“The Europeans are compelled to take [a] bath in order to clean off the filth… on the contrary, bathing of the Japanese is far beyond the simple object of cleaning their body.”—T Fujimoto, 1914
Where the Wild Ladies Are is a loosely-connected series of short stories taking their inspiration from traditional Japanese ghost stories.
“Smartening Up” opens with an unnamed narrator giving herself a pep talk during a laser hair removal treatment. We find out later that she has been cheated on and dumped, and her coping mechanism is a mini-makeover. Specifically, she is fixated on her hair—the day her boyfriend dumped her, she had forgotten to shave.
Of course, the narrator will never look the way she dreams. She’s fantasizing about an Anglo-American standard of beauty: that she will be blond in her next life and marry “a gorgeous man with blond hair to match” and that they will “fall in love, and talk in English.”
That evening, her aunt comes calling. The visit is especially unexpected—the aunt died a year before. She is back from the grave to forcefully chastise the narrator for “deliberately weakening the power of [her] hair.” Her hair, the ghost aunt tells her, “is the only wild thing left—the one precious crop of wildness remaining to you.”
Together aunt and niece watch Take This Waltz, a 2011 romantic comedy starring Michelle Williams. The film includes a notable shower scene when six women of different ages and ethnicities bathe together. The New York Times noted that they nudity here reminds us that “young flesh will age; old flesh was once young; time wins in the end.” The film introduces bathing as a moment of female bonding, a theme the narrator returns to as the story progresses.
The aunt’s visit ends with a cryptic promise: “Let’s become monsters together.” Then, mysteriously, the narrator’s bath breaks, and she is forced to visit the neighborhood sento.
Sento as Homosocial Spaces
The Japanese have enjoyed their island nation’s hot springs for more than a thousand years. Bathing gradually became a part of most people’s daily lives, and by 1700 or so, most neighborhoods in Tokyo (Edo) had their own sento, or public bath.
As a general rule, Japanese culture has accepted nudity much more nonchalantly than Western culture. Tokugawa-era sento were most often shared between men and women. Some of the first Westerners to enter Japan were scandalized. (The Anglican Bishop of what’s now Hong Kong described sento as “one shameless throng of bathers without signs of modesty or of any apparent sense of moral decorum” and the Japanese as “one of the most licentious races in the world.”) Old Japanese bathing customs gave way to Western norms, and the Meiji government began to crack down on co-ed bathing.
As sentos became more exclusively divided by sex, they took on the role of homosocial spaces.
“Homosociality” describes relationships between people of the same sex that aren’t romantic or sexual. (There’s some argument about whether the term is appropriate for relationships between women, but I think “female bonding” isn’t really equivalent.)
A homosocial space is a physical place that limits or prohibits members of the opposite sex from entering. (We could alternatively use the term “feminotopia,” coined by American critical theorist Mary Louise Pratt for “idealized worlds of female autonomy, empowerment and pleasure.”) Historically, homosocial, women-centered spaces, provided a place of freedom from highly patriarchal contemporary Japanese culture.
Today, the Japanese recognize the importance of sento as homosocial spaces, even if they don’t identify sento that way. The Japanese speak of hadaka no tsukai, or “naked friendship.” It is, in the words of anthropologist Scott Clark, “a belief that sharing the bath and being naked together creates a situation where intimate communication can take place.
For women, nudity in homosocial spaces is particularly important. Cultural critic Emma Woolf notes, “Our visual culture is full of female nudity, but none of it is genuine”; the sento is one of the few spaces left where “real” women routinely see other “real” women, flaws and all.
An ambassador for the Tokyo Sento Association observes that, “Sento are not the Instagram world, but real life. [They’re] the reminder we all need when we’re constantly being crushed with the perfection of the [social media] world.”
Sento As Japanese Spaces
The sento is also marked as a culture-specific space for most Japanese.
Especially since World War II, the Japanese government has supported sento as a part of Japanese cultural heritage. They’re serious about sento—government subsidies keep admission prices are fixed at less than five dollars a visit to keep bathing affordable. Clark writes about the bath in modern Japan as “a reflective discourse on being Japanese.”
There are only about 530 traditional sento in operation in Tokyo today, serving a population of thirteen million. But the idea that public bathing is disappearing is a little disingenuous; health centers, hybrids of Western-style gyms and sento, almost make up the difference.
Nevertheless, Clark notes that, “To many Japanese, the decline of the sentō represents the vanishing of a more public, communal, traditionally Japanese way of life.”
