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The practice of bathing and the intimacy it entails is important in Japanese society, as evidenced by ...
2019-06-17 10:00:00

Touch, Intimacy and Bathing in Japan

"Women and an Infant Boy in a Public Bath House", Utagawa Toyokuni I, ca. 1799; MET

In Japan, a country rife with contradictions, touch is considered the most important of all the senses. This is despite the fact that touch is decidedly absent from the public sphere.

Read in 8 minutes

When I visited Tokyo 15 years ago, my long-time friend Michiko invited me to dinner. The train running from the city centre to Saitama, Tokyo’s one million-strong commuter town, was massively delayed. When I finally reached the tiny flat of Michiko, her husband Satoshi and their two children, it was so late that they both exclaimed: “You must stay the night!” And so I stayed. After dinner, Satoshi poured us a glass of a home-made distillate of salty, fermented umeboshi plums. Michiko disappeared with the children in a small bathroom, in front of which there were two rows of soft, textile slippers.

“I've run the bath!” she finally shouted from afar. Satoshi brought me a towel, and suddenly I found myself in a steamy bathing room with Michiko’s two naked children. She explained that families bathing together in a tall wooden tub, the so-called ofuro, was a classic Japanese custom. “But we cannot possibly all fit in!” I protested, in an attempt to hide my real fear: that I would be forced to enter the bath with the entire Kawasaki family, fully naked. An unthinkable thing in my home country! However, my Japanese hostess quickly explained: “Don’t worry, we always get in the bath in order of hierarchy. Usually Satoshi goes first, then the kids, and when everyone is out and dry, I go in. As our guest, you can go first today.”

And so I experienced the first Japanese bathing ritual. A ritual that is cultivated not only as an important element of hygiene or relaxation, but also as a way of showing affection, bringing up children in intimacy, and building social relations in Japan.


Despite modest living conditions, Japanese people love to take ritual baths in their tiny homes and flats. The traditional ofuro, to which Michiko invited me that evening, is a tall wooden tub (usually covered with a lid), which usually has an external system heating the water up to the optimal temperature of 42°C. You enter after having a shower (i.e. with clean skin), and if there is enough room, parents, children and sometimes even grandparents all bathe together. As my Japanese friend explained, bathing together is about being close to each other, skin-to-skin, which makes it unnecessary to tell your nearest and dearest that they are important to us. “It is just sukinshippu,” Michiko added.

In the book Japan, A View from the Bath, Scott Clark writes that the word sukinshippu is a combination of the English ‘skin’ with the suffix ‘-ship’ (as in ‘friendship’). Later, anthropologists began to identify skinship with kinship. Whatever the true origin of this word, in Japan (as well as in Korea and India, for example) it is used to describe the first touch of a mother and child; the foundation of their lifelong relationship. And it is not only a physical touch, although it is the most important in the first years of a child’s life. Japanese philosophy looks at these issues more holistically than Western cultures. Thus, skinship relates to a number of behaviours that build intimacy – cuddling, sleeping together or bathing together. However, it is also practised more widely, in the context of the entire society – through rituals in public sentō baths or onsen hot springs.


In The Japanese Family: Touch, Intimacy and Feeling, anthropologist Diana Adis Tahhan describes skinship as “the feelings of affinity between two or more people that go beyond the body and touch, although it is in them that they originate.” In one series of the 1990s Japanese television documentary Childhood, there is a whole episode devoted to skinship. One mother explains that she always knew that she would carry her baby in a sling and that she would breastfeed for as long as they wanted. “This strengthens sukinshippu, this skin-to-skin contact, looking each other in the eye and smelling each other,” she explained. Japanese skinship is therefore an experience of intimacy – in body, sense of smell, and in mind – which a child first learns about at home and then brings into other close relationships.

As Adis Tahhan explains, the primary physical contact between mother and child is most intense during the first five to six years. Later, although their relationship remains strong, there is less and less touch. Sukinshippu seamlessly transforms into a mutual understanding via looks, behaviours and words, or rather the meanings hidden between typical words. Importantly, the traditional definitions of sukinshippu do not include fathers, although nowadays they also participate in the practice of intimacy. In Tokyo, for example, meetings of fathers, carrying their babies in slings, have become quite popular.

It is fascinating that the Japanese chose to describe this extra-intellectual intimacy with a word meaning the contact of a naked body with another. Perhaps this is because skin is a real sensory bomb. On a two-centimetre patch of skin, there are more than three million cells, 100 sweat glands and 50 nerve endings. There are 50 different receptors on a one-square-centimetre patch of skin.

