ONUMA Shoji 大沼 ショージ (1970 - ) Yokosuka, Kanagawa.

Self-taught photographer, freelance.

SENTO―The Japanese Public Bath in the 20th Century - SENTO--廿世紀銭湯写真集

Reviewed on: 2003-09-14 Last modified: 2005-04-03

Everything you wanted to know about Japan's public baths, and then some. Detailed photographic record of public baths from Hokkaido to Okinawa.


Published: 2002-05-15 Publisher: DANVO ISBN: 4925094157 Price in Japan: ¥7,350 Qualities: Hard cover, color photos Size: B5 square, 159 pp. Language: Japanese and English

In English, this must be the most complete book about the Japanese sento (public bathhouse). The photographs show the exterior and interior of 48 sento all over Japan. They include photos of paintings and tile pictures (often of Mt. Fuji) adorning the bathhouse walls and of bathing implements like the familiar yellow Kerorin plastic pails, soap bars, and disposable razors.

There's also an informative, illustrated history of the Japanese sento and an illustrated glossary of sento terminology. The book was supervised by MACHIDA Shinobu, Japan's foremost sento scholar who has visited over 2,000 sento in Japan. He also contributed some pictures of facades of sento that have since closed. Everything is thankfully in both Japanese and English.

They say that no other people in world like to take a bath more than the Japanese. Bathing in Japan actually has religious roots dating way back to the Nara Period in the 7th century when Buddhist temples always had a large bathhouse. It was intended for the priesthood, but later the sick was also allowed to bathe. It was originally an Indian Buddhist tradition to cleanse the body and spirit by bathing.

From the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), ordinary people were allowed to enter the bath at temples. Also, the mushi-buro steam bath, originated by Kobo Daishi (774-835), was made available to the public via public baths.

No one knows exactly when the public bathhouse started as a business in Japan. The earliest confirmed record of the word "sento" was in a document from the Nichiren Buddhist sect written in 1266. There is also written record of Emperor Godaigo establishing a sento during his reign of 1321-24.

Then in 1591, a person named ISE Yoichi (伊勢与市)was the first to open a sento as a business in Edo (Tokyo). It was adjacent to a river. In those days, the bathing room had no windows and was completely dark. People already in the bath "cleared their throats" to make their presence known to the next person entering the bath. The entrance to the bathing room was a low, 80 cm-high opening through which you almost had to crawl through. It was small and right above the floor to minimize the escaping of heat and steam. There were no water faucets either. From the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the sento began to have a lounging area on the second floor for people to rest after the bath.

Incidentally, during the Edo Period, the sento was called yuya (湯屋)in Edo and furoba(風呂場)in the Kansai area (Osaka). In Edo, a bow and arrow was also used to indicate a sento because it had the same pronunciation as yuya(弓矢). Mixed bathing was also the norm during this time.

One interesting development of sento culture was the yuna (湯女)or bath women. Appearing as early as the 18th century, they were prostitutes working under the guise of back scrubbers for men in the bathhouse. The women wore normal cotton kimono and scrubbed backs during normal hours, but changed into sexy clothing for customers in the evenings.

The sento closed shop to normal bathers at 4 pm, and later re-opened to customers seeking "special" services. The women played the shamisen in the converted changing room as they waited for customers to take them upstairs for a private session. This service became so popular and lucrative that almost all sento in Edo constructed a "second floor" for hanky-panky. However in 1841, the bakufu government outlawed the yuna who was then forced to move to the legal, red-light district of Yoshiwara.

Another major blow to the sento was the banning of mixed bathing in the Tokyo, Yokohama, and Osaka areas by 1890. Today, mixed bathing can still be observed at certain hot springs in the countryside, especially in the Tohoku region in northern Japan. Many hot spring hotels also offer smaller, private bath rooms which you can rent per hour so you can bathe with your family (or spouse or girl/boyfriend).

In 1877, a totally new type of sento appeared in Kanda, Tokyo which served as the model for the modern sento today. Called the kairyo-buro(改良風呂), the reformed sento had a bathtub whose floor was lower than the bath room floor, the crawl-through opening to the bath room was eliminated, and the ceiling was made twice as high with high walls. Small windows near the ceiling were also installed to let the steam escape since bathers came for the hot water rather than the steam.

