Japanese Bathing and a Cross-Cultural Modesty Issue

Fair warning: there are not-entirely-safe-for-work images in this post.

There is nothing more elusive than an obvious fact, said a particularly famous detective once. It’s true, but that doesn’t make it any less staggering when we finally realize the truth that has been dancing naked in front of our eyes the entire time. Eyes widen, jaws drop, voices shift to an entirely different octave and volume than is normal, and there are often self-inflicted blows to the forehead involved.

Such was my recent shock when I realized something that was painfully obvious.

For context, if there is one thing about anime which has left me frustrated for a very long time, it is the overwhelming pervasion of sexually explicit material. I don’t mean the outright pornography, or hentai as it is called. I mean the ecchi level of content, including panty and boob shots galore, and most especially the gratuitous nudity which is present even in shows which are otherwise perfectly benign. Even anime titles which seem to be geared largely towards younger audiences can have a shot or two of nude girls, sometimes full frontal.

It has been absolutely maddening to me to have so many shows which I could share with the kiddies, and with my family, and with the people around me in general, except for the immodesty! Many have been the times when I have been left screaming in frustration over this.

I am fully aware, of course, cartoons, comics, and movies on both sides of the Pacific Ocean have an abundance of highly attractive women who are depicted wearing either very little or very tight outfits. But even fairly scanty outfits are not the same as simply baring it all, especially straight into the eyes of our children.

Form-fitting and evocative, yes, but definitely not naked.

So I have been wondering, and pondering, and puzzling, and asking, “Why?” Just why do so many anime, even those meant for younger audiences, seem to have no problem with this issue of modesty, or a lack thereof? Particularly since Japanese culture is also highly obsessed with propriety in every aspect of life, including some rather stringent censorship laws of their own.

How do such immodesty and such propriety exist in the same cultural space?

Finally, the answer struck me, and it is so very simple:

Japan has bathhouses.

If that seems somewhat confusing, let’s back up, and begin at the beginning. I shall explain how it is such a simple answer, such an obvious answer to my question, that I can only defend how long it took me to realize it by recalling how this issue, in particular, has been part of a larger discontent I have felt. The entertainment industry as a whole has become saturated with all sorts of content that is entirely inappropriate for children, and arguably inappropriate for anyone at all. In this, I failed to remember that I have been dealing with two cultures, not just one. Thus, the issue is at least partially cross-cultural.

So, what cultural distinction can explain the complete lack of modesty in anime, including nude shots in kids’ shows?


In particular, the difference is in how the people within our two cultures approach privacy in our bathing.

Short version: they are much less private in Japan.

Now, I can only speak on Japanese culture from what I have seen, mostly in anime though also in live action movies. Thus, my knowledge is entirely secondhand, which means it is somewhat limited. However, by this point I am confident in saying that there are aspects of Japanese culture which, much like female body parts, are freely on display in their entertainment.

It is through anime and movies that I know Japanese schools are very different from their American counterparts, for instance. They have after school duty, where the students clean up the school themselves instead of leaving everything to teachers and janitors. They have cultural festivals where various clubs provide some sort of attraction. Everyone wears uniforms, and there are cooking classes, and schools often have a set of seven ghostly mysteries. These things are hallmarks of Japanese educational culture, as are the facts that getting into a high school is often like getting into a college, complete with applications, exams, moving out to live on one’s own in another city, and more.

These are things we see all the time in anime, as are otaku fans, idol bands, Akihabara, Shinjuku, maid cafes, ramen, countless Shinto shrines, summer festivals, yukatas, a general devotion to duty, propriety, and independence even from a very young age, the world-ending significance of anything which is remotely embarrassing, and still more.

There may be many things in anime which are exaggerated to an extreme, but that doesn’t mean everything is made up.

Which brings us to what an overwhelming number of anime have shown the rest of the world about how they bathe. It’s entirely different from American bathing.

The stuff of culture.

