Mixed Bathing in Japan

From “Rambles in Japan” by H B Tristram, 1895.

Windows into Japan 2Last time I quoted from Bayard Taylor’s journal of travels, in which he recounted the famous arrival of Commodore Perry and his fleet to Japan, which led to the end of isolationism. During his visit, Perry was surprised to see men and women bathing together. The practice was soon to end, but Perry was not the last traveller to be shocked by the spectacle of mixed bathing in Japan. In 1863, Anna D’a’s A Lady’s Visit to Manilla and Japan was published, in which the author described the surprising sight of men and women enjoying some steaming waters together:

We were one day, by accident, witnesses to a singularly ludicrous spectacle. A man accosted us whilst we were walking down one of the principal streets, and requested to be allowed to show us a dog he knew of, or possessed, as he had heard we were on the look out for a good one. Signifying our acquiescence, we turned and followed him through numerous by-lanes and alleys, till, at last, he stopped before a small, low building, and standing aside, invited us to enter. We did so without the slightest doubt or hesitation, little prepared for the absurdly indecent scene which awaited us within, causing us to beat a hasty retreat, and beg the man to bring the dog out if he meant to show it. At the further end of the room we had so abruptly entered, was a portion partitioned off by a low wooden wall, within which enclosed space numbers of men and women were bathing in puris naturalibus. A thick vapour rose about them, and a strong sulphurous odour pervaded the place. They were dancing about as though half-mad. Whether this arose from sensations of joy or pain, I cannot say, but I know they reminded me forcibly of a representation of souls in purgatory I once saw outside a church in Antwerp.

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About Roger Pocock

Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com Co-writer on junkyard.blog Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in 19th Century, Books, History, Japan, Travel and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Mixed Bathing in Japan

  1. Ged Maybury says:

    I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by her reaction to this scene – that she was terrified (of the nudity, or the ‘mixed’ aspect?) and instantly fled. And that she was promptly reminded of a very extreme Christian concept of purgatory/Hell.
    Were all Westerners like this in those times – prone to ‘perceiving’ other locations, races and cultures in such extreme terms? Probably.
    No wonder the world did no go well. !!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Roger Pocock says:

      Hi again Ged! I’ve read loads of travel journals from around this time and I think it’s fair to say that the writers did tend to stand in judgement over what they saw. That judgement was often positive, but was a judgement nonetheless. To a certain extent that’s probably human nature, and just doesn’t get written down so much nowadays.


      • Ged Maybury says:

        No surprises there, I guess!
        Heck, even if I were to write a travel journal right now, I’d only be able to appraise/comprehend what I see (and taste and smell!) against my own language and culture and attitudes (say to waste, the eating of weird things, and personal space). But in those times, those few written tales trickling back to the ‘centres of civilisation’ would be influential out of all proportion, and hugely shape the events that followed; colonialism most notably.


      • Roger Pocock says:

        Very true, and I think you’ve hit upon one reason why old travel journals are so important and perhaps too neglected by historians as areas of study.


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