The Sento in “Smartening Up”
The sento as a homosocial space and Japanese space plays a central symbolic role in “Smartening Up.”
At the sento, the narrator remembers the truth of her aunt’s words:
I realized I didn’t think about it as “just hair” after all. Hair was a problem that I carried around with me constantly. However much I shaved or plucked, it would always grow back again… And it wasn’t just me, either—all women were prisoners of their hair.
And then, without explanation, her reverie ends with a dramatic transformation. She becomes the “monster” her aunt promised.
Every inch of her is now covered in glossy black hair.
Her response? Rapture. She has been “this amazing thing” all along.
That this powerful moment of catharsis takes place in a sento, under the gaze of other women, is important. Take This Walz has already provided the narrator with one opportunity to direct her gaze toward unadorned female nudity. As a site for female bonding, the sento has now again granted the narrator a sight of “real” women’s bodies. Away from the glare of air brushed advertisements, she can see again that there is beauty in what her culture would tell her is imperfection.
Her transformation in the sento also marks a return to Japanese-ness, both literally and symbolically. At the sento, the narrator is cursed/blessed, not with the blond hair she dreams of, but with coarser, black hair more typical of the Japanese.
Sento in Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs
Incidentally, the sisters in Breasts and Eggs visit a sento in the first part of the novel. The description is evocative:
A mom patted her baby dry at a changing table set up in the corner. Little kids darted around. Talking heads were nodding comprehendingly on a brand-new flatscreen, behind a chorus of hairdryers. The manager said hello from her perch between the changing rooms. Grandmas with stooped backs shared a couple of laughs. Women with towels wrapped around their heads sat naked on rattan chairs and chatted—the room was full of women.
The protagonist’s sister Makiko has come to visit Tokyo specifically to consult with a plastic surgeon about breast augmentation surgery. Her goal makes the two sisters hyperaware of their own and other women’s bodies.
For Natsuko, her sister’s naked body is shocking. Now unclothed, Natsuko can “see between [Makiko’s] thighs where they should have been pressed together” and that “her vertebrae and ribs, and the section of her pelvis just above her hips poked out through her skin.”
At the beginning of the novel, Natsuko mused that thinness reflects poverty. (Incidentally, that characterization is no more true of Japan than it is of the US, where low incomes correlate with higher BMI…) To Natsuko, her sister’s reedy frame demonstrates that she isn’t making ends meet with her job as (more-or-less) a cocktail waitress. One wonders whether Makiko’s desire for breast augmentation surgery stems also from a desire to appear more prosperous (fleshy) than she really is.
Regardless, the homosocial space of the sento has given Natsuko a chance to know her sister in a more intimate way.
Makiko also approaches the sento as a way to confirm her own Japanese-ness, although in this instance she doesn’t like her characteristically Japanese features. For example, she notes the pink color of another woman’s nipples and claims it’s “a miracle” for an Asian woman. Makiko has already tried to achieve this Western beauty expectation by bleaching her nipples—“first you use Tretinoin, to peel off the skin…”
The reader also sees the sisters’ hunger for the sight of other “real” women’s bodies—“without the slightest hesitation” Makiko scans the bodies of the other women at the sento “as if devouring them.”
I am grateful for the review copy of Where the Wild Ladies Are provided by the publisher. You can also read my review of Where the Wild Ladies Are at Asian Review of Books.
Clark, Scott. Japan: A View from the Bath, 1994.
–. “The Japanese Bath: Extraordinarily Ordinary” in Re-Made Japan: Everyday Life and Consumer Taste in a Changing Society, ed. Joseph J. Tobin, 1994.
Cornyetz, Nina. “Matrix and Metramorphosis” in Dangerous Women, Deadly Words: Phallic Fantasy and Modernity in Three Japanese Writers, 1999.
Crossley-Baxter, Lily. “Japan’s Naked Art of Body Positivity” at BBC.com, 2020.
Curry, Andrew. “Springs Eternal” in Smithsonian Magazine, 2008.
Pasin, Burkay. “Femaleness, Femininity and Feminotopia: The Female Hamam as a Homosocial Space” in Women 2000, 2013.
Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, 2007.
Woolf, Emma. The Ministry of Thin: How the Pursuit of Perfection Got Out of Control, 2014.
Wynn, Leslie. “Self-Reflection in the Tub: Japanese Bathing Culture, Identity, and Cultural Nationalism,” 2014.