The sento was further improved by the early 20th century as tiles replaced the wooden flooring, electricity replaced the oil lamps, and water faucets were installed. After the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, all sento in Tokyo were reconstructed with tiles covering the floor and walls.

The tiles eventually became a canvas for various art work and pictures of Mt. Fuji, gods of good fortune, etc. (A collection of these is shown in the book.)

During World War II, many sento in Tokyo were destroyed. Of the 2,796 sento in business before the war started, only 400 survived by the war's end. Soon after the war, they were crowded places indeed (and sometimes roofless) and hotbeds for thievery. Some would come and exchange their tattered clothing for a better set of threads.

During the 1950s and '60s, the number of sento mushroomed. It peaked at about 2,687 by 1968. But as more homes and apartments began to have their own bathrooms, the demand for sento declined and the number of sento has been steadily declining in Tokyo to about 1,287 by the year 2000.

Although there are fewer neighborhood sento, going to a public bath (especially a hot spring) is still highly popular for relaxation, recreation, and health. Huge hot spring public baths in Tokyo, like the O-Edo Onsen Monogatari in Odaiba are attracting many visitors.

I myself enjoy going to the sento, and wish I could go more often. Unfortunately, my favorite neighborhood sento which spewed dark-brown, hot-spring water, was recently demolished. I hope they will rebuild it.

Since this book does not describe the actual experience of going to a sento in Japan, let me do so in case you've never been to one. It's almost the same as going to a hot spring in Japan.

You usually need to take your own towel and soap/shampoo. (People who frequent the sento may also have their own pail often kept at the sento.) When you first enter the sento, there will be foot lockers for your footwear. The "key" might be wooden or aluminum. Then you enter the changing room and first pay the 400 yen or so bathing fee.

After you undress, put your clothes in the locker (or basket or shelf). You can take a hand towel, soap, etc., to the bath room. (I also take a small plastic bag containing my valuables--wallet, cell phone, etc.) The bath room has a large bath tub and rows of shower heads, faucets, and mirrors. Pick an empty spot and use the small chair to sit on. Also grab a pail.

Use the shower or fill the pail with water to wash down your body well. Then enter into the bath (you're not supposed dip your hand towel in the bath, but you can put it on your head). After your skin pores open, you can get out and soap yourself. Rinse off the soap with the shower or pail of water. Don't ever enter the bath tub while still soaped up.

You can keep going in and out of the bath as much as you want. If there are multiple baths (jacuzzi, cold water, etc.), you can try those. I love the cold water bath. It's really exhilarating after a hot water bath and cools you down too.

When you finally get out, your skin will be red. The changing room usually has a bench and overhead fans for you to cool off. There might also be a Japanese garden to gaze at. A cold soft drink, usually sold by the sento, is also refreshing. If there's a lounging area, you can go there to relax and rest.

Some sento might have a sign saying "No tattooed persons allowed." This of course, refers to the yakuza. If your tattoo is small or does not look like a yakuza-type tattoo, then you shouldn't have problems.

In Otaru, Hokkaido, you might see a "Japanese only" sign at the sento. A few years ago, a no-foreigners sento created an uproar among Japan's foreign community. At least one foreigner sued the bathhouse in 2001 and won the suit. (Read the Japan Times article here.) It turns out that the ban was directed at Russian sailors who went to the sento while drunk and behaved rowdily enough to scare off normal customers.

And if you're a woman with a cell phone, be careful not to show your cell phone in the sento. There have been reports of women using their camera phones to photograph other women in the sento and selling the pictures on the Internet, etc. Some sento may understandably ban people from bringing or using cell phones in the changing room and bath room.

The book's photographer, ONUMA Shoji, is a petite young woman. The name "Shoji" sounds like a man, but she's a woman. Her first book was Minzoku, a portrait collection of teenage Japanese girls called ganguro (black faces) who have all but disappeared. She and the book's translator, Todd Garfinkle, explained to me about the sento book (and gave me a complimentary, autographed copy, thanks!) over dinner earlier this year.

I gave them high praise over the decision to include English translations. Without the English, I wouldn't have reviewed this book. It's an expensive book, but beautiful and all in color.

