Thursday, 13 March 2008

Braving The Bathhouse

My new apartment in Hakuraku did not have a bath.

"Just use the public bath!" everyone advised me, and they made it sound so simple. For many reasons, though, I dreaded this. I'd heard that the bandai, the person who collected your bath fee and sat perched on a little stool from where he could see out over both the women's and men's sides, was just as likely to be a man as a woman. I didn't relish the idea of some fellow being able to monitor my bathing. Come to that, I wasn't crazy about the idea of bathing with a few dozen strangers, either.

It took me quite some time to work up the courage to go to my local bath. It took me even longer to force myself to patronize the place when I discovered that our bandai was in fact a man. Once I'd gotten over these hurdles, though, the whole bathing ritual became something I very much looked forward to. In a few weeks, nothing about it seemed strange at all. Sitting in front of a spigot to shower with dozens of others not only seemed perfectly normal, it struck me as far easier and more natural than showering in a narrow cubicle, with no company at all. Getting into a piping hot bath afterwards with half a dozen strangers no longer seemed unusual either. The western concept of solitary bathing could hardly be more different than the traditional Japanese method of squatting or sitting on a small stool and showering among dozens of others in a wide open space.

Although I hated locker room showers as a teenager, communal bathing in Japan was nothing like it. Nobody made fun of me or rushed me, only a few people stared, and no catty comments were whispered about my bra size. There was something cozy and comforting about bathing with other people, watching their own cleaning rituals out of the corner of your eye. I always felt cleaner and more relaxed when I was finished, and even if I didn’t exchange more than cursory greetings with a few others, I always felt a pleasant sense of camaraderie.

“How do you put your hair up like that?” I heard an elderly woman ask another one evening, as I was getting dressed. She had long salt-and-pepper hair pinned up in a neat little bun. Only when the other woman didn’t answer did I realize that she was actually talking to me.

“I’m sorry, what did you say?” I asked, certain I’d misunderstood her. My listening comprehension still had a long way to go. I was constantly talking at cross purposes with people, getting what they said wrong and spending an embarrassing amount of time trying to sort out the confusion afterwards.

“Your hair,” she said, indicating my pinned up, inverted bun. “How do you do that? It must take you forever.”

“It doesn’t take me thirty seconds. Here – I’ll show you.” And I undid my hair and pinned it back up so that she could see.

“Well, I’ll be! You’re right – that didn’t take you any time at all! And your hair is so long! How long have you been growing it?”

“Four years now,” I said proudly.

“My! It must be a lot of trouble to wash, though – I’ll bet that takes a lot longer!”

I nodded. It did.

“And how long have you been in Japan?”

“Over ten months.”

“Maa! Only ten months, and yet you speak Japanese so well!”

I blushed and sighed inwardly. A very fluent acquaintance had pointed out that it was generally the beginning students of Japanese that got praised for their excellent speaking ability; that only when a person became truly fluent did the praise dry up. She should have known: she was working on a degree in economics in a Japanese university and I’d seen the books she was reading – in Japanese. Nobody praised her Japanese any more, but people still praised mine all the time – so much so that I was beginning to get depressed over it.

Later, when I was leaving, the same woman touched my arm. “I enjoyed having that chat with you,” she said. I smiled at her.

“You know,” she continued, “you’re the first foreigner I’ve ever talked to.”

I laughed, not knowing whether I should take her seriously.

“Really,” she said earnestly. “I’ve never had the courage to talk to a foreigner. I don’t speak English, you see, but the other evening, I heard you talking to someone in Japanese so I decided I’d ask you how you did your hair. I’m glad I did, too, or I might never have had the chance.”

I laughed again, but this time out of embarrassment. I was incredibly touched to be the first foreigner this woman had ever talked to. She was old enough not only to remember the war, but to have lived through it as a mature person, and I was seized by the desire to be able to talk to people like her about more interesting subjects than how I did my hair.

The subject of the war came up in my Japanese class when I mentioned my experiences at the local baths.

“There used to be a bathhouse just next-door to us,” the teacher said. “It was very convenient, too, having it so close. Before the war, almost no one had their own baths and we all went together to the public ones. Nowadays everyone in Japan wants their own bathroom, and it seems a little lonely.”

“Is it true they were all destroyed during the war?” a fellow student asked curiously.

“Yes, they were almost all firebombed. We figured the pilots thought they were weapons factories, what with those big chimneys. Losing our bathhouses was demoralizing, I can tell you that!”

Our teacher was one of the few older Japanese people I knew who could talk about the events of the war in a perfectly unemotional, matter-of-fact way, and she wasn’t shy about criticizing Japan’s role. At the time, I wasn’t particularly interested in the war, so I didn’t realize how unusual her attitude was.