In America, we either shower or bathe, and the point is to get ourselves clean. We get in, we get ourselves wet, we get ourselves clean, we rinse, we dry, we get out. There may be a number of other steps involved in this when women do it, but this is the procedure which we generally follow. And, yes, occasionally – and by that I mean very occasionally – we may luxuriate in one fashion or another. We may soak in a steaming hot bath with bubbles, wine, music, a book – I am never going to take a book so close to the water myself, but some people do – that sort of thing. But generally, the point is simply to get ourselves clean and not stinking, and that’s it.

Japan approaches bathing in an entirely different way. From what I have seen in anime – and, yes, I do beg forgiveness if I get something wrong about this, even after seeing it hundreds of time on a screen – their process always has a few more steps. Traditional Japanese bathing involves first sitting outside the tub at an entirely separate shower and drain. They wet themselves either with the shower or a bucket. They clean themselves with shampoo and soap, going through that whole process which in America would be the entirety of cleaning oneself. They rinse themselves off. And then they get into the tub to soak for awhile in the warm water. They eventually get out, dry themselves off, and go about the rest of their lives.

All in all, I will admit, that seems like a fairly luxurious experience, and not the worst sort of thing to have as one’s normal default.

Now, here’s where we start getting into the issue of modesty in anime, in regards to the privacy one has in Japanese style bathing.

See, the entire routine of washing before one gets in the bath does not make that much sense to an American. I mean, for us, if you’re going to wash anyway, why not use the perfectly good and perfectly warm bathwater that’s right there, mere feet from you? But there is one place where we do wash ourselves both before getting into the water, as well as after we get out of it: the swimming pool. AKA, a place where all of us are immersed in a single body of water, and it is good decorum to clean ourselves before getting in, rather than adding to how dirty the pool is going to get.

But Japanese people share their bathwater.

It is an entirely – and literally – foreign concept to Americans. When we shower or bathe, we use the water and let it go down the drain. We don’t get into bathwater that other people have already used, because, well, it’s dirty. Japanese people clean themselves before getting in the bath at all, so the water is far less dirty on the whole, so why waste all of that warm water? It’s shown all the time in anime, that parents, children, siblings, friends, and acquaintances who happen to be staying over at the time, they all use the same bath, with the same bathwater, which is prepped once for all of them to use, each in their turn. It is not dissimilar to a hot tub or a sauna, which many of us have experience not only in sharing, but in using at the same time, all of us sitting in there, sometimes with complete strangers, and not a care in the world about it.

Bit of a detail, though: generally, Americans do not get into hot tubs or swimming pools together naked.

Enter the next level distinction: getting into the bath together.

The censoring is not in the original scene. And this isn’t even the most explicit scene in this series, by far.

Once again, if anime is to be believed, then Japanese bathing culture is not as private as we Americans are accustomed to. For us, unless we are having to bathe little children together before they are able to bathe themselves, or unless there is something specifically erotic and romantic going on, we do not share baths and showers at all. We don’t just refuse to share bathwater, we refuse to share baths at all. We close the door and we keep our naked bodies entirely to ourselves.

I know that Japan is not the only place where this is different. I was twelve or thirteen when my mother and I visited her side of the family in Norway, and I met my younger cousin, a girl who was still toddling about at the time. She liked me, followed me around like an adorable little duckling. One time, her mother was giving her a bath and the little girl demanded that I join them in the bathroom. I obliged for just long enough to open the door and immediately slam it shut again, because, quite to my surprise, my aunt was naked in the tub with her daughter, and thought nothing at all of having me present in the bathroom while this was so. Suffice to say, I disagreed and refused to enter the bathroom.

With that experience in mind, then, if anime is to be believed, it is not uncommon for family members and even friends to take baths together. They even help wash each others’ backs before getting in the tub. Hey, if they’re going to share the water anyway, why not share it at the same time?

Take a moment and consider this. In America, the sight of a naked body, anywhere, has very specific connotations. Even family members do not see each others’ bodies except under specific circumstances. But in Japan, it happens all the time in one’s residence, to see and touch each other while naked in the bath. Sure, it’s still considered an affront for someone of the opposite gender to simply walk in and see them naked, but there’s also a certain lack of privacy which seems to be the norm among families and friends.

