JT: Japan’s public baths hope foreign tourists and residents will keep taps running; oh, the irony!


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Hi Blog.  Here’s another quick one that’s just dying for a shout-out specially on Debito.org for its delightful irony:

In yet another example of how Japan’s economy is not going to save itself unless it allows in and unlocks the potential of its foreign residents, here we have the flashpoint issue for “Japanese Only” signposted exclusionism: public baths (sento or onsen).  As per the Otaru Onsens Case (which has inspired two books), we had people who did not “look Japanese” (including native-born and naturalized Japanese citizens) being refused by xenophobic and racist bathhouse managers just because they could (there is no law against it in Japan).

Now, according to the Japan Times below (in a woefully under-researched article), the bathhouse industry is reporting that they are in serious financial trouble (examples of this were apparent long ago:  here’s one in Wakkanai, Hokkaido that refused “foreigners” until the day it went bankrupt).  And now they want to attract foreign tourists.  It’s a great metaphor for Japan’s lack of an immigration policy in general:  Take their money (as tourists or temporary laborers), but don’t change the rules so that they are protected against wanton discrimination from the locals.  It’s acceptance with a big, big asterisk.

Admittedly, this is another step in the right direction.  But it’s one that should have been done decades ago (when we suggested that bathhouse rules simply be explained with multilingual signs; duh).  But alas, there’s no outlawing the racists in Japan, so this is one consequence.  Dr. ARUDOU, Debito

Japan’s public baths hope foreign tourists will help keep the taps running

Japan’s public baths, known as sento, represent an institution with hundreds of years of history. They provided an important public service in the days before homes had their own hot-water bathtubs.

Sento can range in style from simple hot springs piped into a large tub to modern facilities resembling theme parks and offering a range of therapies.

In the Edo Period (1603-1868), sento were so popular that every town had on. They were important centers of the community.

Sento are on the decline both because homes now have fully fledged bathrooms and because retiring operators find it hard to find successors to take on their businesses. There are now around 630 establishments in Tokyo, down from 2,700 in 1968, a peak year for sento.

Faced with this trend, the Tokyo Sento Association is trying to tap demand from non-Japanese residents and tourists.

It has installed explanatory signs at each facility showing non-Japanese speakers how to use a sento in five languages. It also plans to create an app for people to search for sento in English.


14 comments on “JT: Japan’s public baths hope foreign tourists and residents will keep taps running; oh, the irony!

  • Jim di Griz says:

    Nah, when I was a student, my money wasn’t good enough for them when they were riding high on bubble-era hangover economic arrogance, so now they are (from their point of view) literally begging, let them go bust while I laugh long and hard from the private rotenburo on the veranda of my hotel room that I can afford to stay in because I work for a living.
    I hope it’s a painful end for them.

    What’s the next ‘we Japanese’ business model to fail? Air bags? Night-busses? Who cares.

  • OnceAGaijinAlwaysAGaijin says:

    Gaijin very welcome to drop money and then (or as long as they) “go home?”
    What a novel idea!

    I had a long discussion with an about immigration and so on last week. The person had struck up a sort of (as I thought) not “let’s speak to the gaijin to show how international I am” sort of thing- or so I thought. The executive had lived in Canada and now has an executive position with a major Japanese company in CIS. He talked long about how his childhood in Canada had made him more open, and about how he had attained proficiency in Russian in only a year studying like mad at a major Russian university.

    So far so good. But as the beers flowed, several things became apparent. One was that in Canada he had never felt that he had been discriminated against. He had helped in a production of a play, and the opening scene was a depiction of Pearl Harbor. He had said that he was shocked by the point of view and that he was surprised that Japan was depicted as an aggressor and felt he had learned a lot about it. But he was very proud to be a Japanese and fundamentally he still thought Japan and Japanese were the victims of the U.S. and had no choice but to follow the imperialistic route after the oil embargo. The idea was that the peaceful Japanese, discriminated against by the League of Nations in the post WW1 settlement were basically seen as second-class and in the end had no choice but to do what they did.

    While I can understand that sort of logic, sort of, although I don’t agree with it at all, I thought, well…ok

    Then he waxed lyrical about his work in Russia. How the Russians were lazy and hyper and difficult, and how sometimes he was treated as some sort of strange oriental superior and sometimes some yellow monkey by older Russians, especially the grizzled ex-Soviet types.

