Chapter Four: Making Japanese by Putting on Clothes

Private individuals such as Okakura Tenshin were relatively free to criticize European feelings of cultural superiority. Meiji Japan’s government, however, had to tread with greater caution. First, Japan was at a severe structural disadvantage owing to the unequal treaties signed in the 1850s. The commercial treaty of 1858, for example, resulted in a loss of tariff autonomy for Japan. Even more onerous was extraterritoriality (in Japanese there are two terms: chigai hōken 治外法権 and ryōji saibanken 領事裁判権). Under extraterritoriality, citizens of countries like France, Britain, and the United States were governed by their own country's laws while residing in Japan. If they violated these laws, they would be subject to legal action only by their own country's embassy officials.

The Meiji government went to great lengths to regulate the behavior of ordinary Japanese living in the cities in which foreigners also resided (the above-mentioned treaties restricted foreign residence to several of the large ports). Why was the behavior of ordinary Japanese in these port cities of any particular importance for the Meiji state? Because the stated rationale by western governments in insisting on extraterritoriality for all of their citizens was that Japan and its people were insufficiently civilized. Therefore, if Japan was to succeed in re-negotiating the treaties, it had to make the case that it was "civilized," and the western powers determined the definition of "civilization" owing to their superior military strength. So the Meiji state had little choice but to try to make ordinary Japanese--at least those residing in the so-called "treaty ports"--adopt modes of daily life in rough accord with western sensibilities. Culture, domestic politics, and foreign relations were all interconnected in modern Japan, at least during the Meiji period.

A study of the Meiji state's attempt to regulate the daily life of its new citizens provides insight into the growth of the power of the modern Japanese state and its use to constrain what we might call “carnivalesque” dimensions of social life. “Carnivalesque” in this context refers not only to popular forms of entertainment that go against or subvert the ordinary grain of society, but also to popular cultural practices the Meiji state deemed immoral or immodest.

Although during the Tokugawa period, the bakufu and domain governments periodically issued regulations aimed at improving the moral life of ordinary people, the premodern state lacked sufficient reach to enforce them thoroughly. During the Tokugawa period, rural villages were largely autonomous as long as they paid taxes on time, and the bakufu lacked the power and will to effect significant social control in the cities. A general characteristic of modern societies throughout the world is a great increase in the “reach” of the state, usually down to the level of the individual. Furthermore, most modern states have taken an active role in attempting to shape culture in general and individual moral behavior in particular. In this respect, the modern states have taken over many of the socializing functions once performed by families, neighborhoods, and religious institutions. Japan’s Meiji state followed this general pattern. Takashi Fujitani explains the matter as follows:

This new conception of rule unleashed a torrent of policies aimed at bringing the common people into a tightly disciplined national community and a unified and totalizing culture. A kind of cultural terror, understood as being pedagogical, swept through local communities as the state’s agents attacked folk religions through the destruction or manipulation of local shrines and the suppression of “irrational” beliefs . . . while also instructing them in the proper forms of worship. The new rulers preached ideas about “civilization and enlightenment” while also prohibiting numerous folk practices such as extravagance in festivities . . . or excessive leisure or gambling. From a very early date, in fact, the cultural policies reached down to the most mundane level. In Tōkyō, for example, the authorities launched aggressive campaigns against mixed bathing, public nudity, and urinating in public (tachi shōben). In 1876, the Tōkyō police arrested 2,091 people for nudity and 4,495 others for urinating in public. And in what was then called Toyooka prefecture, the authorities prohibited a seemingly innocuous summer custom, daytime napping.1

Incidentally, public urination was commonplace throughout Japan in the Tokugawa period and, though still illegal, remains so today.

The overall motivation for the Meiji state's interest in personal behavior was not some inherent sense of prudery. Instead it was concerned with the image of Japan and its people in the eyes of the powerful Western countries. Elise K. Tipton explains:

A strong desire to gain Western approval and avoid its ridicule is revealed in measures seeking conformity to Western standards of public decency. A newspaper article explaining an ordinance against public nakedness directed towards rickshaw men and day laborers declared, 'you must not be laughed at by foreigners". Similarly, the headline 'Do not be laughed at by foreigners" preceded an article about another ordinance requiring public bath-owners to place screens at the entrance and to separate men and women. Officials issued warnings against obscene plays and tried to ban pornographic art. (Modern Japan: A Social and Political History [New York: Routledge, 2002], p. 46)

The first major attempt to modify public behavior and morality came in 1871 when the Meiji government issued a series of regulations against inappropriate behavior (Ishiki chūi jōrei). These regulations applied to the residents of the capital and surrounding urban areas and specified fines for violators. Rendered into a series of pictures with simple text for the benefit of illiterates, the regulations were posted throughout Tōkyō. As you see from the statistics Fujitani provides above, all indications are that the police were diligent in enforcing them.

