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The Japanese Public Bath - As Experienced by Commodore Perry's Descendant

30 Sep 2010 10:34 AM | Deleted user
Dr Matthew Perry, descendant of Commodore Perry, who opened Japan to the West with the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854, tells the fascinating story of his ancestor's link with tradtional Japanese baths as well as his own initiation to public bathing at last year's Miyagi summit.  

*Posted with permission from http://manjiro.or.jp/eng/index.html 


On January 6, 2010, I was very pleased to receive in the mail a book from Japan and in Japanese that Ms. Hiroko Todoroki had mailed to me on November 2, 2009. Hiroko had mailed it at the request of Mr. Toshio Fujimoto, who was the publisher of the book printed in Japan in 2009 by his company Banraisha, Inc. I had met Hiroko in Japan during my trip in July 2009 as part of an international cultural exchange. 

She was the main reason I was invited to go to Japan and also the person that had told Mr. Fujimoto that I was related to Commodore Perry. That serendipitous connection was the main reason he wanted me to have a copy of the book entitled, "Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan Performed in the Years 1852, 1853, and 1854 Under the Command of Commodore M. C. Perry, United States Navy." The book contains the United States Congressional Document of communication to Japan and the eventual signing in 1854 of the Treaty of Peace and Amity between the U.S. and Japan (Treaty of Kanagawa). This is the first time that the Narrative, which was published in 1856 by the U.S. Congress, has been translated into Japanese for easy accessibility for the people of Japan. 

The book arrived in perfect condition in spite of the long delay, which in mid-December had prompted Mr. Fujimoto to send me another copy directly from his publishing company, which I received on February 1, 2010.  I will donate this second copy to the Manjiro Whitfield Friendship Society, a Japanese/American group in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, that has members and visitors who can read Japanese.  The night the book arrived I stayed up until 11 PM and went through every page carefully.  I compared all the beautiful lithographs and wood cuts that he reproduced with the originals in the first volume of the three-volume set that I have of Commodore Perry's narrative.  I was very impressed on the quality of the book in general and the quality of the graphics.

Although I can't read the Japanese characters, I could easily follow where each chapter began and also appreciated the nice way he had outlined the various letters written by the Commodore and others that were reproduced.  One figure that I was especially interested in locating was the lithograph of the "Public Bath at Shimoda" that the new book has reproduced on page 275.  This indicates that the publisher's original copy in English was one of the first published, as the U.S. Congress withdrew that picture early in the printing process as they thought it was not in good taste due to nudity. 
 That picture is not in my copy (that I received as a wedding present from my cousin Louise DeWolf in 1966) and I understand from antique book dealers that copies with the picture are worth much more money.  It is interesting to think how much we have changed our morals in the U.S. when you consider what is printed in books today and also distributed on the internet.  Although Commodore Perry was very impressed with his visit to Shimoda and the people there, he does write some rare disparaging remarks in the text near where this picture was printed.

When speaking of the people of Shimoda, Japan, after his 1854 visit to this town, Commodore Perry wrote the following in his journal:  "The people have all the characteristic courtesy and reserved but pleasing manners of the Japanese.  A scene at one of the public baths, where the sexes mingled indiscriminately, unconscious of their nudity, was not calculated to impress the Americans with a very favorable opinion of the morals of the inhabitants.  

This may not be a universal practice throughout Japan, and indeed is said by the Japanese near us not to be; but the Japanese people of the inferior ranks are undoubtedly, notwithstanding their moral superiority to most oriental nations, a lewd people.  Apart from the bathing scenes, there was enough in the popular literature, with its obscene pictorial illustrations, to prove a licentiousness of taste and practice among a certain class of population that was not only disgustingly intrusive, but disgracefully indicative of foul corruption."

Wow, these were very strong comments.  At that time our nations had very different opinions of the civility of each country and the people.  Fortunately, over time we realized it is not so much the variation between the two cultures, but the greater variation within each culture.  I feel this book will be a great addition to the libraries in Japan so persons can gain a better perspective on the purpose of the trip to Japan by the U.S. fleet under the command of Commodore Perry, but also hopefully will get a better understanding of the value of each other's culture, from the past and in the present, so that we can be better neighbors on the world stage and share our similar fundamental values.

