The Japanese Way: No swimsuits in the onsen, please!

Even monkeys enjoy the onsen. Naked.

The Japanese Way is a monthly column written by Kure JET Courtney Coppernoll in which she attempts to shed light on how and why certain aspects of Japanese culture differ from our own.

By Courney Coppernoll

One of my favorite things about Japan is the onsen. Nothing melts away stress quite like a two- or three-hour soak in a hot bath. So, when I was talking to my mom about going to an onsen when she comes to Japan, she was completely on board with the idea… until I got to the part about being naked. At that point she decided she could do without that particular cultural experience.

My mom’s reaction to onsen is a pretty common one. Not everyone is as comfortable with the idea of shared (or public) bathing as the Japanese are. What, to them, seems like no big deal is often a source of culture shock for many foreigners in Japan. So, why exactly don’t the Japanese wear bathing suits in the onsen?

  • “It’s normal” — Almost everyone I asked started off their answer by saying, “Well, because it’s normal.” The idea of wearing a swimsuit apparently just doesn’t occur to most people because it’s a cultural norm to enter the onsen nude. I was also inevitably asked “Why do foreigners want to wear swimsuits?” I answered that I think many people feel embarrassed about being seen naked, which usually just got me a few chuckles. It turns out that some people’s desire to wear swimsuits in the onsen seems just as unusual to many Japanese as their going in the nude seems to some of us.
  • Gender-specific Baths — Going along with the above answer, nearly everyone I talked to was confused about why anyone would be embarrassed to be nude when the baths are separated by gender. There are co-ed baths in Japan where swimsuits are allowed, but, as one lady put it, “We (the Japanese) are not shy.” Because it’s a tradition to be nude in the onsen, no one minds being seen nude by people of the same gender.
  • Cleanliness — Before you enter the onsen, you’re expected to shower and clean your body. A swimsuit, aside from potentially being unclean itself and dirtying the bath, prevents you from thoroughly scrubbing down your body and getting clean before entering the onsen.
  • Warmth — Here, again, the swimsuit gets in the way. One woman told me that it’s nicer to bathe without a swimsuit because that way the heat from the water goes directly to your body and stays there, whereas a swimsuit takes away some of that heat and is also chilled by the air as soon as you step out of the water.
  • That Homey Feeling — One person I talked to asked me if I wore a swimsuit in the bath at home. When I said I didn’t, she asked me why then would I wear one in the bath at an onsen. Not wearing a suit makes it feel more like you’re just relaxing in the comfort of your own home — just with a bigger bathtub.
  • “Skinship” — While many people responded to my questions about no bathing suits with a straightforward “That’s just how we roll” answer, a few explained that it’s more than just a tradition. The Japanese call it hadaka no tsukiai (裸の付き合い), or “naked fellowship.” It’s the idea that by being naked in the onsen you are exposing yourself in a very intimate way to those around you, which removes barriers to free and open communication. Similar to the way many Japanese feel more comfortable expressing their opinions at an enkai after everyone’s had a few drinks, being nude in the onsen together is a way of bonding with others and *ahem* letting it all hang out.

Whether it’s for relaxation, enjoying a little “skinship,” or simply a tradition, not wearing bathing suits in the onsen is such a natural part of Japanese culture that some of the people I talked to had a hard time explaining why they do it. Of course, not everyone feels the same way. Whether or not you agree with or enjoy visiting onsen, though, I hope this “foreign” custom now makes a little more sense.

Do you have questions you’d like Courtney to explore in The Japanese Way? Email them to wideislandview (atto) gmail (dotto) com.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

5 comments

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  • not too fond of letting it dangle at an onsen myself but this article did well to clear up a few questions I had.

  • dan

    An Onsen visit is my favorite thing to do in japan.

    Great Article.

  • I found my first onsen experience to be of little concern, but I’m not sure if I’d feel comfortable in that situation if I were older, wrinklier, saggier, fatter, etc.

    I think for westerners who are not used to the concept, it can definately be a test of your self esteem. Needless to say, I love onsen now that I’ve been to a few.