Thursday, October 2, 2008

Japan, A View from the Bath

Japan, A view from the Bath

Scott Clarke


University of Hawaii Press

ISBN 0834816579

Anthropologists must sometimes endure hardships conducting their field research, often far from home, sometimes in primitive conditions, struggling with foreign languages; it can be a lonely time. So spare a thought for poor Scott Clark, who, while collecting information for this book had to endure thousands of hours steeped in hot water in baths and hot springs the length and breadth of Japan. The result was this fascinating little book that documents the bathing habits of the Japanese people.

Any book on a subject as broad as Japan must choose a viewpoint, and bathing customs and culture is a good one as the Japanese differ from many cultures who see bathing as simply a way to stay clean. For the Japanese, it is much, much more.

Combining solid historical research with the aforementioned fieldwork he traces the history of bathing in Japan from ancient times up to the present, and the surprising fact emerges that bathing has always been a communal, social activity in Japan. From the Sento (Public Baths) in towns to the rural farmers who would take it in turns visiting neighbors to take a bath, only the very rich would bathe privately, and until the recent introduction of western-style bathrooms in homes, most Japanese did not have their own private bathrooms.

Onsen (Hot Springs) are also extensively covered. Owing to its volcanic geology, Japan is endowed with thousands of hot springs, and they are among the most popular of destinations for short breaks. Even trips made for other purposes will probably include a visit to an Onsen in the itinerary.

Clark admits that he spends an inordinate amount of time discussing mixed bathing, as that was in fact the norm until the Meiji Period when the government segregated bathing so as to appear “civilized” to the West and its Victorian morals, and the sad fact is that nowadays the Japanese are as prudish and embarrassed by nudity as many other cultures. However, many Onsens remained mixed until the 1980's as the clientele until then was mostly old people. In the 80's the onsen boom began and young people began to visit and so segregation was gradually introduced.

In the latter part of the book he explores many of the factors that give meaning to Japanese bathing habits, foremost of which are the notions of “pollution” and “purity”. Washing doesn’t just clean the body, but also the spirit, and the mind. Ritual washing and bathing are very important, and most major events in life are accompanied by bathing, from the newborn babies’ first bath to the cleansing of the corpse.

The book would be very useful for anyone planning a trip to Japan and wishing to be forewarned about customs they will probably need to partake in.


  1. Hi Jake, don't forget "misogi". I, for the first time in life, did misogi in Okitsugu of Munakata Taisha. The jinja visitors, without exception, had to bathe themselves in the cold sea totally naked, before climbing to the jinja. I posted the detail to the Shinto ML.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Hi Ken

    this photo is from the beach next to Izumo Taisha a few days before Kamiarizuki

  5. Well, there are still some mixed onsen here and there. I have visited one of them, and a huge one, in Aomori, and it was a very pleasant experience.

  6. Yeah... I visited one on Mt. Aso in Kyushu.... certainly more fun than sitting around in hot water with a bunch of old guys!

  7. Thank you for another wonderful book review Ojisanjake. You embarass me with my own lack of awareness about books coming out in my own study region and discipline; not to mention the fact that this one was published by my own university's press. . .ho hum.

    You've given me a library of new material to cover. . .thanks!!!

  8. I suspect you are the only one who reads them, so I write them for you :)

    I've found several books I want in your blogs library widget!