The *complete set of regulations is shown here*. Included are prohibitions against: selling spoiled or diseased meat; public sideshows and freak shows; transporting excrement (a valuable commodity) in uncovered buckets; brawling in public; women getting short haircuts without permission of fathers or husbands; public urination; throwing objects up onto telegraph wires; and shouting out of windows to people passing by below—and more. A large number of these prohibitions seem to have been for foreign consumption, that is, they addressed behaviors that Japan’s new leaders were embarrassed to have foreigners see. Throwing objects onto telegraph wires, for example, might damage the wires.  But it might also suggest to a foreign observer of "the " Japanese a rustic or childlike lack of appreciation for important modern technology. One version of the drawing illustrating this prohibition (not the one shown in the link above) shows a foreigner walking down the street as Japanese men and women laugh while throwing objects onto telegraph wires. Also, foreigners were often the objects of insults or comments shouted out from the safety of upper-story windows and sometimes complained about being sold bad meat--hence the regulations about these matters.

These regulations are significant for two reasons. First, they indicate a growing willingness of the state to “micromanage” personal behavior. Second, they indicate the importance the government placed on putting on a good appearance when under the gaze of Europeans and Americans. Significantly, regulations such as those mentioned here did not apply to all or even most Japanese. At their widest, they applied only to residents of the relatively few cities open to foreign residence.

Nudity is, of course, an issue closely related to appearances. Below we explore government-sponsored and other attempts to regulate nudity in Japan from the Meiji period through the 1930s, with some comparative reference to Europe and the U.S. Our investigation will shed light on a number of issues connected with cultural differences, cultural power, the power of the state, social class, views of the body, and more. The material presented here derives in large part from a series of essays, Civilization and the Nude Body, by Inoue Shōichi, which appeared throughout 1992 in Gekkan Asahi. Specific references to the series will appear in parentheses as (month:page#).

Nudity and Daily Life in Tokugawa & Early Meiji Japan

Members of the samurai class, men and women, did not (or at least were never supposed to) appear in public without being fully clothed. Many norms and values of the samurai class resembled those of Chinese elites, for whom incomplete dress indicated incomplete civilization. In Japan’s terribly hot and humid summers, men and women performing manual labor outdoors *often worked semi-naked*. Scant clothing, therefore, was mainly an indication of manual labor, and one way that samurai distinguished themselves from laborers was by their more formal and complete attire. In the summer, male laborers in rural and urban areas commonly wore only a loincloth both during work hours and while relaxing. Women often went topless and in any case did not wear underwear (more on this below).

It is common in today’s world to link nudity with sex. Clothing serves as a personal boundary marker, and its removal or lack in the sight of others is often an invitation to intimacy. The lack of clothing was especially an invitation to intimacy in Western society of the nineteenth century because the skin itself, along with the secondary sexual characteristics of the body (e.g., curve of hips, breasts, etc.—but not the genitalia) had long been eroticized in visual representations. But clothing or its lack need not function this way in all times, places, or circumstances. While sexuality does have a biological basis, the ways in which it manifests itself are largely products of complex social codes. In Tokugawa and early Meiji Japan, *clothing—not nakedness*—played a greater role in eroticism than it did in most of the Western world. As Timon Screech explains:

Other than the rich (who would not be much encountered in the ordinary townsperson's life), then, fine clothes meant the garb of theatricality or of paying sex. The Edo male would have touched finer fabrics in the arms of these two categories of provider than on any other occasion. The *sexual power* of texture and look in first-rate cloth was commensurately great; it may very well have excelled in excitement the feel of skin, since good cloth was harder to come by than good skin and was more expensive when one did.2