    It became clear that the man’s whole mind was riddled with a inferiority superiority complex. At heart, he was obsessed with Japan’s position in the pecking order. One part of him felt he was a victim and the other part of him felt he was superior. As the beers flowed further, it was clear that he regarded his Russian underlings, basically as cattle to be herded.

    The beers flowed more. He was tired of his corporation and wanted to strike out on his own. There is huge genius in Japanese Small and Medium Enterprises and he was going to use his insights and his cross-cultural knowledge and marketing expertize to help them. I was intrigued by this, as it crosses over into an area I’m interested in. It turns out that that there is an amazing opportunity to earn lots more money from gaijin.

    Japan is a special, unique country, with its customs and omotenashi. He wants to really help the sector, reach out and provide customized tours and services for all sorts of gaijin, opening up the mysteries and beauties of his wonderful country. This is going to be his way of earning extra revenue to support the Japanese economy as depopulation and aging kicks in.

    At this point, I broached the subject of immigration. I told him, you know, it doesn’t have to be like this. If you allowed immigration that would give a pathway to citizenship to qualified individuals, and, for example, a five-year program that would allow unskilled workers a pathway to citizenship, then you could create a whole new economy of taxpayers and employment.

    At this point, his whole attitude changed. What I said just did not compute. First foreigners coming in would steal Japanese jobs. Second, foreigners coming in would create social disruption.

    But I said to him, well there is a huge labor shortage in Japan in certain sectors and you are already importing so many people to work in KKK jobs. Just look at the convenience stores in central Tokyo where you are just as liable to be served by a NJ as a Japanese. If you gave those people real jobs, so they would pay into the system with their taxes, wouldn’t that be better.

    “The Chinese?” He looked aghast, red faced, drunk. Yes he agreed that revolving door employment was a temporary solution. But what could be done? Japan is a small island nation with poor resources and doesn’t have the space to accommodate foreigners. “They can never be Japanese, anyway” he said with evident distaste.

    So, in stages, I’d say every second drink, roughly, the mask steadily dissolved and the true feelings came out. Mr. Highly International just regards gaijin as either help or entertainment. They are welcome here, as long as they go home.

    He was aghast at the idea of millions of new people here, who can never be Japanese, don’t understand the Japanese, who will become victims of new foreign invaders that they can’t control and who will change things. Inferiors like the Chinese and SE Asians are to be grateful for their chance to live in wonderful Japan. Superiors (or at least the rich) are to be ushered in, their money taken, and turned round back, all with wonderful omotenashi.

    This from Mr. International, in his 30s. I despair for the future of Japan.

  • OnceAGaijinAlwaysAGaijin says:

    By way of follow-up, how did he get this idea to enter the tourism business? Well, it’s through all the “cultural evenings” he held with his model Japanese wife, who is a qualified shamisen teacher and also trained in Tea Ceremony. His Russian guests loved that.

    It is apparent that having spent 10 years of his nearly 40 years outside of Japan, and five of them in Russian, he has no actual Russian friends. Interchange is done through the bubble of “cultural exchange” and “building understanding” in these sort of evenings.

    He’s very active in his corporate activities, and his alumnae associations, but his social life is restricted to Japanese, with the gaijin relegated to building bridges by semi-formal, set-pattern cultural exchanges.

    I don’t honestly know if he has any real Canadian friends. I tend to think not.

  • Jim di Griz says:

    OnceAGaijinAlwaysAGaijin @ #2

    Your comment about inferiority/superiority complex is very interesting.
    Since post-surrender right-wing Japanese governments have never truly given up on Imperial-era ideology, which was based on neo-Confucian social hierarchies, the Japanese are still beholden to concepts of ‘higher/lower’ status (sempai/kohai, discrimination against women in marriage re: family names).

    They don’t understand that the world doesn’t hold them or Japanese society to these same vertical relationships of power and abuse, leaving many Japanese lost in the international arena, where they seek to constantly construct hierarchies they can relate to (UNESCO listings for example).