By and large, the Japanese attitude about the war was that it oughtn’t be discussed. Whenever anyone had the bad manners to mention the air raids, Hiroshima, or Pearl Harbor, someone else usually leapt to change the subject as quickly as possible. The war had happened, it was horrible, but it was over, case closed, they seemed to feel, and this suited me fine. When I was a child, I had an uncle who had been dispatched as a soldier to post-war Japan. He had never been involved in combat himself, but was something of a World War II buff and I had consequently spent countless Christmases listening to him wax lyrical on Zeroes and kamikazes. I was bored silly by talk of the war myself and found the pictures of post-blast Hiroshima and Nagasaki so disturbing that I was only too happy not to dwell on it. Over the years that I lived in Japan, however, I learned that the war was very much part of the collective memory and the case was not closed – nowhere near.

That first year I spent in Japan, signs of the war were still around me even 34 years after the fact. There was the crazy woman who reputedly had lost her entire family in the great Kanto firebombing of March 23 and could often be found at Kamakura Station raging and throwing stones at every foreigner who was unlucky enough to get within her range (interestingly enough, I knew of two Germans who were her victims). There was the little old man who stopped me in a book store one day and tried to talk to me in English. “Japanese soldier do too much bad thing China, wartime,” he said to me earnestly. “Hiroshima very bad, but Japanese wartime soldier in China do very cruel thing, too much cruel.” I gave him short shrift; now I recognize his courage in approaching me and I kick myself for the missed opportunity. There was also the group of elderly American men I met one day outside an Indian restaurant near Akasaka. They asked if I were American and I told them I was. “You living here?” one of them asked me.

“Yes, I’m teaching English.”

“Good for you. We used to live here too, a long time ago. Boy, have things changed since then.” He shook his head and stretched out an arm, indicating the soaring high rises, the glitzy corporate headquarters, shining neon signs, and crowded streets of Akasaka.

“I’ll bet they have,” I said. “I had an uncle who was stationed here just after the war and he used to talk about it all the time.”

One of the men laughed and I saw him exchange a glance with one of his pals. “Oh, we went home after the war. We were here during the war, see. So – how do you like it here, then?”

“I like it a lot,” I burbled. “I’ve been learning Japanese and I find that makes it a lot easier to help me get to know the people.”

“Does it now?” laughed one of the men. A few of the others, I noticed, seemed edgy. In fact, all the men had a strange air about them, as though they had some hidden agenda they weren’t anxious to discuss, but were bursting with all the same. Then a middle-aged woman joined them. “I am sorry,” she said in slow, carefully modulated English, “I have found that the buildings were torn down two years ago. So now we will try one more of the locations – if you will come with me?”

I watched as the men followed her through the crowded streets of Akasaka, obviously fascinated and intrigued by what they saw around them – much more so than the average tourists, in fact. At the time, I was only vaguely aware of the fact that Japan was host to thousands of allied prisoners of war – including 36,260 American servicemen. These men were treated abominally during their time in Japan, forced to work in appalling conditions with little food and virtually no medical care. And I had just met half a dozen of them.

When I look back on that first year and my shocking ignorance of the events of the war I am appalled at myself and how little I knew at the time. I lost so many opportunities to hear the stories of people who had lived through events I could barely begin to imagine. So I have to be all the more grateful that somewhere in Yokohama a woman may still remember me as the first foreigner she ever talked to.


Kara said...

i wonder how many business transactions go down on the men's side. i bet it's as lucrative as a Rotary Club.

i've had to do public baths a couple of times...romania, hungary...still not a fan. but i blame that everyone who looks better naked than me.

Gorilla Bananas said...

I believe a number of American POWs died at Hiroshima. I wonder what memories the Japanese have of General MacArthur. I read somewhere that he was was quite popular.

Sarah said...

I enjoy hearing about the bath practices. In Finland families sauna together, until the kids are around 8 or so. Men and women typically sauna separately. Historically saunas were used for bathing. Sauna, dip in the lake or river (through a hole in the ice in the winter) then repeat.
We loved the Finnish sauna, which is of course done in the nude.

The swimming pool showers here in Iceland are also a communal experience. As are the hot pots--but we sit in those outside--rain, snow, whatever the weather--with swimsuits.

The Anti-Wife said...

What an amazing experience that must have been. How fortunate you were to be exposed to her and all the others from whom you learned in Japan.

Mary Witzl said...

Kara --- I'll bet it was, too. No doubt a whole lot of male bonding went on there. A wall separated the two sides, and once in a while, women would call out to their menfolk on the other side. I wish I'd understood more back then, but it was probably stuff like 'Hey, do you have the baby powder over there?' or 'Did you pack the razor or did you give it to me?'

Oddly, no one much minded how they looked -- or perhaps they were good at pretending.

GB -- I believe that there were only 13 documented American POWs killed in Hiroshima, but there were certainly many more American and British POWs killed in the atomic attacks. For at least 35 years, this was kept secret by the American government. Even the men's families were not informed of the circumstances of their deaths. Thousands of slave laborers from China, Manchuria, the Philippines, and South Asia were killed. About 30,000 Korean slave laborers were killed, and yet only in 1999 were they recognized as victims. Without the efforts of people like Shigeaki Mori, a Japanese hibakusha (atomic attack victim)and historian, these men would probably never have been remembered.