Fine clothing, worn in certain ways and accompanied by certain gestures, typically conveyed sexual messages. Nudity per se, however, usually did not convey sexual messages in Japan at this time, especially cases of habitual nudity such as a woman doing laundry outside topless. A scholar of the relationship be­tween clothing and eroticism explains: “In general, when any­thing is constantly exposed to view, it leaves nothing to the ima­gination, tends to be perceived as ordinary, and, eventually, is hardly noticed at all. The eye be­comes jaded; habitual nudity is notably unerotic.”3

The sex act itself, of course, involved varying degrees of nudity, but it need not involve much. And, prior to the twentieth century, it was probably rare, in Japan or in Europe, for the sex act to take place while totally or mostly nude. As Screech explains:

There is no reason to assume that people stripped to have sex. Societies that have easy access to heating and cooling may well enjoy nakedness, but such was not the Edo case. The seasons controlled the temperature, with only minor scope for human intervention by means of braziers and fans. . . . Even in Europe, where the sexual power of the bodily surface was strong and the value placed on erotic cloth less, and where both pornography and the tradition of the nude made for a high valorization of nakedness, it still seems that people made love with their clothes on, right up into the twentieth century.4

In short, the typical American or European living at the time of Japan's Meiji period usually regarded nudity as erotic and sexual, even if s/he did not regard sex as necessarily requiring nudity. In Japan, by contrast, it was clothing, especially fine clothing, that most broadcast sexual messages. It is mainly for this reason that the majority of sexually explicit images from early-modern Japan feature a rich array of colorful clothing.

The best example of this point is in the area of bathing. During the Tokugawa period, even ordinary Japanese bathed frequently, which was a major contrast with European habits and one reason for Japanese characterization of Europeans as “stinking of butter” (bataa kusai). In large urban areas, however, only the wealthy could afford to build and maintain their own bathtubs. Especially in urban the cities, most Japanese went to public bath houses. There, they would wash themselves outside the main tub, in which they would later soak for relaxation. In many public bath houses, *men and women bathed together in the same tub.* In fact, in most cases there was only one tub, mainly for reasons of economy—it was much easier and less expensive to maintain one large tub instead of two or more smaller ones. The more expensive baths had separate tubs for men and women, and there was a period of time at the end of the eighteenth century when a high-ranking bakufu official tried to prohibit mixed bathing in Edo (but not anywhere else). So not all public baths in Edo/Tokyo featured mixed bathing, but the American and European foreigners seemed to have quickly zeroed in on the ones that did.

Men and women of all ages bathing in close proximity to each other was, of course, shocking to European and American visitors to Japan. And they said so in various ways. Yet, strangely enough, many of these same foreigners seem to have made *many visits to mixed public baths!* A British observer in the early 1860s recorded an interesting encounter in his diary. He and some other foreigners were traveling though the streets of Edo (Tōkyō). As they neared a public bath, someone inside the bath noticed that exotic foreigners were in the vicinity and let the other bathers know. They all came running out of the bath house, completely naked of course, to gawk at the British travelers, who no doubt did some gawking of their own. According to the diary: “Men and women were all bathing together. They all came running out of the bath hut to gawk at us as we passed by. Not a single one made any attempt to cover up. They were like Adam and Eve before the fall, appearing to us just as they had been born” (8:206; keep the reference to Adam and Eve in mind for later). Another British traveler made the following observation regarding bathers at a *natural hot spring* (onsen): “Two short, attractive women had come out of the hot spring. The two women appeared without wearing so much as a thread and proceeded to dry themselves in the sun. Then, within plain view of the town’s residents who were walking across the bridge, they put on their clothes” (8:206).

Among the foreigners, two views of Japanese nudity developed. One, not surprisingly, held that public nudity was proof that Japan was obviously a depraved, sinful society. One American wrote, “There is no other country on earth in which men and women conduct their lives together by such indecent manners” (8:207). Matthew Perry’s interpreter, Rev. S. Wells Williams, while generally a sympathetic observer of Japanese customs, nevertheless declared Japan the “most lewd” of “all the heathen nations” he had ever described. He continued:

Modesty, judging from what we see, might be said to be unknown, for the women make no attempt to hide the bosom, and every step shows the leg above the knee; while men generally go with the merest bit of rag, and that not always carefully put on. Naked men and women have both been seen in the streets, and uniformly resort to the same bath house, regardless of all decency. Lewd motions, pictures and talk seem to be the common expression of the viler acts and thoughts of the people, and this to such a degree as to disgust everybody.5

Presumably, the “everybody” disgusted by these practices was limited to other prudish foreigners, for it would not have included most Japanese. Incidentally, the first edition of the official narrative of Perry’s expedition to Japan included a modest oil painting of a public bath produced by the expedition’s artist. The inclusion of *such a "lewd" painting* caused such an uproar in the U.S. that it was removed from all subsequent editions of the book.