An example of how we can change our attitude with better education occurred last summer when I was in Japan.  I met a Japanese college student at an international exchange reception.  In very good English she stated to me that she had written a report on Commodore Perry in high school and then stated strongly that she  "did not like him. "  However, in college she had studied him more extensively and now thought he was a  "great man. "  I also could see attitude changes with our American travelers and with myself during the trip as we learned more about each other's cultures.

The public bath issue in Japan had first kindled my interest when I read an article in the Lexus car magazine in 2004 by Rolf Potts, who had traveled throughout Japan to sample the many types of baths and learn more of the value that the baths had to the Japanese.  He emphasized that the natural hot springs (onsens) originated from the volcanic activity of the islands and that originally the Japanese would travel great distances to use these springs as baths for medicinal purposes.  The author emphasized that the baths were for soaking and not cleansing, and in fact it is imperative by custom to clean the body thoroughly before soaking in a public bath. 

Over the years public baths in Japan had become a tradition that whole families enjoyed and the mental benefits of relaxation and family bonding had became more important than the unknown physical benefits to the body.  Baths had been installed in hotels, which made them more available throughout Japan to all travelers, even in areas where the natural baths were not available.  In the Lexus article the author stated that public baths were a mixed-gender affair until Commodore Perry made it a moral issue, resulting in public baths for both sexes becoming less common in Japan.  This greatly surprised me as, although I was aware on the disparaging comments the Commodore had made about nude bathing of both sexes, in all the biographies I had read about the Commodore, no one had ever connected him with a change in Japanese culture in regard to public baths.  I have chatted with several Japanese/Americans about this issue reported in the Lexus magazine, but have not found any substantiation to the reporters claim.  The magazine never responded to my request for more documentation.

In July 2009, I traveled to Japan as part of the Manjiro-Whitfield International Exchange program and had my first experience with Japanese public baths.  The major difference with public baths in Japan compared to the western world and places like the Blue Lagoon in Iceland is that in Japan public baths are in the nude.  Although mixed gender bath houses exist in Japan, the major hotels have separate bath areas for males and females.

When I arrived at our first hotel in Matsushima I learned that there was a bath in the hotel and I was anxious to experiment.  My roommate, Bhaird Campbell, was from Boston and was special assistant to the President of the Japan Society of Boston.  He spoke fluent Japanese and was extremely well-versed in Japanese customs.  He told me everything I needed to know about public baths in Japan, but then told me the most bone-chilling fact - that he was tired, was going to take a nap, and didn't want to join me.  Whoa, I had go on my own????!!!!  Well, I donned my yukata (informal summer kimono) and slippers, provided by the hotel, and with a small towel over my shoulder I headed to the bath area.  The towel is more like a wash cloth, but 2-3 times as long as ours and used more for cleaning not drying.  Drying towels are provided in the bath area. 

I had investigated the location of the male bath area earlier and I knew there was no way to get there without walking through the lobby.  Taking the elevator to the first floor I stepped into the lobby and feeling totally nude held my head high while walking among numerous Americans and Japanese that were totally dressed.  It was mid-afternoon and many travelers were just arriving and registering at the hotel for the beginning of the international exchange.
I made it to the bath area without incident, stored my slippers and yukata, and stepped into another room for an extensive scrub down, while sitting on a small stool.  After feeling cleaner than ever in my life I gently slipped into the bath (no splashing allowed) and realized I was the only American there.  Later I noticed some of my traveling partners so felt relieved that I hadn't violated some rule and was in the wrong area.  The bath area was the size of most hotel pools, but was only about 18 inches deep, so when sitting on the bottom just your neck and head are above water.  I soaked for about 30 minutes in several areas of the pool and then reversed the above process to head back to my hotel room. 

The welcoming program was to begin at 4 PM and I was running low on time.  I did not realize that my body temperature was quite so elevated and as I was walking through the lobby I was perspiring profusely and had a rosy-red complexion.  Ms. Todoroki, who was making arrangements for the opening ceremony, spotted me and insisted I had to go talk to the projectionist about my presentation, which was part of the opening program.  Fortunately, after I protested, she gave me 15 minutes so I could cool down, get out of my yukata, and get properly dressed.  
I was to learn later from my roommate that the yukata like other forms of the kimono is considered appropriate dress and several persons actually wore them to breakfast after coming from the public bath.  That ended my first experience in a Japanese public bath.  I had several others while in Japan, but none had the excitement of the first.  A Japanese public bath is an experience that I highly recommend, but be aware the water is very hot and it is definitely not an experience for modest persons!!! 
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