August 29, 2011

When in Rome (or Japan)

How propriety easily gets confused with morality is amusingly illustrated by a pair of anecdotes from Michael Hoffman's historical overview of Japan-U.S. relations, written for the Japan Times (an informative and entertaining read).

First we have U.S. Consul Townsend Harris remarking in 1856 on the cleanliness of the Japanese people and the fact that staying clean involves, you know, bathing. Together. In a public bath. "In a state of perfect nudity."

I cannot account for so indelicate a proceeding on the part of a people so generally correct.

A few years later, a Japanese delegation at a state function was equally shocked to see American women "nude from shoulders to arms," and was offended by the "insufferable" sight of "men and women, both young and old, mixed in the dance."

Japanese men and women have always danced together at festivals, but these resemble line dances (no touching involved). In any case, ballroom dancing has since become perfectly acceptable, as illustrated in the wonderful film, Shall We Dance?

Mixed bathing (kon'yoku) was frowned upon mightily during the U.S. Occupation (1945-1952) and persists only at a handful of hot springs resorts, certainly not at local public baths (sentô), which are still prevalent though not as ubiquitous as before.

"B-list celebrity visits local hot springs resort" (not of the mixed bathing sort) is a favorite travel program genre on Japanese television. Japan has no shortage of local hot springs resorts (onsen) with long histories and quaint local customs to explore.

Anytime an anime series needs a lame excuse for a bunch of gratuitous nudity or low-brow humor (or both), it sends the characters to a hot springs resort. The onsen episode of Full Metal Panic FUMOFFU (episode 9) is one good example.

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