Other foreign observers provided a different interpretation. Diplomat Townsend Harris, for example, perceptively pointed out that mixed bathing was not at all proof of a lewd or degenerate people. “Indeed,” he said, “the case is quite the opposite. This exposure serves to weaken the force of the passions excited by mystery and distress” (8:206). Recall the British observer’s reference to the innocent Adam-and-Eve-like quality of the nude bathers that came to stare at him. Some foreigners, in other words, regarded the  non-self-conscious, non-sexual nudity of Japanese daily life as proof of a primitive innocence akin to Eden’s original inhabitants. For Harris, the prevalence of nudity in everyday life actually helped reduce “the passions” (i.e., sexuality) by de-mystifying the body. Although this alleged innocence was certainly a more positive characterization than that of lewdness and sin, it points to a persistent stereotype about Japan and its people as childlike. An example: after the Second World War, General MacArthur characterized Japan as resembling  “a twelve-year-old child,” much to the chagrin of his many Japanese admirers.

In the Tokugawa period, samurai and well-to-do members of society felt no embarrassment about the scant attire of the laboring masses. That they wore few clothes seemed perfectly reasonable. When Japan came under the *close gaze of Europeans and Americans* starting in the 1860s, however, upper class Japanese began to realize that most foreigners regarded all Japanese as essentially similar. When the bakufu sent its first diplomats abroad in the early 1860s, they were, of course, ac­companied by servants, who carried the diplomats through the streets in palanquins and performed other labor services. A samurai diplomat in Prussia in 1862 was shocked one day to see a full page picture of a “typical” Japanese in the local newspaper. The picture was not of the impeccably dressed, dignified samurai, but of one of his loin­cloth-wearing servants. As the sense of nation, the feeling of “we Japanese” became stronger in the 1870s, the Meiji government became concerned that *all Japanese appear acceptable in the eyes of the powerful foreigners.* To the government, Japan’s laboring masses went from being kamin, “the lower orders,” to kokumin, “citizens.” With “citizenship” came new burdens such as higher taxes, military service, and increasing state intervention in the realm of personal behavior.

In 1872, *it became illegal* to appear in public in Tokyo (but not elsewhere) with the thighs exposed or with a nude upper torso. This law applied equally to men and women, and the fine was double for total nudity in public. Police enforcement of the law brought forth a brief period of public protest—in the form of #streaking#—but the reaction of the state was to crack down even harder. People began to cover up. In 1890, the Tokyo police issued an order prohibiting mixed ba­thing (police had broad powers to issue orders for the “public good”). Most bath owners could not afford elaborate renovations, so they typi­cally ran a rope across the center of the tub to separate it into sections for men and women. In this way, they complied with the letter of the law but not its spirit.

In 1900, the prohibition became more serious when the Home Ministry *prohibited mixed bathing* throughout the country and required walls and other structures to prevent men and women from bathing within sight of each other. As the prohibition gradually achieved its intended purpose, a new problem developed: peeping Toms (debakame 出歯亀). Once it became forbidden for men to see women bathing, secretly doing so became thrilling for many men. And not only for men. In at least some cases, women, having become aware that men might be peeping at them, found sexual meaning in what had once been a non-sexual behavior. Mixed bathing remained the norm at hot spring resorts and was not uncommon even in the 1980s, but it is extremely rare today.6 For reasons we explore in greater depth below, most residents of today’s Japan are just as self-conscious and embarrassed about their bodies as are their American (but not necessarily European) counterparts—a sign of superior “civilization” no doubt!

. . . Or perhaps not . . .