Disturbing in America, normal in Japan.

A quick aside: this may explain why in some anime a character will say something like, “Even my parent/sibling hasn’t seen me naked recently,” as if it is something to remark upon. Americans don’t get that. We think it’s creepy if anyone, relative or not, sees our naked bodies at any time beyond our earliest childhood. In Japan, not so much, and this makes some sense given the culture of bathing together.

Now, extend that cultural behavior logically, and we arrive here:

Japan has bathhouses.

More explicitly: Japan has public bathhouses. As well as onsen hot spring spas, which are basically the same thing just more natural, remote, and luxurious.

This is where people go when they either can’t or just don’t want to go through the trouble of setting up their own hot bath – hey, I get it, it’s late, it’s hard to get the temperature just right, it takes forever, who wouldn’t go with fast food when they don’t have time to make dinner, eh? – and they have exactly the same bathing protocol, but in a communal space. The wash themselves and each other, they get in a sizable bath together, and so on and so forth.

Family, friends, neighbors, perfect strangers, whatever, they all do this in the same space together.

Men and women are generally, though not universally, separated, but besides that, it’s a free mixing of children, teenagers, adults, and the elderly, everyone getting cleaned up and soaking in hot water side by side.

Everybody sees every body.

As freely and nonchalantly as if they were in their own home, or taking a stroll in the park.

This show is not exactly known for fan service, but it still has a bath scene, casual as can be.

Of course, doing so outside the space set aside for it is entirely improper. But within that space, it’s no big deal.

It’s not unusual or out of the ordinary, then, for everyone, even for very young children, to see other people, of all ages, perfectly and completely naked. Dozens, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of bodies are seen entirely bared – not all at once, but over the course of one’s life – and this is normal.

It is normal for children to see the bodies of people around them.

There is no way that happens, regularly, since childhood, without at least some form of cultural desensitization happening.

That is a huge distinction from American culture. True, children need to be taught about modesty, and dressing themselves appropriately, but we do teach them this. We teach them that neither they nor others, not even people very close to them and certainly not strangers, are to be seen without proper clothing on. Even now, when things have gotten super sexualized and explicit, it is still extremely scandalous when anyone bares it all for the world to see, no matter the setting or situation.

And thus we arrive at a cross-cultural issue.

This. In a kids’ show. And “tame” because it’s not from the front.

In Japan, it’s no biggie to see someone naked, especially when they’re bathing, so why would they hesitate to show such on screen even in a show that is primarily meant for a younger audience? The issue of modest vs explicit content arises only when dealing with foreign audiences who are not desensitized in quite the same way, or to the same degree.

In America, though we may have our share of scantily-clad people on the screen, even in children’s shows, they are almost never naked. Even when they are, there is always some form of tasteful censorship going on. To show someone wearing nothing at all, ever, is shocking, crude, explicitly sexual, and entirely meant for adults. Because that is what we are raised with. That is our “normal.”

Which still leaves me screaming in frustration, but at least now I understand better that they may not be trying to sensationalize or tantalize as Hollywood does (though I’d be a fool to think that plays no part at all). It’s just something normal to them, because they grow up seeing it all the time.

(which also explains why they go the extra pornographic mile when they do specifically want things to be sexually exciting)

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5 Responses to Japanese Bathing and a Cross-Cultural Modesty Issue

  1. Lynn says:

    I’ve always been puzzled by North America’s stance on nudity compared to graphic violence, but then I grew up in England where we had daily newspapers with topless women in them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Merlin says:

      Humans seem to be a confusing lot in general, don’t we? The most difficult thing to grasp, the hardest and most dangerous thing to change, and the most heretical to question is whatever we call, “normal.” It’s always right there in front of us, and may seem strange to anyone outside of it, and yet it seems untouchable to anyone within it.

      Liked by 1 person


    Liked by 1 person

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