Friday, 23 May 2014

The Strange Case of Sex Segregation in Japanese Hot Springs

The partition of humankind.

1) Hot Springs and Public Bathing in Japan
2) Traditions of Mixed Bathing
3) Segregation: the Gender Guillotine
4) Why is gender segregation in onsen a problem?
5) An Onsen Restoration?

1) Hot Springs and Public Bathing in Japan
The onsen (温泉), or hot spring, is a thriving institution of Japanese cultural life. Geothermally-heated water from Japan's volcanic depths has been harnessed for public bathing for thousands of years, and to this day these communal hot spring baths are widespread, popular, and highly diverse.

Onsen may be indoor or outdoor; may come in shiny, developed urban establishments offering a half-dozen separate baths, or in traditional little ryokan (inns) deep in the rustic wilds. Though they can be found anywhere in Japan, they especially cluster around volcanically active tourism areas like Hakone, where it is common to find each establishment advertising the unique mineral compositions of its water and associated medical benefits. Indeed, to invoke the healing powers of the onsen is to appeal to the earliest days of its heritage, when, it is said, hunters discovered these springs in their pursuit of injured animals, who would soak therein to heal their wounds.

Hakone, one of the most popular onsen hotspots in the greater Tokyo area.

Onsen are enjoyed naked. Some foreigners, especially those from countries with comparable public bathing traditions, find this familiar and comforting; others, disconcerting. As with the former, nudity in onsen traditionally lacks any sexual connotations. I have written before about sexuality in Japanese culture on this blog, observing that on the whole – though of course this is to generalize – attitudes in Japan to such things tend to be significantly less sensationalistic, horrified, taboo-ridden or moralistically indignant then in those cultures in the grip of sex-negativity.

The onsen reflects this more sober attitude, which is surely a great cultural strength. After all, unclothed, we can only observe the reality that we are all equal, stripped of our thousand masks and symbols of constructed social status. Nudity becomes not a source of shame – whose unpardonable idea was it to make it one in the first place? – but on the contrary, an empowering affirmation of natural freedom and common humanity. So befits the onsen's power: to provide refuge from the hectic lifestyles of beleaguering capitalist modernity; to bond and relate with others, not as superior and inferior but as human and human; and above all, simply to relax.

Onsen may be culturally seminal in their own right. Kokeshi like these originate from small traditional onsen deep in the Tōhoku countryside, whose artisans would hand them out to patrons. They have grown into a symbol of the region, and these onsen still produce kokeshi in their own distinctive styles.

And yet...

There is one glaring fault in this seemingly splendid narrative. One critical dimension, which, misaligned, brings misfortune upon the otherwise so worthy story of the onsen.

It is, of course, gender. But it derives, in this case, from an extraordinary historical twist.

2) Traditions of Mixed Bathing
From the natural hot springs of prehistory, where hunters or monks might have soaked with cranes or bears for company, to the sophisticated bathing establishments of nineteenth-century Edo, men and women bathed together. Indeed, there is evidence that early Christian missionaries, visiting Japan before it closed itself off to foreigners, looked upon these mixed bathing practices with horror, and struggled, unsuccessfully, to suppress this practice among their converts. The Japanese, it is considered, responded with reciprocal disdain and bemusement, coming to view these Europeans as unclean and smelly because they did not bathe.

Dōgo Onsen, in Ehime, Shikoku, one of the oldest onsen in Japan. This onsen was also the inspiration for the bathhouse in the Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away.
Besides the foreigners, it seemed few people took issue with mixed, non-gendered bathing, and those who did, like the missionaries, could neither persuade nor compel the Japanese to change it. That is not to say public bathing did not play host to other divisions and conflicts – if not of gender, then certainly of class and race. This was the case, for example, when public bathing practices spread among the common people in the Edo period, with its rigid social stratification, and the samurai, outraged at the very thought of dishonouring themselves to bathe with the likes of merchants – perhaps, to be reduced to equality through shared nudity – imposed class-segregated spaces and bathing times. And more recently, certain onsen in Hokkaido got into trouble when they were sued, successfully, for policies of refusing entry to non-Japanese, apparently out of frustration with drunken Russian sailors.

The tradition of men and women bathing together, however, generated no such controversy – until recent times. Somehow, all of a sudden, after thousands of years of mixed bathing, it is now the norm for onsen to strictly segregate male and female spaces. Almost every onsen you go to, especially in the cities, has separate baths for men and women; and while mixed onsen (kon'yoku, 混浴) still exist, they are very much on the normative margins, and you typically have to delve deep into the countryside to find them.

So. What happened?