(#public male public nudity in contemporary Japan#)

Cultural Power

Let us pause to consider the issue of cultural power and the image gap between Japan and “the West” as reflected in concerns over nudity. In the 19th century, Europeans and Americans looked at the relative lack of inhibitions connected with nudity in Japan and regarded it as a sign of backwardness. At best, public nudity indicated an innocent, childlike backwardness; at worst it was a sign of lewdness and *depravity.* And bear in mind that by this time there was a strong association in the minds of most westerners between nudity and a state of (allegedly) *primitive or savage life.*

So Japan’s Meiji-period leaders had little choice but to try and make Japanese conform to European standards. Recall that revision of the unequal treaties was the highest priority, and this goal required European acceptance of Japanese as “civilized.” As a result of substantial state intervention, the tendency in Japan from the late nineteenth century and continuing well into the twentieth century was increased prudery. In other words, there was increasing official and unofficial pressure to cover up the body as time went on.

In the twentieth century, inhibitions regarding nudity gradually began to weaken in some parts of Europe. The *first nudist organizations* began in Germany in the 1920s. #Nude bathing beaches and resorts# became examples of “natural” living and “progressive” thinking. By the mid twentieth century, the relative prudery of Japan regarding nudity became a sign of “backwardness” in the eyes of many “enlightened” Europeans. Japan had no nudist organization until 1962. Japan in Europe's gaze: “backward” in the nineteenth cen­tury owing to a lack of inhibitions concerning certain forms of nudity and “backward” in the next century for excessive inhibitions—another example of Japan and its people never quite measuring up to "civilized" standards. Attitudes regarding nudity and the changes in lifestyle connected with them is but one example of the disparity in cultural power between Japan and “the West” in Meiji and Taishō times. This disparity, of course, was based on “the West’s” superior military and technological power. Had the military power of Japan been superior to that of “the West,” what judgments might Japanese have made regarding the inferiority of European culture and its barbaric American offshoots?

(Note well: by the turn of the twentieth century, all of Japan's unequal treaties had all been revised. Culture and power continued to interact in various ways throughout Japanese society. However, posturing to impress foreign powers, while sometimes done at the level of individuals, was no longer part of state policy after the Meiji period. Be sure to keep this point well in mind while reading the rest of this chapter.)

The Broader Context: A Brief Look at Late 19th-Century Europe

We have seen that early attempts by Japan’s government to suppress certain forms of nudity were motivated mainly by the perceived need to make Japan look “civilized” in European eyes. We have also seen that most American and European observers associated the nudity they saw in Japan with improper sexuality. What was the situation in Europe (and by extension, the U.S.) with respect to nudity and sexuality at the end of the nineteenth century? This question is too complex for an adequate answer here, and there is much disagreement even among specialists. We can, however, make a few general observations that help shed light on the reactions of many Europeans and Americans to the nudity they encountered in Meiji Japan.

There are three points to emphasize. First, much like atti­tudes in China, Euro­peans of nearly all social classes and groups saw clothing as a general indicator of civilization and refinement—or their lack. Popular European depictions commonly portrayed “primitive” or “savage” peoples as wearing few clothes. Nudity was, in this view, an outward sign of a primitive culture. This European view of clothing was quite similar to what prevailed in Tokugawa Japan, as we have seen.

But there was an additional factor that worked to Japan's disadvantage in European eyes: the idea of nations. By the middle of the nineteenth century, it had become common for Europeans to view other lands in terms of alleged "national characteristics." In this way of thinking, all "Japanese," "Chinese," "_______" (fill in the nation), et cetera were essentially the same in terms of culture. In mid nineteenth-century Japan, clothing was indeed a mark of "refinement" or "civilization," but not by way of any alleged national characteristics. Instead, clothing or its lack was mainly a marker of social status. The higher up in society one was, the more clothes s/he tended to wear. What Japan's leaders were reacting to in the meddlesome regulations of the 1870s we have examined above was the tendency of Americans and Europeans to see in "the Japanese" the lowest common denominator. Thus it became necessary for ordinary laboring Japanese in the cities open to foreign residence to cover themselves up.

The second point concerns clothing and its connection with sexuality in Europe, particularly in the case of female dress. The relation­ship between clothing and sexuality is and was highly complex, and Valerie Steele is correct to criticize the many overly simplistic theories advanced to explain it.7 For our purposes, we should note that European and American fashions of the late nineteenth century served both to promote modesty by covering the sexual body and, at the same time, to enhance the beauty and sexuality of individual bodies. Roughly the same, incidentally, could be said about many societies, including Tokugawa Japan among the upper classes.