The book presents forty-eight sento organized according to region (Tokyo/Kanto, Osaka/Kansai, Hokkaido/Tohoku, Nagoya/Chubu, Chugoku/Shikoku/Kyushu, and Okinawa). Most of the sento is given a two-page or four-page spread of captioned photos and text. You see exterior as well as interior shots of the sento and anything else of special interest such as the Buddhist temple-style architecture (called miya-zukuri or 宮造り), ornate ceiling, meticulous wood carvings, tile paintings, or Japanese garden. The text gives the sento's history and anecdotes.

They also point out regional differences in the sento. For example, in Tokyo, the Buddhist temple-style sento was very popular. (The entrance and roof were shaped like a Buddhist temple.) Whereas in snowy Hokkaido, the sento usually have double-walled doors and windows and steep roofs. And in Okinawa, there is no partitioning wall between the changing room and bath room.

The photos show no people, so don't expect to see naked men or women in this book. And since addresses and phone numbers are provided, you can easily go to these bathhouses and see them for yourself (if it hasn't closed down).

I must say this book turned out to be more interesting than I thought. I never really thought of the sento as part of mainstream Japanese culture, but it is, as its long history attests. From now on whenever I go to a sento, I will certainly appreciate it more. And it's a good idea to try out different sento in the neighborhood.

P.S. About the English translation, it's good but all the Japanese words are in capital letters. They should be in lowercase italics instead. Also, in most cases it is unnecessary to specify the Japanese era (Showa, etc.) for the year. So instead of saying "the 25th year of Showa (1950)," just say "1950." (Reviewed by Philbert Ono)

Minzoku (Ethnic Tribe) - 民族

Reviewed on: 2001.05.02 Last modified: 2005-04-04

Head shots of teenage girls known as ganguro, yamanba, or ko-gals.


Published: 2001.2.20 Publisher: Kawade Shobo Shinsha ISBN: 4309264638 Price in Japan: ¥2,100 Qualities: Hard cover, color photos Size: A5, 96 pp. Language: Japanese

If you have visited Japan in recent years, you would have noticed these unnatural-looking young girls known as ganguro or yamanba. Ganguro ("black faces") are girls who regularly go to tanning salons to maintain a dark-brown tan year-round (or apply a dark-brown foundation). They also dye their hair brown or gold and wear blue contact lenses. It's the California beach girl look without the bikini. And sometimes they even wear fake flower leis or fake flowers in their hair (especially during summer). If you're from Hawaii like me, it's really amusing.

A mountain witch? Portrait from MinzokuThe centerpiece of their street costume is 15-cm (6-inch) or higher platform shoes or sandals that makes them tower over the average Japanese. It lets them "look down" on the world or to have the world "look up" to them. Despite the obvious hazards of these high footwear, they have been in fashion for some time now. You can only wonder how many girls are injured while tripping over these platform shoes (especially on a flight of stairs) or how many of them are causing car accidents because they can't step on the right pedal. Japanese lawmakers should seriously consider passing a bill outlawing platform shoes higher than 5 cm (two inches). There is also medical evidence that these platform footware is not good for the feet and health. One step beyond the ganguro is the yamanba, which roughly translates as "mountain hag or witch" from Japanese folklore. (The Japanese dictionary defines it as a character in Noh and kabuki plays.) Besides being ganguro, these girls wear more outrageous makeup with white lipstick, white eye shadow around the eyes (a racoon or panda look), silvery hair, and some glitter or fake tear drops on the cheek. They also have a loud, gregarious (but not wicked) way of talking and laughing. These girls want to attract the attention they are getting, and they relish it. They also feel much more confident and attractive. Without all these superficial condiments, most of them are really plain-Jane (or plain ugly) girls who need a lift (both in spirit and actual height) in life. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that and it doesn't bother me as long as they don't run me over because they can't step on the brake pedal soon enough (thank goodness that most of them take trains and subways).

First it was the ko-gals (high school girls in miniskirt school uniforms and loose socks). Then ganguro. And now yamanba. All three species (or any hybrid combination) are still thriving, and they are part of an ongoing evolution of Japan's female teenagers. It will be very interesting to see where it goes next or how further their fake facade will go. Many clothing shops (especially in Shibuya) which cater to these women will want to see this fad go on for a long time to come.

In this book, a bit of their world is revealed through head shots and some captions documenting various episodes and conversations of these girls. Here's a rough translation of a few of them:


It's past 11 PM in Shibuya's Center-gai shopping street. A bunch of ganguro girls are crouched on the pavement and talking noisily on their cell phones. An old woman passes by and asks them, "Just what are you people anyway?" One of the girls shouts back, "We're minzoku (ethnic tribe)!" (This is where the book's title came from.)