3) Segregation: the Gender Guillotine
Finding reliable, authoritative sources on this matter is difficult – especially with my limited lingual skills still precluding access to the Japanese literature – but most commentators point towards the Meiji Restoration and the late nineteenth century, when Japan hurtled to “modernise” by absorbing European values, customs and knowledge, and incorporating them into its own national journey. After three hundred years closed to foreign influences, Japan now set about actively infusing itself with them: and this included, unfortunately, the Euro-American world's terrible heritage of simultaneous fear and obsession with sexuality.

On many fronts, Japanese culture resisted this wave of corrupted morality. We should be in no doubt as to the scale Europe's sexuality mistakes had reached at this time, best exemplified perhaps by the overwhelming puritanical pretentiousness, and gender ruthlessness, of Victorian Britain. The Japanese, with no serious history of systematic prejudice against sexual diversity, were even so influenced to criminalize homosexuality in 1872, though this law only lasted eight years before it was abolished. To this day, Japan's approach to sexuality remains, if not at all exemplary, then at least distinct.

Distinct may be very much the word.

The resilient and venerable tradition of mixed bathing, however, at last began to buckle. I do not have the material to provide a blow-by-blow account, but it seems to have been a gradual process, accompanied by the twentieth century's rapid changes in Japanese life. Some point to Japan's concern to appear morally “civilized” to the Europeans, to convince those empires of its own great power status, or later to avoid upsetting foreigners at the 1964 Olympics. Others suggest that with the rise of private bathtubs and decline in traditional community life, public bathing became increasingly redundant both for hygiene functions and for communal interaction. Whatever the case, turning a millennia-old custom on its head like this must have required extremely thorough transformations in all its aspects, from underlying values to the routines of daily life, from political will to long-term national ambitions.

The final blow, it seems, came in the 1950s during the U.S. occupation, when the Japanese parliament passed laws making it compulsory for onsen to segregate male and female bathing areas. That this was now culturally possible, under the weight of that ancient heritage of mixed bathing, is astonishing enough. But there was one further irony: apparently these laws were the work not of the American occupiers, but of women members of parliament, asserting themselves at the crest of the post-WWII wave of Japanese feminism and sexual equality reform.

Nowadays, from my conversations here with foreigners and Japanese alike, it seems gender segregation in onsen is taken for granted, and the idea that it was ever any different stirs genuine surprise. I raise this matter frequently, because it is such a good example both of today's ubiquitous gender problems and the historical fact that culture, tradition and gender norms can and do change, and change dramatically. Responses have ranged from an astonished “but mixed bathing is what monkeys do””, to a contemptuously dismissive “it's Japan, deal with it” – of which the spectacular ignorance, in the latter's case, has hopefully been demonstrated here.

Although the statement that monkeys do it, while devoid of any inherent moral implications for us, is not in itself inaccurate. But these fellows here are suspected of quite different gendered problems in their own onsen practices – specifically, exclusion based on power relationships. But until we solve our own problems, we perhaps hardly stand on the moral high ground to lecture other animals.

4) Why is gender segregation in onsen a problem?
There are three main reasons that gender segregation in onsen should be of concern.

The first, and most immediate, is that it is excludes people. Consider, for example, families, lovers or friends who wish to relax in the onsen together. Consider people of a more complicated sexual or gender status, such as transgendered or intersex people, who already have to fight for the right to be recognized for who they are in all aspects of life, against societies which would lump them into unrepresentative binary categories of “male” and “female”. And consider people – I myself am in this number – who are fundamentally made miserable by gender segregation, finding in it an purposeless rift down the centre of humanity that divides us against each other for no reason, and who metabolically cannot relax in a gender-segregated environment.

Segregation denies the pleasure of relaxing and communing in an onsen to all these groups of people, where previously it would have been equally available to them since time immemorial. And this is not trivial. Exclusion, especially of minorities, followed by arrogant denial and dropping responsibility onto the excluded, is one of the most shameful failures of virtually all human societies throughout their histories, histories we need not revisit here. To defend or ignore it is to be complicit in one of the most dangerous cruelties of our kind.

The second concern is that segregation worsens the gender problem. The gender problem, we should be clear, encompasses gender inequality and the subjection of women but runs a lot deeper still. At its core, gender itself is the problem: the destruction of our common humanity caused by an artificial social rift between women and men, followed by gender alienation – the assertion of rigid differences between those and separation of their spheres of life; gender conflict – the creation of a power struggle between them, of which the subjection of women is the main current expression; and gendered hostility to human diversity – the refusal to recognize that each of us is different, the expectation that each of us must live by these strictly-defined gender categories and norms, and the punishment and persecution of those of us who do not.

Segregation in onsen, despite the surely honourable motives of those parliamentarians who made it compulsory, worsens the problem of gender. It assumes the need for separate male and female spaces, then embodies that assumption and has it taken for granted. It places a literal barrier between frank, sober, relaxed communication between men and women as equal human beings, in the one institution – certainly in Japan – where this was most possible. In so doing, it further separates the “male” world and the “female” world, and thus delays a future in which this may once again be a world for us all.