    As a result, the Japanese cannot understand ‘Construtivist Theory’ in international relations, rather, for them every thing is a zero-sum game. They don’t believe in win-win outcomes, but believe that if ‘the other’ in any way wins, then they ‘must’ be losing.

  • @Jim and onceagaijin,

    excellent post, mirror exact experiences and conclusions I have had as well, what a coincidence!

    “This from Mr. International, in his 30s. I despair for the future of Japan”

    Its been this way for years. Met so many who lived abroad and worked around gaijins, acted the same exact way.

  • OnceAGaijinAlwaysAGaijin says:

    Well constructivists (I think you are referring to this particular branch of macro-theory in IR) such as Berger and their ilk, etc. ad nauseam, are always explaining how peaceful Japan is following the establishment of the Yoshida Doctrine, without realizing that this doctrine (perhaps, as I argue elsewhere, Japan is entering a post-Yoshida phase) is quite obviously in terms of a realist framework a recognition of where Japan would like to see itself in terms of power relations…putting itself in the pecking order.

    You, I mean you, Jim, and others, might see it as sadomasochistic, perhaps, i.e. be “submissive” to the hegemon while exploiting cheap defense provided by the U.S. military industrial complex to re-establish its “East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” through neomercantalism and trading, sans war.

    Of course all that went tits to the wind of a rising China (while the North Koreans are pumped up as the bogeymen despite being at least a decade from developing even one missile deliverable multi-kiloton fission device and with no resources to build military usable IRBM.)

    I grew tired a long time ago of the realist vs. constructivist vs. liberal internationalist vs. yawn debates (International Security and, etc.) look like a dusty old bins of stale debates to me, academically), but I guess at that level of analysis, I’d tend to think you weren’t wrong.

    Yep, at the core is an inferiority-superiority complex. Japan thought it could join the white man’s imperial dining club with the victors post WW1, was sort of given an associate membership, but not the full funny handshake; allowed a bunch of stuff that it stole from the krauts who had stolen it from the indigenous people around our hood (given a few scraps off the table) but, basically seen as sophisticated yellow men and not quite at the top table.

    People thinking along those lines, which I guess would be Abe and his Nihon Kaiji chummies and the fascists at the core would always be grateful to the U.S. for providing cheap defense and proud to wear the local sherrif’s badge in the far East after 1955, but, still, fundamentally resentful that Japan wasn’t allowed to become a full military great power or independent regional hegemon.

    So part of the lore is the familiar tropes you hear from drunk older Japanese.
    – We poor misunderstood Japanese…Look, if you ask the old timers in Taiwan, they love the Japanese really, etc. etc. Korea was a bunch of savages, we gave’em railways, and they ain’t grateful; look we sorted out the comfort issue in 1965, it’s now our fault the fascist Park (daddy of guess who) and his cronies stole the cash and give it to their chaebol chums to build POSCO and highways- the Koreans are ungrateful bastards really, etc. etc.

    I guess the record shows this; the noveauimperialists (too late to enjoy the party, boys!) got cut a raw deal. The perspective of the white Imperialists of the time (the 1920s) grabbing Korea didn’t cut it- the Koreans were seen by all sides as primitive gooks and the Japanese as yellow men stealing it from the Chinese wasn’t a big deal. The Japanese were merely superior gooks, not the real deal, and only capable of a poor facsimile of proper white Imperialism. Japan was pretty much told “Good, very good, but you’re not white, so get back in line; here’s your stripes, but no pips for you, yellow boys.”

    So from that perspective, the paranoid resentful rantings of people like Tamogami seem to make sense; Japan was set up and lured into war the next time round.

    It also speaks to the debate about how states have to justify their rape and pillage.

    There is a core of people in Japan who still regard grabbing Korea as fundamentally a benign intervention, just as in the UK and the U.S. and the other white imperial powers gloss over their own rape and pillage and warcrimes, genocidal acts – so many of them.

    As late as the 1970s the U.S. was able to murder millions of gooks in an illegal genocidal war while spawning a whole Hollywood industry of hypocrisy mourning its 50,000 cannon fodder (many of them working class and black), or just plain piracy and pillage- Iraq, just only 13 years ago. Now we have perpetual war with new bogeymen, the towelheads. I suppose state terror and pillage by the West has now helped generate a multigenerational threat of Islamofascism that will keep the military industrialist complex happy for a decade or too. Blah, blah, bomb.