Overheard conversation on a train: Girl A: Hey, have you ever had your boyfriend shave your hair? Girl B: What?? No! Girl A: I had him shave it to 2 cm wide! Girl B: What??! Are you talking about the top or bottom hair?? Girl A: It's that triangle at the bottom, you know! Girl B: Was it painful? Girl A: It sure was!


15 years old. High school dropout. At home is her 15-month-old son. But he has no father. She doesn't return home much.


One girl with platform shoes was in a drugstore in Ikebukuro, and she was shaking all the sample cans of deodorant spray on the shelf. When she found one that was pretty full, she tucked the can under her blouse and sprayed her left underarm and then her right underarm. Then she put the can back on the shelf and walked out of the store as if it was her own room at home.


Yes, behind that dark-skin disguise, there's an amusing and sometimes sad story. It's not surprising to hear that many of the ganguro and yamanba are high school dropouts. Some earn their money by working at hostess bars or cabarets (even while underage). Some don't go home very often. Some do go home, but their parents are always out or they seem to be invisible. Other girls are slightly older or in junior college.

If you look at their faces, they ironically begin to look the same. In Japan, it's cool and hip to look different, but at the same time there must be a significant number of other people who look like you too. Otherwise, you won't belong (to any tribe). That's what fascinating about Japan. Full of contradiction and irony.

To find and photograph these girls, the photographer (a woman) went to Tokyo's Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, and Omiya in Saitama. Although it's not an exhaustive collection of photos, it's a good sample. (Reviewed by Philbert Ono)

ganguro girls by Everett Kennedy Brown

Reviewed on: 2001.05.02 Last modified: 2002-03-04

Amusing book of full-length portraits of ganguro girls taken in the photo studio in Shibuya.


Published: 2000 Publisher: Konemann ISBN: 3829079265 Price in Japan: ¥1,423 ($7.95 in US) Qualities: Hard cover, color photos Size: A5, 167 pp. Language: English and Japanese Photos: Everett Kennedy Brown Text: Kate Klippensteen

Sooner or later somebody had to produce a book dedicated to these ganguro (black-face) girls. (See a detailed definition of ganguro in the Minzoku book review above.) We got two so far (both reviewed on this page), and it's nice to see one in English. Although this book's publisher is in Germany, the book also provides a Japanese translation of the English and it is sold in Japan. But it seems that it is not widely available, and Amazon.com has it on back order as of this writing.

There is English text written by author Kate Klippensteen explaining the ganguro phenomenon, while the portraits were taken by a Tokyo-based American photojournalist.

The book has over 70 portraits of these girls. They all supposed to be ganguro, but some of them look too light to pass as ganguro. And a few of them are yamanba (see definition in the above review). Almost all the portraits are full-length shots so you can see what they are wearing. It's nice to see some of them wearing normal footwear (even sneakers) instead of dangerously high platforms. The portraits are nice, with most of them smiling and looking directly at the camera lens.

Each portrait has a facing page showing her answers to a short questionnaire (in English and Japanese) asking for the girl's name, age (usually 15 to early 20s), occupation (students mostly), how many friends she had, whether she lived at home with her parents, how many times she went to a love hotel (zero or uncountable times), how much money she had in her purse, and until what age she intended to be a ganguro (usually until the end of high school, early 20s, or forever).

A ganguro on the cover of egg magazine. egg magazine, March 2000 issueToo bad they didn't ask more informative questions like: What inspired you to become a ganguro? What do your parents think of you being a ganguro? How much is your monthly income? How much is your monthly mobile phone bill? How much do you spend on tanning salons every month?

Instead of being an in-depth, scholarly look at these girls, this book is a playful presentation of them. By the way, they don't call themselves ganguro. They prefer to call themselves just "gals."

OK, so now we have seen photo books (and magazines like [Egg magazine | egg]) on ganguro, street fashion (see Merry and fruits), and costume players. All these methods and techniques of personal disguise and modification are defining the current times. Twenty years from now, I'm sure we'll look back fondly at these young people. Perhaps such fashions will make a comeback two decades later and these books will serve as a valuable guide. (Reviewed by Philbert Ono)