When meeting a group of people for the first time, image is paramount. You dress up, put on make-up and ensure you are portraying your best self. But is it real? You conceal and alter what is conceptually you to provide what you understand as a better, more enhanced version of you. When I prepared to go to Japan with 18 people I had just met, I too altered myself to make a good impression. When boarding the plane, it never occurred to me that I would have to sacrifice this creation. But only two days later I was sitting with them, completely naked, in a steaming bamboo and stone tub.
Wandering into the hot springs of Hokkaido, there is nothing to hide.
Japan, as a volcanically active country, is scattered with an array of natural baths, traditionally known as Onsen. The Onsen have occupied an important place in Japanese culture since the Nara era – approximately 1300 years ago – when they were first used as Buddhist free rest houses.
With different minerals infusing the waters of the springs, each is said to have healing powers to solve illness. For the Japanese people, however, the true importance of the Onsen lies in the opportunity they provide to rest from the hectic nature of working life, and to melt down the hierarchical nature of society through its shear intimacy. Naked in the springs, everyone is equal.
As we travelled to our Hokkaido hotel, the tour guides on the bus excitedly told us that it doubled as an Onsen resort. Though keen to experience the traditional Japanese baths, we became apprehensive when we learned that you had to bathe in them entirely naked.
Walking into the outdoor baths soon after, what immediately surprised me was the normalcy of the situation. Having only just met the people I was bathing with, I had expected to be inhibited by awkwardness, and be protective of myself for the sake of others. Instead, I settled in and began to relax. Around me were women of different shapes, types, and nationalities, all free and open about their bodies. Sitting together, hot and tired from the steam, what the world outside the stone walls perceived as beautiful didn’t seem to matter.
Hannah, lying in a bamboo tub, soon turned to us and remarked, “Is there anything more beautiful than seeing so many different body types so free?” What came out in torrents of relief and realisation were our thoughts surrounding body image, relationships and double standards. We spoke of how Western, patriarchal ideas of femininity had affected our actions, and how we perceived ourselves. Why did we groom ourselves, remove hair, wear lingerie? Was it for men, or for ourselves? This question was met with silence and denials: “No, I mean… of course we do it for ourselves.” What shocked me was how it didn’t seem like most believed it.
Reflecting on our responses, I assumed that contemporary Japanese understandings of body image would differ from our own, as being nude is such an open tradition there. Studies of Japanese perceptions of physical attractiveness state otherwise, though, with historian Rotem Koyner concluding in The Journal of Psychology that “the Western notion of physical attractiveness was one of the foremost imports that has been willingly embraced by Japan.” Consequently, it has been reported that Japanese women who range from very thin to normal weight overestimate their size and want to be thinner. It appears that traditional Japanese culture has lost out, and rampant Western modernisation has unfortunately succeeded.
This is perhaps reflected in the Onsen’s disappearance in rapid and modernised areas of Japan. Staying with a host family a few days later in the city of Sapporo, I was surprised to learn that our host mother, Shoko, had never experienced the hot springs despite living in Japan her whole life. She seemed embarrassed by the prospect, where her mother thought they were a natural and normal experience. These differences in generational thought align closely with ideas surrounding body image in Japan, which have become increasingly Western as time goes by.
Sitting in Shoko’s dining room later that day, I noticed that she ate Western style health food whilst we went with traditional Japanese. She later asked me what make up I wore, and we compared our products. Most of hers were Australian, with only a couple of bottles labeled with Japanese text. It seemed that image, for her, was based more on Western ideals than on Japanese, and it occurred to me then that when I sat in the Onsen, most of the Japanese women there were aged 40 or above, where Shoko was much younger. For all the traditional cultural skills she shared with us which were passed to her generationally, from calligraphy to cooking, she appeared to forsake cultural image and aim for Western-style perfection.
The Onsen is not only a place of relaxation, but also a place of equality- a place where everyone is accepted for whoever they are. It’s unfortunate that intruding Western ideals seem to be undermining its role in Japanese society.