Third, European art often featured female nudes. A common theme in this art was the #power of female sexuality# to subsume, and therefore destroy, male identity. By extension, female sexuality had the potential for #disrupting the social order#, at least in the minds of many men. Although most historians would agree that male fear of female sexuality was a major cultural theme of the late nineteenth century, its significance remains debatable. Many interpreters point out that these male fears led to oppression and suppression of women in Victorian times. Others disagree, pointing out a variety of empirical and theoretical flaws in this argument.

This issue, however, need not concern us here. The main point for us to bear in mind is that the nude female body, unrestrained by layers of clothing, represented a source of potentially disruptive (morally, spiritually, socially, politically) sexual power to many American and European men in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, many of the early European and American interpreters of Japanese culture were Protestant missionaries. As a group, these men would have been most likely to react negatively to public displays of nudity. Notice that it was the pragmatic diplomat Townsend Harris who interpreted nudity in Japan as a sign of a lack of passions. On the other hand, the otherwise culturally sympathetic Rev. Williams could not conceal his disgust for what he interpreted as lewdness.

As you surely know, the nude was a common theme in European art both during the nineteenth century and earlier. Because of the strong association of nudity with sexuality in Europe, how was it that such art was produced and consumed in respectable, public circles? The quick answer is that various distancing techniques were used. For example, in the realm of theory, artists and critics often distinguished between the "nude" figure and the "naked" figure. The naked figure was the unclothed body of specific people, and was thus vulgar at best and obscene at worst. The artist’s model in the studio, for example, would have been “naked.” But the resulting painting, in order to be designated a work of "art," should not be simply a direct, accurate rendition of the model (for then it, too, would be “naked”). Instead, it should be an abstraction, derived from the specific naked model, but representing a general, ideal type. In this form, it would become a “nude,” and thus a true work of art (philosophers: notice the Platonism at work here). (#Examples of the nude as art# / #Examples of nakedness#)

Other distancing techniques are easier to comprehend. For example, nudes should never be contemporary, for then they would become merely naked. Instead, men and women in classical settings of antiquity, often illustrating Greek myths of tales from the Bible would be sufficiently distant in time and culture to be “nude,” not “naked.” If this distinction strikes you as ridiculous, your view has its academic advocates. David Freedberg, for example, has argued persuasively that the alleged distinction between “art” and lesser forms of visual depiction is a false dichotomy.8 In any case, however, the pretense of most educated Europeans in the late nineteenth century was that true art, that is, the nude, is not sexual. European observers typically saw Japanese nudity in all its manifestations as nakedness, not nudity, if for no other reason than the inability of most Europeans to accept Japanese culture as being on the same level of artistic or technological sophistication as theirs.

Nudity at the Beach: Different Social Classes

It was not until the late 1880s that the first bathing beaches opened in Japan, for swimming in the ocean had previously not been a form of recreation. Even in the 1880s, #bathing at the beach# was more a form of therapy for certain nervous disorders than a recreational activity. Until about 1920, nearly all bathing beaches in Japan were #segregated by sex.# *Swimming suits for men and women during this early period* covered most of the body (#contrast with more recent styles#). Despite the segregation and thorough coverage, many women who went to the beach during the Meiji period reported feeling self-conscious or embarrassed. Famous women’s rights advocate Hiratsuka Raichō, for example, in an essay reminiscing on her childhood, wrote of her first visits to the beach in the late nineteenth century. It was the summer after she had entered a girls’ high school, and she was dressed in a one-piece suit that covered the whole body. Nevertheless, she felt embarrassed to be at the beach when others might see her, and wrote, “I felt embarrassed to be at the beach during the mid-day hours because I would be seen by others, so I always went early in the morning before sunrise” (10:193). This situation seems quite different from the urban public baths described above. What might have been going on?

Moving from the Meiji period into the Taishō and early Shōwa periods (roughly the 1920s), it seems that beaches had changed significantly. By the 1920s, few beaches were segregated by sex. Newspapers and other popular media frequently reported “shocking” incidents of #women changing into bathing suits# at the beach in full view of crowds without any sense of embarrassment (men, too, did this, but the press seems to have regarded it as problematic only for women). In 1929, a women’s magazine reported that 70-80% of women at the beach were “vulgar and uneducated,” bathing nude and carrying only a small towel for cover (19:195). This situation seems more like the urban public baths of the late Tokugawa and early Meiji periods. Why the change? Why the increase in nudity, despite an outcry against it from the media?

