Bathing etiquette, morality and the post-Fukushima Olympics: reflections from Tokyo

Anybody who has ever been as a gaijin (or more politically correct a gaikokujin), a foreigner, to a sento or an onsen in Japan, is likely to have followed a strict set of bathing etiquette guidelines to the dot. In most places nowadays where there is a small chance that a non-Japanese bather might show up, detailed nn20131005a9a-870x615guides in multiple languages greet the foreigner to make sure he or she is fully aware of the cleaning rituals that precede the dip into the communal pool. This has not always been the case: I fondly remember my first encounters with Japanese bathing rituals when I lived in Tokyo in the 1990s, when no explanations in whatever language existed. At that time any gaikokujin would simply follow the example of their fellow bathers and I cannot recall this ever having caused any problems or behaviours deemed inappropriate. We would scrub ourselves until the skin had turned red before entering the heaven-like waters of an onsen. And in locations where no communal soap or shampoo was provided, as is the case for some of the most traditional bathhouses, friendly Japanese regulars would willingly help out.

It thus came as a shock to me on a recent visit to Japan to observe more and more Japanese bathhouse goers to cut short on the pre-bathing cleaning routine. Formerly only rarely seen, now more and more onsen visitors simply splash some water from the communal bath over their bodies if at all, and then jump in. The extensive scrubbing is left for afterwards. In a rather ironic twist, the majority of culprits are a new generation of Japanese, leaving the gaikokujin rather bewildered but at least able to share their distress with the older generation of local bath-goers for whom this break in etiquette is equally disturbing. For some this might be a sign of Japan becoming ‘more like the rest of the world’. But one can also see it as a rather ominous omen in light of the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020 that are meant to become an important step on the road towards a Japanese version of deeper globalisation and/or internationalisation (a term often preferred in Japan).

Since Tokyo has been awarded the 2020 games, other signs are underway of the process of becoming ‘less Japanese’. Most visible for foreign visitors is the gradual replacement of signposts. As Japan does not have easily recognisable street names and house numbers, small maps are usually used in giving directions and at almost every street corner one can find a map of the near vicinity. Those maps often have a quite individual flavour while being highly confusing to most foreign visitors, as for example North is hardly ever on top as in ‘Western’ concepts of what a map is. Ultimately, these neighbourhood maps follow a different understanding of urban space and the way to navigate it (it of course also begs the question who will need them in a future age of mobile apps, access to which is made extremely easy for any visitors through various mobile Wi-Fi-rental services at Japanese airports). In Tokyo a programme has now started to replace neighbourhood maps and signposts to align them with ‘international norms’ – it remains to be seen with what effect.

In fact, ‘we have to get this done for the Olympics’ has become a mantra that is being repeated in all wakes of life and is likely to leave Japan a changed place once the global sport juggernaut has moved on. Take the example of smoking: Smoking is still allowed and common in many bars, restaurants and other public spaces. But the International Olympic Committee (IOC) demands that the games are smoke free. As a non-smoker, I in principle welcome smoking bans. On the other hand, I am not sure I want a world characterized by the imposition of rules and regulations by a body as unaccountable as the IOC, regulations that contradict localised rules and norms.

The ‘we have to get this done for the Olympics’ narrative also has some darker sides: Take the example of Olympic-inspired redevelopment around the neighbourhood of Shibuya in Tokyo. Apart from the fact that the area around Shibuya station has become a pedestrian-unfriendly building site, the only green space in the area, Miyashita Park, is to be transformed from an open public space into a commercial outlet. With this move the city government also hopes to get rid of the population of homeless people who live or spend their days in the park. Struggles about the park, including its ‘homeless’ residents, go back to at least 2008 but have received new prominence with the redevelopment plans for the Olympics. For now, activists for the homeless and other pressure groups have won a legal victory in their battle to have the park remain a public space, but it remains to be seen how long this spanner in the Olympic planning will last.

In general, when talking to people about the Olympics, feelings are mixed. One view is that after the Fukushima disaster many still live in unacceptable conditions and are rather forgotten, and that it is almost immoral to spend money on the Olympic extravagancia when ‘so many still suffer’. For others the Olympics mean a new train line, or other benefits to their immediate environment – or so they hope.

The government is also at pains to include Fukushima in a positive way in the sporting calendar. The basecamp that is being used by thousands of workers involved in the Fukushima clean up operation is to be cleaned up and opened as an Olympic training facility. The site, known as J-village and located at the fringe of the 12-mile exclusion zone around Fukushima, has in the past actually served as the training ground for the Japanese national football team. It remains to be seen how many international (or indeed Japanese) athletes would agree to train there. Others in Fukushima prefecture think aloud about staging the Olympic softball and baseball tournaments there, were both sports to return to the Games for 2020. Doubts remain about those plans at a time when the first pictures from inside the nuclear reactor filmed by a robot have come to light. They show a ghostly scene of devastation and it is being estimated that a human being exposed to the same scene as the robot would die within one hour.

A recent article in The Economist that interrogates the hosting of mega sporting events advises ‘just say no’ and makes the case that doing so is usually not beneficial to a city’s health. In the case of post-Fukushima Japan there are additional serious questions to be asked about the morality of hosting an event where most profits go to a corrupt sporting organisation but land the host-country in serious debt – and this at a time when national resources are too scarce to address the immediate suffering of many victims of Fukushima, not even to speak about the long-term legacies that will remain with us for decades to come. One can only hope that hosting the Olympics will not simply make the world forget Fukushima, even though that might be what the Japanese government ultimately hopes for.

Whether the games will provide some sort of international rehabilitation in the post-Fukushima age as intended by Japanese politicians and some of the public, only the future will tell. My hope for the Games’ legacies is rather different: They will bring crowds of gaikokujin to the country, many of whom will visit one of Tokyo’s over 700 sentos and make sure to follow the rules that are so painstakingly spelled out to them. This in turn will make Japanese bathers ashamed and they will eventually follow the example set by the visitors. In such a way, and rather counter-intuitively, the global Olympic juggernaut aimed at making the world a more homogenous place will have helped save a valuable local tradition and its etiquette. Whether that will make it worth to host the Olympics in the first place, not least for those who remain deeply affected by Fukushima, remains an open question.

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