    So compared to the white man, the Japanese seem to regard themselves as inferior in terms of sheer violence and power, and surprisingly benevolent superiors to other Asians. That seems to be part of it too.

    We’ve all met the Mr. Tanakas who patiently explain that “Japanese” are basically mild mannered vegetarian farmers, not violent meat eating hunter gatherers, and all the other mad stews of illogical pseuoscientific/ mystical/ illogical/ nonproveable/ hilarious/ pathetic/ what star sign-blood type are you garbage.

    And remember, Japanese snow is different.
    But Onsen rock anyway.

  • Well… there are lot of Chinese tourists these days. I think those bath houses will do well to go and attract the Chinese. That will be interesting to see what will happen.

  • Onceagaijin,alwaysagaijin says:

    I tend to think people will rise to the occasion though. I’ve been going to an onsen in inaka where my wife’s family live and things have changed a lot over the last 15 years.

    Back in the day there were lots of cases of 「ほら!がいじんだ!」 (which I like to translate as “Horror! It’s a gaijin!”) depending on the attitude of the person. Sometimes it was a case of bad tempered muttering, but the vast majority of the time it was simple interest at the novelty of having a whitey there.

    As there were a lot of nisei and other foreigners in the area working KKK jobs and gradually signs started appearing in different languages explaining the rules, etc. There was a massive anti-gaijin media campaign started in the early 2000s where foreigners stopped being merely seen as entertainment or help and were criminalized but the only pickup I got from that was anti-Chinese racism, which seems to be a huge problem now.

    Over the last five years there has been a live-and-let live attitude. I don’t get singled out, or baby Japanesed, and am treated perfectly normally. I guess my face and my family is known, and we are just accepted.

    I would expect that most people would go into “omotenashi mode” some will grin and bare it, and others don’t care, as long as the visitors are not too loud or unruly.

    In my experience, I’ve had dirty looks when I’ve forgotten to take a shower coming out of the sauna going into the cold plunge, where others just ignore the rules. I do have a strong sense as as long as I am seen to be obeying the rules all the time, it’s fine, where as the locals can pick and choose what rules they want to ignore, including going in drunk and being, hum, shall we say…gregarious.

    I’m happy to be treated normally, as long as I don’t cause “trouble.”

  • @ Miki #6

    Yes, there are lots of Chinese tourists spending money like it’s going out of fashion in Japan, and despite Abe’s goal to attract 20 million tourists by 2020 as his rather ‘low set bar’ of making tourism a major economic driver of Japan, look at the vitriol and scorn that Japan has for these Chinese saviors;


    Please note that every headline on this story is ‘Chinese tourists’ as the problem, never ‘Poor Japanese city planning’, ‘Japanese bus companies’, ‘Japanese bus drivers’, ‘Japanese tour operators’, ‘Japanese police fail to enforce illegal parking fines’, but rather ‘those damn Chinese, come over here on their holiday, use Japanese busses and hotels, go shopping in Ginza in massive groups on blow-out shopping sprees spending their money thereby safeguarding jobs, businesses and lively-hoods here in Japan…just who the hell do they think they are!’

    This is a perfect example of Japanese binary thinking inability to accept a win-win situation that I mentioned above; the Chinese seem to Japanese eyes to be ‘winning’ since they are enjoying all they want to enjoy of Japan. Therefore the Japanese hierarchy trapped mindset (contrary not only to all factual evidence, but also self-interest) dictates to the Japanese that they ‘must’ be losing out in this situation.

    The ¥ is strengthening, the RMB is weakening, and the Nikkei is plunging (hopefully this means that Abe has lost his chance to abuse the constitution any further while the masses are duped into believing that he is saving the economy, but I digress), so I anticipate with barely concealed glee the day when these Chinese tourists abandon Japan for cheaper opportunities.

    Then, in the same way that the Japanese would prefer all the negative social consequences of not accepting immigration, they can also look forward to strolling through a quiet and empty Ginza consisting of only 100¥ stores and shuttered stores, basking in their bubble-era memories whilst they hobble down to the clinic to have a social with the other 60% of Japanese who are over retirement age.

