Two questions always come up, whenever a discussion on the workings of traditional Japanese baths is held. The first of those questions is as to how hygiene was maintained in those baths, to prevent the transmission of skin diseases and other such things. That is a valid question, seeing that the baths were open to everyone (and they still are, seeing that they have not yet become extinct). The second of those questions is as to how social propriety in these traditional Japanese baths is maintained, seeing that the baths are open to people of both genders (male and female).
Those are the questions we are going to try and find answers to. Worth mentioning at this point is the fact that, when we talk about traditional Japanese baths, we are actually talking about those structures where people go for communal bathing. That is as opposed to the special bathtubs being marketed as ‘Japanese baths’ in the west.
How hygiene is maintained in traditional Japanese baths
Several measures are put in place, to ensure proper hygiene in these traditional Japanese baths.
In the first instance, bathers are required to bathe separately and individually, using individual faucets before getting into the communal baths. This ensures that only clean people get into communal baths. And this in turn substantially reduces the chances of skin disease transmission between the bathers.
Secondly, for cultural as well as hygienic reasons, we see it as a requirement that people must not enter into the bath areas with their shoes. The shoes are left outside. And seeing the number of disease-carrying vectors that could be carried through shoes, there is no doubt that this (leaving of shoes outside of the bath areas) goes a long way towards keeping the bath areas hygienic.
Thirdly, most of these traditional Japanese baths nowadays are fully chlorinated. The chlorine used has the effect of killing any disease causing organisms, making the traditional Japanese baths reasonably safe for bathing. The efficacy of chlorine must not be underestimated, especially keeping in mind that even the tap water we trust so much tends to be ‘safe’ only on account of the fact that it is chlorinated.
How social propriety is maintained in Japanese baths
Several measures are put in place, on the other hand, to ensure social propriety in the Japanese baths (keeping in mind that they tend to accommodate both men and women).
For starters, the male and female bathing areas are separated by a wall, which keeps the males on their side and the females on their side.
While children are allowed to go with their parents to the baths, they usually only go with the parent of the opposite gender 岩盤浴 (so that a boy goes with his mother, whereas a girl goes with her father). Even then, there is an age limit (of up to ten years) beyond which children can’t accompany their parents to the baths.
Since many women are averse to having a man see them while bathing (whilst many men are not averse to having a woman see them as they bath), the bath attendant is usually female. And then again, the Japanese culture is one where honor is greatly regarded, so that the risk of people peeping on one another, or the bath attendant peeping on the people who are bathing is quite low.