Nudity in Japan
In contemporary Japanese society nudity occupies a similar position as in Western societies, that is to say, the naked human body is considered sexual with the often attendant emotions of embarrassment and shame.
Similar, but with some differences though. For instance there are absolutely no nudist or topless beaches in Japan, as are common in much of Europe and the U.S.A, and no form of “naturist” culture. On the other hand, nudity among same-sex groups as in public bathing and at onsens elicits less feelings of discomfort for the Japanese than for many Americans and British for example, and within the Japanese family nudity is far more commonplace.
However, pre-modern Japan was quite different with public nudity and semi-nudity being commonplace. In the towns and cities, laborers, rickshaw drivers, etc would wear only a loincloth during the warm weather, and women would often go bare-breasted.
The countryside was similar with both men and women working in the fields almost naked. The first Western visitors to Japan brought with them their Victorian morality and writers such as Isabella Bird were quick to comment upon the “lewdness” and “degraded morals” of the Japanese.
The male visitors seem to have been particularly incensed by mixed bathing, apparently requiring repeated visits in order to later recount their outrage. Bathing in Japan had always been a public, communal activity. A work penned in the seventh century, the Izumo Fudoki, makes it clear that nude bathing was the norm then and had been for at least one hundred years before then — and no doubt centuries before that too.
It was only the very rich who could afford their own private bathhouses, so in the towns most people visited the sento (‘coin bath’), and as well as sharing the tub with members of the other sex, neither was it unusual to walk to the sento naked.
In the countryside people would often use a neighbor’s bath, with the service rotating among neighboring farms. It seems however that there was at least some appreciation of the naked body as sexual as for some time previous to the Edo period bathing was not done naked, but wearing a yukatabira, the forerunner of today’s summer wear, the yukata, a garment now commonly worn after bathing.
While public nudity was the norm among the majority of Japanese, as one ascended the ranks of society, being ‘properly’ clothed increased in importance, and a samurai, for example, would never be seen naked in public.
In many ways sexuality was more closely associated with clothing than with bare skin. The Japanese very much appreciated the idea of tantalization and the appeal of imagination. In Edo period pornography, shunga, almost all portrayals of the sexual act involved clothed figures. It was the fine silks and sumptuous clothes of the geisha that made them the stuff of men’s dreams. Indeed, there was no history of the nude in Japanese “high” art until 1894 when Kuroda Seiki displayed in public a painted nude for the first time.
Attitudes began to change towards the end of the 19th century. The Japanese government needed to appear “civilized” to the Western powers so that the unequal treaties Japan was forced to sign could be repealed. Many new laws were passed to change how Japan appeared in the eyes of the West.
In 1872 a law was passed in Tokyo prohibiting public nudity, mixed bathing, and urinating in the street. Not only total nudity was banned, but naked thighs and upper torsos also resulted in fines. In 1876 more than 2,000 people were arrested for nudity offenses. (The latter part of this law, however, continues to be ignored to this day!)
Bath owners followed the letter of the new law, if not the spirit, by stringing a rope across the bath, thereby making separate spaces — however virtual — for men and for women.
In 1900 tougher laws were introduced requiring a solid barrier between the men’s and women’s sections of a bath.
Western style pornography and “girlie” photos now began to appear in Japan, along with a new type of social behavior: Peeping Toms. Once the naked body had been legislated against and thus ceased to be commonplace, it took on an erotic and mystified meaning.
Consequently, today no mixed-sex bathing areas remain in any sento in Japan. At onsens (vacation-style hot springs) however, the situation is a little different. The laws banning mixed sex bathing were never rigorously applied to them. The majority of the customers comprised elderly people who, rightly or wrongly, seem to have been considered beyond the pale when it came to issues of sexuality.
In the 1980s, Japan experienced an “Onsen Boom” with young people and families “rediscovering” the joys of hot spring bathing. With the infusion of youth into the waters, the vast majority of onsen provide separate areas for the sexes. Some, however, in the more rural areas remain mixed to this day.
Mayumi Yamazaki, a writer on hot springs, offers the following advice if you happen to find yourself in a mixed-sex onsen, “Don’t look at others when they get in and out, leave about a three-person-wide space between yourself and others in the tub, and try to engage (verbally!) with other bathers.
Some onsens have started to offer small, private rooms with tubs known as Family Rooms, and these can be rented for an extra fee on top of the regular onsen entrance fee. It is reported that some couples now use these private tubs as an alternative to love hotels.
Even if your hotel or apartment has a bath, a visit to the local sento is recommended, and not only as a way of observing a uniquely Japanese aspect of sanitary culture. Nakedness is the great leveller, and while some submit to it in silence, there are many fellow bathers who welcome it as an opportunity to build bridges that in clothed mode they might find difficult or daunting. Go there open-minded, naked, defenseless, and see what the communal bareness brings.