    Oh! Happy days!

  • All I know about Sento is from one trip. I was not barred from entry, but my presence caused all the other old dudes to leave the pool, sauna room, etc whenever I entered. And that I don’t think they believe in chlorine or ozone. Got a nasty ear infection as aftermath. Strangely enough, the sento visit was in prep for an onsen visit. My friend worried that I would freak, so she thought a little try-out was needed. Onsens are easy though, never any problem, including micro/neo/pseudo onsens on the top floor of inner-city hotels. Conclusion: all the sento get to close down, someone smart scoops them up, cleans them up and onsen-i-fies them. The old dudes from the neighborhood behave better, as the rules for onsen seem to be subtly different than for sento.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    I’m not so sure if how many NJ(including tourists and residents) are interested in an out-dated local santos or public bath. Many of those are quite old(and they’re really small), and they don’t have as many accommodations and services as private onsen can afford. Also, there’s always some sort of stigma for those who go to public baths. In the US, for example, people who are going to public baths are considered Asian and gay because of its culture and location (such as Japantown in LA), and its system to share what is considered “private”(bathing) in a closed space. There are very few onsens available in Tokyo, compared to old-style sentos. And I don’t think the metropolitan government is willing to spend substantial amount of money for the upgrading of pre-existing sento facilities across the prefecture in next four years. Nothing big you can expect from this. It’s not a gold-mine. I don’t see why some people tend to think short-term event will save the dismal economic status of santos.

  • Jim di Griz says:

    @ Loverilakkuma #12

    Absolutely agree.
    Japan has an aversion to updating and adapting business models.
    This is fine if you are Olympus and can bully anyone who discovers your business is in trouble.
    This is fine if you are ‘Japanese success story’ like Sharp, and the J-gov will offer to bail you out with tax-payers money when you are hiding hundreds of millions of dollars of losses.

    These types of companies can put off meaningful change almost forever due to regular assistance from the J-gov.

    However, aversion to adaptation in the face of changing external conditions, preferring to ossify and run up debts, is not fine if you are not a big company with potential for amakudari, or a ‘symbol of national pride’, in which case you fixate on short-term shots in the arm;
    The weak ¥.
    Tourist boom.
    2020 Olympics.

    It doesn’t matter about any of that, of even Abenomics and the weak ¥.
    Demographics are driving the economic situation and will continue to unalterably do so, in one direction only.
    And whatever any J-gov or Japan Inc. or small business try to do, when the party is over they will STILL have to tidy up.

  • In the non-binding resolution department:

    Japan Tourism Agency asks spa operators to accept tattooed foreign tourists
    THE JAPAN TIMES MAR 17, 2016

    The Japan Tourism Agency has asked spa operators to allow tattoo-sporting foreign tourists into their facilities in a bid to get more overseas visitors experiencing the nation’s onsen.

    While there is currently no blanket ban on tattoos at hot springs, many spa operators opt to turn away people with tattoos for fear they will scare other customers.

    In Japan, tattoos have often been associated with yakuza members.

    The latest request — the first of its kind by the agency — urges onsen operators to give more consideration to the cultural backgrounds of tattooed non-Japanese tourists, Shogo Akamichi, a Japan Tourism Agency official in charge of tourism promotion, said Thursday.

    The number of foreign tourists is increasing, and “with that change, we hope they can fully enjoy onsen in Japan,” Akamichi said. He added that the request will be “nonbinding,” meaning the decision is ultimately up to each operator.

    The request does not extend to relaxing the rules for Japanese with tattoos.

    Akamichi said the current no-tattoo policy at many onsen resorts had indiscriminately rejected people with tattoos, including foreign guests who wear them for fashion, religious or other reasons.

    The agency asked operators to take measures such as offering stickers to cover tattoos and setting certain time frames for tattooed tourists to bathe, so as to separate them from other visitors.

    The no-tattoo policy has often been a source of friction between spa facilities in Japan and foreign visitors due to differing views regarding the body art, the agency said.

    In 2013, a spa facility in Hokkaido turned away a Maori woman from New Zealand with traditional facial tattooing, provoking a controversy about what tattoos mean to both Japanese and non-Japanese.


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