may get dressed. Women may opt to put on makeup. After getting dressed one should make sure he or she did not forget anything, go to put on your shoes, and leave.
Social and cultural aspects
The public bath is a very special area for communication and interaction. In normal life, most people define themselves with their clothes or makeup, which from the psychological aspects is a layer of defense, giving a person a status, or conveying a message or a statement. In the public bath, however, everybody is naked, and clothes and makeup cannot be used to distinguish rank or social group. This skinship lowers the communication barriers between usually different social groups, and creates a lively atmosphere of communication.
In some cases, people are embarrassed to be naked even in front of other naked members of the same sex. This may reduce the level of communication. However, usually a person can see that other people very rarely have a perfect body, making them feel more confident about one's own imperfect body.
Small children before puberty may join their parent of the opposite sex, interacting and observing other members of the opposite sex. Many Japanese people believe that this contributes to the social education of the child.
Voyeurism and related problems
Whenever there are naked people, there is a risk of voyeurism. However, most customers at a public bath are regular customers, and anything out of the ordinary gets noticed immediately. Furthermore, the bath house owners do their utmost to prohibit voyeurism to protect their business, and subsequently there are rarely problems.
The attendant sitting on top of the bandai has a good view of both the men and the women side, which is necessary to supervise the business. Yet attendants usually watch TV or read a book and do not look at their customers, again to protect their business and to make their customers feel at ease. Most of the time the attendant is female, and very few male customers have any problems with a female attendant. Male attendants are less frequent, but may embarrass some female customers by their mere presence. Not all sentō have bandai.
True cases of voyeurism are rare. Reported cases usually have a male voyeur and a female victim. For example in 2001, a tall non-Japanese was able to see over the separating wall between the men and the women side. Even though the women splashed water on him he did not stop watching. He was subsequently arrested by the police. Not all sentō share the same architecture that allow this. In another unusual case in 2003, a Japanese male was dressing up as a woman, including make up, and entering the women's side of the bath. While naked he was holding his towel in front of his pubic area so he was able to pass as a woman. However, after pulling this stunt for a few times a woman noticed that he was walking oddly, and he subsequently was arrested. Nowadays there is also an increased risk from video surveillance equipment. But as public baths are privately owned and operated, it would be difficult for a perpetrator to install a camera. The risk is higher at a larger business or an open air bath.
Some children, depending on their age and the prefecture's age limit, can join their parent of the opposite sex. In Tokyo, this age limit is 10. However, some female customers, and occasionally male customers, feel that some children may take too much interest in the anatomy of the members of the other sex.
Tension between social groups
Occasionally there are some tensions between different social groups in a sentō. Usually these apply only if a person can be grouped to a social group despite being naked; i.e. having no clothes to demonstrate his status. The two main groups that are easy to distinguish from the mainstream Japanese are yakuza and foreigners.
In a sentō, members of the yakuza (the Japanese mafia) are usually easy to distinguish from mainstream Japanese due to their full body tattoo, which are usually hidden by clothes. Due to their association with crime, their presence makes mainstream Japanese often feel uncomfortable. Subsequently, many sentō and onsen have a no tattoo rule to keep yakuza out of their baths, often under the pretense of hygienic reasons. Furthermore, this rule is usually not applied to small non-yakuza tattoos--as for example, a small ankle tattoo, but applies only to the yakuza specific full body tattoo (from the upper legs to the upper arms; i.e. the area covered by short pants and a short shirt).
The second group which might be discriminated against are foreigners, which are also usually easy to distinguish from Japanese in a sentō environment. As mentioned above, the Japanese public bath is one area where the uninitiated can seriously offend the regular customers by not following the rules, in particular by polluting the water in the bathtub. This often causes increased nervousness with the attendants upon seeing an unknown non-Japanese customer. Often the attendant has a poster with the description of the bathing procedure in English for international customers.