Skin is also the body’s largest organ! No wonder that the British anthropologist Ashley Montagu in his book Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin called touch the mother of all senses. Montagu also explains why bodily relations in Asian countries develop quite freely, without the burden of severe judgments and moral doubts, such as: “Is it appropriate for a father to bathe naked with his five-year-old daughter?” Christianity has created a negative correlation between touch and sin, and Buddhism has always looked upon skin-to-skin contact in a very friendly way.

Everyone to the springs

One of the most interesting aspects of urban public culture in Japan are the ubiquitous pools with hot spring water – the public sentō and onsen baths. Researchers of Asian cultures, especially Buddhism and Shintoism (a traditional Japanese religion, or rather a belief system), often recall a tale explaining why Japan has so many hot, mineral water springs. Legend has it that a Buddhist monk travelled through the Japanese mountains until he met a wandering leper. The monk offered to feed or water him, but the sick man asked for something else. He begged the monk to lick his itchy, puss-filled wounds, because that was the only thing to bring him relief. The monk was shaken with disgust, but he quickly overcame the feeling and did what the leper asked for. After a while, the sick man introduced himself as the Yakushi [Medicine] Buddha. In gratitude to the monk and as a reward for his country, he gave him the power of hot mineral waters, and appointed him the ‘saint of hot springs’.

Illustration by Karyna Piwowarska
Illustration by Karyna Piwowarska

Bathing in public baths has been practised in Japan since the 6th century, and was in fact initiated by Buddhist monks in their temples. Later, bathing rituals were practised at the imperial court. At that time, public baths for the poorer part of the population emerged, and were – until the modernization of Japan – co-educational (to the astonishment of Matthew Perry, the U.S. Navy Commodore who arrived in Japan in 1853).

To this day, bathing in hot springs is a mystical experience for the Japanese. It is estimated that each year, the onsen centres powered by volcanic geysers are visited 130 million times (almost as many times as the entire population of Japan). Onsen are usually divided into sectors for women and men, and bathers don’t need clothes. Of course, you can enter the hot spring water naked, after having scrubbed yourself with a special brush and soap. Tattoos, which are still associated with the yakuza, are banned from public bathing grounds. After many hours of soaking in hot water, everyone meets in the co-educational part, and drinks bouillon-flavoured tea on tatami mats.

Facade versus nature and truth

“In Asia, cleansing the body equals cleansing the mind, hence the deep ritualism of these practices,” explains Max Moerman, a researcher of Asian culture from Columbia University.

This is true. For years, I’ve watched women of all ages spend hours in hot water springs, talking, napping, or laughing discreetly. Not all of them knew each other before. Onsen is a multi-generational, non-discriminatory experience. No one is wearing clothes here, and despite different body shapes and sagging skin, everyone is equal. There is no sexualization of the body either. Spending time together in the water or by the swimming pools creates a strong sense of community and freedom on a spiritual level, even though – paradoxically –carnality is the most exposed in these moments.

In the past, I have wondered why, in a country so open to nudity, public displays of affection – kissing, holding hands, excessive hugging or sitting on one’s lap – are unwelcome. I thought it was a contradiction. Later, I realized that in their everyday philosophy, the Japanese firmly separate what is practised outside (the so-called tatemae, or ‘facade’) from what is deepest, most natural and truthful (honne). The strong intimacy of Japanese families, especially in the first phase of family life when children are young, means that it is possible to adapt to rigid, rigorous social requirements outside the home. Because of this, the world outside the family lacks touch – one’s intimate space in offices, restaurants, subway or the streets is marked by detachment.

I have often heard from the Japanese that they are one of the few nations that can communicate without words, because from childhood, their hearts learn to communicate through unspoken mutual understanding, or ishin-denshin. “If you are a family member or a person so close that you are treated as a family member, there is no need for anyone to hug you when they see you after a long absence. It is enough that the host looks at you with love, says Okaerinasai (Welcome home!), and invites you in for hot soup. It’s as if they touched you with their eyes and voice,” writes Adis Tahhan. The Japanese call such natural communications – that is, communication reserved for the nearest and dearest – atarimae kimochi, or natural feelings. Unsurprisingly, one of the favourite Japanese proverbs sounds like a haiku: “To say nothing – that’s quite a flower.”


Japanese bathing ofuro style

You will need:

A deep wooden tub (preferably made of hinoki wood, also used to build Shinto temples), but a very deep enamel bathtub will do;

Water with a temperature of 38-42 °C (it should reach your shoulders when sitting down).

After a cool shower and washing your body with soap, tie up your hair and immerse yourself in hot water. You can sit in the bath for up to 30-45 minutes.

Because this is supposed to be an experience in intimacy, invite your partner or lover, husband or wife, mum, dad, children and friends to join in, although probably not all at once!


Translated by Joanna Figiel

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