And don't get me started on MacArthur! You can almost gauge people's political IQ by asking them their opinion of the general. A lot of people have warm feelings for him as the man who brought democracy to their Japan. Others see him as the man who let the emperor get away with murder and blew a chance for closure. If you ever get the chance, there is an interesting book called 'Dear General Macarthur,' by Rinjiro Sodei, which is a collection of letters written by a diverse selection of Japanese people to Mac. The letters are fascinating. Oops...guess I got started all by myself...

Sarah -- Families in Japan often bathe together too, and 8 years tends to be the cut-off point there too. In Japan, there are hot springs, but you almost always take your clothes off for them. We loved hot springs there...

As for Finnish saunas, I once knew a Danish married couple in their forties who went to Iceland on vacation. They claimed they wanted to go into a sauna together there and were asked to produce their wedding certificate. I couldn't get over that -- has anything like that ever happened to you on your trips to Finland?

Anti-wife -- I didn't always have positive experiences like that (I learned a couple of pretty nasty expressions for 'foreign devils'), but when I did, I was so grateful. I never once took it for granted either; I was always so happy to have the chance to meet people like that woman.

Christy said...

I'm always surprised by how recent that war was. It seems so long ago, but we can still hear first hand accounts. My husband's grandfather was in the navy then and he told us his (rather tame, thank goodness) stories before he died. It shocked me every time to realize how few years had passed.

Mary Witzl said...

Christy -- My father was in the Navy during WWII. His ship was torpedoed and half the men on it were killed, but compared to many men, my father got off easy. It was only when I was trying to learn about my father's experiences (which he seldom wanted to discuss) that I found out what had happened to the POWs who ended up in Japan. Most of them do not enjoy sharing their stories, and the worse the stories are, the less inclined they are to tell others.

Ello said...

Oh Mary,

What a great post! I read the Dear MacArthur book - really sad. Did you read Hirohito also? Great discussion on how the lack of punishment of the Emperor affected how the Japanese came to view themselves - as victims instead of aggressors. In sharp contrast with that of Germany.

Oh well, having spent so many years researching POWs in Japan and world war II, I feel like you and I would have a wonderful discussion on this one day.

Mary Witzl said...

Ello -- We really would!

I have read several biographies of Hirohito, but I'm not familiar with anything similar to Sodei's book about MacArthur. If you don't mind, I'd love the title and author's name.

In his zeal to secure Japan as an anti-communist ally, MacArthur ruined an opportunity for closure by reinventing the emperor as an innocuous, bumbling fellow who had no idea what his military were up to. He knew about everything and was involved in all decisions -- about Nanking, about Unit 731 -- the whole lot. He had a known fascist and Nazi sympathizer as his second in command and allowed known war criminals to go free while those guilty of lesser crimes were hanged. He talked democracy but practiced censorship. And he had an ego the size of Texas, but that's another story...

We'll have to meet and talk about this sometime, Ello! Just let me know when you can make it up to Scotland!

Mary Witzl said...

By the way, Ello, on Sunday, I finally found the cranes! (They were upstairs, hiding behind a large box of DIY tools.) So they will soon be flying your way...

-eve- said...

> These men were treated abominally during their time in Japan, forced to work in appalling conditions with little food and virtually no medical care. And I had just met half a dozen of them.
This part sent chills down my spine *now I know; chills start at the sides of the face, actually*. I didn't know it was like that... you're already very privileged to have seen and known so much of Japan. Many things happened.... and I can bet that you could get a book of these Japanese memoirs published some day :-)

I like the story of the old lady. It reminds me of the importance of language; there are lots of old people I want to talk to, and even over here, language is a problem for me 'cos I was brought up in an english-speaking household, whereas the old generation are uneducated, and only speak chinese dialects. It bothers me then, that they are lost to me.... a sort of stress at the missed opportunities, as you say... (so it reassures me that there are people like you who have mastered the language, to listen to their stories and be their voice... :-))

Mary Witzl said...

Eve -- I know many Japanese people, but I have also gotten to know quite a few people who suffered during the war at the hands of the Japanese. Clearly Japan had an evil empire during the war and it got terribly out of hand, but I hate to hear people dismiss the Japanese as a cruel race, as this is utter nonsense. The people who got me interested in learning about Japan's role in the war were all Japanese. If it hadn't been for them, I would never have learned what happened. The current Japanese government actively tries to deny or make little of Japan's role of aggression during WWII, and that is a huge mistake, but the U.S. were culpable too, for absolving the emperor of all responsibility.

Friends of mine whose parents and grandparents were in China during the war claimed that they could never get them to talk about it. While I can certainly understand this, it seems a shame that their tragic stories should go untold.

-eve- said...

*nods* it's true. I can understand, too; must have been really traumatic, so they suppress the memories *cos once they retell the story, the ghosts come back, and there's no one to help them bury them once again*.