In some cases a bath house does not allow foreign customers at all. For example, some ports in Hokkaido are frequently used by the Russian navy. Some sentō there claim to have regular problems with drunk Russian soldiers misbehaving in the bath. One in particular, the Yunohana Onsen, subsequently prohibited anyone who did not look racially Japanese from entering. This case gained a lot of publicity throughout Japan when a Caucasian Japanese citizen, Arudou Debito, and two others, Olaf Karthaus and Ken Sutherland, tried to use the baths. They were refused on three separate occasions. In Arudou Debito's case, this was even after providing proof of Japanese citizenship. So they brought a racial discrimination lawsuit against the sentō and against the city of Otaru Sapporo. They won the lawsuit and the sentō was ordered to pay 1,000,000 yen to each of them and to stop refusing entry simply because someone does not look Japanese. On the other hand, it was also ruled that although the city of Otaru is as "duty-bound" as the national government of Japan to bring racial discrimination to an end, it "is under no clear and absolute obligation to prohibit or bring to an end concrete examples of racial discrimination by establishing local laws." (see also Ethnic issues in Japan, Arudou Debito)
While for various personal beliefs, some Japanese may feel offended by sharing the same bathtub with a foreigner, such racist situations are very rare, and usually the offended party has no choice but to keep his/her anger to him/herself or leave the bath.
History of the sentō
The origins of the Japanese sentō and the Japanese bathing culture in general can be traced to the Buddhist temples in India, from where it spread to China, and finally to Japan during the Nara period (710 to 784).
Religious bathing from the Nara period to Kamakura period
Initially, due to its religious background, baths in Japan were usually found in a temple. These baths were called yūya (湯屋, lit. hot water shop), or later when they increased in size ōyuya (大湯屋, lit. big hot water shop). These baths were most often steam baths (蒸し風呂, mushiburo, lit. steam bath). While initially these baths were only used by priests, sick people gradually also gained access, until in the Kamakura period (1185 to 1333) sick people were routinely allowed access to the bath house. Wealthy merchants and members of the upper class soon also included baths in their residences.
The start of the commercial baths during the Kamakura period
The first mentioning of a commercial bath house is in 1266 in the Nichiren Goshoroku (日蓮御書録). These mixed sex bath houses were only vaguely similar with modern bath houses. After entering the bath there was a changing room called datsuijo (脱衣場). There the customer also received his/her ration of hot water, since there were no faucets in the actual bath. The entrance to the steam bath was only a very small opening with a height of about 80 cm, so that the heat did not escape. Due to the small opening, the lack of windows, and the thick steam, these baths were usually very dark, and customers often cleared their throats to signal their position to others. It can safely be assumed that on occasions an amorous couple used the dark room for more than mere bathing, and also amorous singles may have less-than-accidentally bumped into members of the other sex. Nevertheless, or maybe even especially because the very casual atmosphere, the bath was considered a great place to just hang out and chat. Most baths also had a salon on the second floor for resting.
Bathing in the Edo period
At the beginning of the Edo period (1603 to 1867), there were two types of baths common in different regions. In Tokyo (then called Edo), the normal bath was a regular bath with a pool called yuya (湯屋, lit. hot water shop), whereas in Osaka a bath was a steam bath with only a shallow pool and was called mushiburo (蒸し風呂, lit. steam bath), or just furo (風呂).
At the end of the Edo period, the Tokugawa shogunate (1603 to 1868) at different times required baths to segregate by sex to preserve public morals. However, many bath house owners simply added a small board to separate the bath, with little effect for the preservation of moral. Other baths had men and women bathe at different times or different days, and some baths limited themselves entirely to female or male clientele. The laws about mixed sex bathing were soon relaxed again.
One reason for the popularity of the baths were the female bathing attendants yuna (湯女, lit. hot water woman). These attendants helped the customers by scrubbing their backs. However, after the bath officially closed, many of these women sold sex to male customers. Even nowadays, some brothels in Japan specialize on having young women clean their male customers in a private bath. These establishments are called sōpu rando (ソープランド, lit. soap land). Subsequently, the Tokugawa shogunate limited the number of Yuna to three per bath house to preserve the public moral. However, this rule was widely ignored, and shortly thereafter in 1841 the Tokugawa shogunate prohibited any Yuna to serve in a bath house, and furthermore prohibited mixed sex bathing again. Large numbers of unemployed Yuna thereafter moved to the official red-light districts to continue their services. Up to 1970 there were also male washing assistants called sansuke (三助, lit. three helps) for washing and massaging both male and female customers. These male workers however usually did not participate in prostitution. The prohibition of mixed sex bathing again did not last long, and when Commodore Perry visited Japan in 1853 and 1854, he was displeased about the lack of morals due to mixed sex bathing. Subsequently, the Tokugawa shogunate prohibited mixed sex bathing again.