The third problem is that it worsens our broken sexual paradigm. The paradigm, that is, in which we refuse to possess an informed and sober understanding of our kind's sexuality, regard it sensationally with fear and excitement, and load it with a negative moral charge as though it is somehow dirty or shameful.

In the onsen's case, this mainly involves the automatic association between nudity and sex, something not present in the onsen's history until the coming of foreign influences. Why do so many people now support segregation? The reasons I have heard usually involve discomfort about being naked in front of people of the other sex, something which – though there may be sound reasons in this day and age – is surely learned, not inherent, and certainly not inevitable.

Frankly, we have to get past this. Mastery of our natural sexuality necessitates that we surpass all senses of bodily negativity that centuries of false moralities and gendered pressures have conditioned in us. The onsen, until so recently, was a most radiant demonstration that this is possible: that human beings could socially interact without the slightest aversion to their own or one another's naked bodies. Now it has been twisted into an opposite embodiment: a place of tension where alarm bells explode at the sheer emergence of a male body and a female body into line of sight of each other, for fear first that such is automatically a sexual event, and second that this makes it bad. For the deliverance of humankind, both assumptions warrant torpedoes.

5) An Onsen Restoration?
None of this is to say, of course, that solving these problems is a simple matter of de-segregating onsen. The depressing fact is that attitudes have changed, and it will take a lot of effort to change them again. It seems evident that the majority today – The damned majority! Always the problem! – are comfortable with segregated onsen and would resist the restoration of mixed bathing. Though inevitably I have questioned their assumptions, people are of course entitled to their opinions, and I would not want these people excluded from a comfortable onsen experience any more than those who are presently. It seems that any solution would thus have to retain some segregated onsen spaces for those who, at least for now, would not be at ease in a mixed-sex setting.

Then there are issues like wani. Literally “crocodile” or “alligator” in Japanese, this refers to certain men who have got into the habit of haunting mixed onsen to harass women, by staring at them for hours on end or approaching them menacingly. This, however, seems to me not so much an argument against mixed onsen as an argument against harassment – and of the responsibility of all of us, onsen proprietors in particular, to uncompromisingly maintain no-harassment environments.

It would be an interesting experience to get into an onsen and then see one of these is in it.

So in today's context, perhaps the only solution would be for onsen to offer both mixed-sex areas and segregated areas, so that all comers could choose the baths most suited to them. But of course, this would demand both money and land, as most onsen would have to expand their premises and build more baths to accommodate it. We must ask, though, whether that cost – any cost – could compare with the cost of exclusion. For after all, what price can be put on that most valuable of institutions: a space where all people, regardless of sex or gender or anything else, can associate together, in their most primary natural forms, as free and equal human beings?

It will probably take decades, at best, to re-align the resources, the social attitudes, and the political and corporate will towards restoring the onsen. But the day must come, the day can come, when huge changes come again to the story of Japanese hot springs. After all, it has happened before.

That will be a good day, though it might come too late for me. I know that I may have to bear this frustration for the rest of my days. At the end of a gruelling hike in the mountains, when no release would be better than a purifying soak in Japan's volcanic waters, I know that instead, I must sadly walk on past that welcoming blue curtain with the “ゆ” on it, because the gendered circumstances therein would only aggravate, rather than relax me. When my female friends here excitedly suggest a visit to the onsen, I know that I must decline, and bear their puzzled looks as they head out of the door, because I would not be able to join them in communion and would instead be segregated away to sit, on my own, on the other side of an insubstantial but unbreakable bamboo fence.

Once or twice, I have been instigated to try that. It is a horrible feeling. Alienation. I raise my eyes to that partition, and within my heart swells a molten inferno, a terrible rage at humanity's mad, pointless, meaningless severance between male and female, its division of humans against humans. And I glare, as though the sheer flames of my anger might burn that barrier to ash.


  1. I for one wholeheartedly agree with your message here and I appreciate you taking the time to write so thoughtfully on the topic. My girlfriend and I are currently travelling around Japan for 6 weeks and finding a mixed onsen to relax in together is frustrating at best. Thankyou!

    1. Thank you for your kind words. Trying to find a mixed onsen nowadays is indeed exasperating, though they do exist; if you find yourselves in Aomori for example, Sukayu Onsen in the Hakkoda Mountains is one of the more famous ones, and Osorezan has one as well. The only other one I've been to personally is in Tokusa, a tiny little village in the mountains of Aizu. In any case I wish you success in your search and all the best in your travels.

  2. I for one wholeheartedly agree with your message here and I appreciate you taking the time to write so thoughtfully on the topic. My girlfriend and I are currently travelling around Japan for 6 weeks and finding a mixed onsen to relax in together is frustrating at best. Thankyou!