The beginning of the modern bath house in the Meiji period
During the Meiji period (1867-1912) the design of Japanese baths changed considerably. The narrow entrance to the bathing area was widened considerably to a regular-sized sliding door, the bathtubs were sunk partially in the floor so that they can be entered easier, and the height of the ceiling of the bath house was nothing less than doubled. Since the bath now focused on hot water instead of steam, windows could be added, and the bathing area became much brighter. The only difference of these baths to the modern bath was the use of wood for the bathing area and the lack of faucets.
Furthermore, another law for segregated bathing was passed in 1890, allowing only children below the age of 8 to join a parent of the opposite sex.
Rebuilding the baths after the great Kanto earthquake
At the beginning of the Taisho period (1912 to 1926), tiles gradually replaced wooden floors and walls in new bath houses. On September 1, 1923 the great Kanto earthquake devastated Tokyo. The earthquake and the subsequent fire destroyed most baths in the Tokyo area. This accelerated the change from wooden baths to tiled baths, as almost all new bath houses were now built in the new style using tiled bathing areas. At the end of the Taisho period, faucets also became more common, and this type of faucet can still be seen today. These faucets were called karan (カラン, after the Dutch word kraan for faucet). There were two faucets, one for hot water and one for cold water, and the customer mixed the water in his bucket according to his personal taste.
Rebuilding the baths again after World War II: the golden era of the sentō
During World War II (for Japan 1941 to 1945), many Japanese cities were firebombed, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki were nuked. Subsequently, most bath houses were destroyed along with the cities. The lack of baths caused the reappearance of communal bathing, and temporary baths were constructed with the available material, often lacking a roof. Furthermore, as most houses were damaged or destroyed, few people had access to a private bath, resulting in a great increase in customers for the bath houses. New buildings in the post war period also often lacked baths or showers, leading to a strong increase in the number of public baths. In 1965 many baths also added showerheads to the faucets in the baths. The number of public baths in Japan peaked around 1970.
The decline of the sentō in the modern times
While immediately after World War II, resources were scarce, and few homeowners had access to a private bath, private baths became more common again around 1970, and most new buildings included a bath and shower unit for every apartment. The availability and easy access of private baths lead to a decline of customers for public bath houses, and subsequently the number of bath houses is decreasing. Furthermore, many young people are embarrassed to be naked even in front of members of the same sex, and do not go to public baths. Some Japanese are concerned that without the skinship of mutual nakedness, children will not be properly socialized.
The future of the sentō
While the traditional sentō is in decline, many bath house operators have adjusted to the new taste of the public and are offering a wide variety of services. Some bath houses emphasize their tradition, and run traditional designed bath houses to appeal to clientele seeking for the lost Japan. These bath houses are also often located at scenic spots in nature and may include an open air bath. Some also try drilling in order to gain access to a hot spring, turning a regular bath house into a more prestigious onsen.
Other bath houses with less pristine buildings or settings change into so called super sentō and try to offer a wider variety of services beyond the standard two or three bathtubs. They may include a variety of saunas, reintroduce steam baths, include jacuzzis, and may even have a water slide. They may also offer services beyond mere cleansing and turn into a spa, offering medical baths, massages, fango baths, fitness centers, etc., as for example the Spa La Qua near the Tokyo Dome. There are also entire bath house theme parks, including restaurants, karaoke, and other entertainment, as for example the ōedo onsen monogatari (大江戸温泉物語, Big Edo Hot Spring Story) in Odaiba, Tokyo. Some of these modern facilities may require the use of swimsuits and are more similar with a western style water amusement park than a sentō.
- Onsen (hot spring bath houses)
- Spirited Away (popular animated movie featuring a traditional bath house in a fantasy story)
- Hot spring
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