The key to understanding this difference lies in the two beach scenes by Bigot. *The first* depicts a women dressed like Hiratsuka was, that is, in a full bathing suit. *The second* depicts a large crowd of men and women, all nude or nearly so. They are chatting, relaxed, and seem completely unembarrassed about their nudity. The different scenes reflect different social classes. During the Tokugawa period, there was a major difference in attitudes about nudity, sex, and gender roles between samurai and wealthy commoners and everyone else. This difference continued well into modern times. It was members of the upper classes who controlled the Meiji government and sought to impose European-style modesty on the common people.

With regard to bathing at the beach, in the late nineteenth century, only the wealthy could afford to go to the beach for recreation. Transportation was by carriage, and just getting to the beach took a long time. In the early Meiji period, bathers typically stayed for several days or weeks at private beach houses. Only the rich could afford to purchase or rent such houses and take the time out from work or other affairs to recreate at the beach. Most ordinary Japanese were hard at work in the fields day in and day out. For them, a day at the beach was unimaginable.

By the turn of the century, however, the majority of Japan’s population shifted to urban areas. As Japan rapidly industrialized, unskilled and semi-skilled laborers poured into the cities to work in the factories. The hours were long and the work exhausting. Nevertheless, factory workers had an occasional day off, and their wages usually provided a slight surplus beyond the essentials. By the 1920s, trains and streetcars provided access to beaches. It became possible, in other words, to go to the beach on one’s day off, leaving early in the morning and returning in the evening. Trips to the beach became popular among factory workers and other “blue collar” Japanese from around the time of the First World War (which was a time of great prosperity for Japan) onward. Many of these urban workers were recent arrivals from the countryside, where bathing habits and attitudes about nudity in general followed older, less inhibited patterns of behavior and thought. As with many other matters, “Japanese culture" often differed significantly from one group of Japanese to another.

Nudity and the Boundaries of Art

Except in the context of portraying someone taking a bath, Japanese art lacked a tradition of celebrating the nude human figure until well into the Meiji period. Some members of Japan’s first diplomatic embassy to the U.S. in 1860 took open-air baths after arriving in San Francisco, which led to angry complaints by women residing nearby. Local authorities then required that curtains be placed around the tubs. Many of these same embassy members regarded the many statues and paintings of nude figures on display in U.S. public buildings—not to mention the bare shoulders of American women in formal evening gowns—as barbaric and shocking (remember, Westerners, or at least the ostensibly sophisticated ones, would tend to describe such statuary as “nude,” not “naked”).

Throughout the nineteenth century, European-style art gradually became accepted in Japan as worthy of attention. Inevitably, Japanese artists painting in European styles #tried their hand at nudes#. It was not until 1894, however, that a Japanese artist first produced and publicly displayed a European-style nude as a serious work of art. The artist was Kuroda Seiki, and the painting was Morning Toilette. The *oil painting features a totally nude woman* standing in front of a mirror arranging her hair. When Kuroda displayed his work in Tokyo, it caused a minor uproar. When he displayed in the artistically more conservative Kyōto, it caused a major uproar, becoming an object of discussion and controversy.

Bigot caricatured this controversy in a *cartoon shown here*. In it, the members of the audience stare in amazement, mouths agape. This cartoon is not only a critique of Japanese art sensi­bilities. The female member of the audience just to the right of center adds an additional layer of complexity to Bigot’s message. In order to lean foreword and get a better view, this woman has hiked up her robes, exposing a substantial portion of the legs above the knee. Doing so was common in Japan at the time, with no suggestion of impropriety, the typical reason being to *keep clothing out of rainwater or mud* as one walked. To European sensibilities, however, for a woman to pull up her clothes like this in public was a shocking breach of proper conduct. Now, notice the European woman in the audience who is just as shocked by the Japanese woman pulling up her clothes as the Japanese viewers are of the painting. There is an important point here: customs concerning clothing and nudity are arbitrary and specific to a certain time and place. There are no universal standards of morality or decency with regard to such matters, though most people assume that their own time and culture is the “natural” and obvious standard for all human beings.

By breaking the ice, Kuroda paved the way for European-style nudes to be accepted in Japan as legitimate works of art (*example*). By 1910, nude paintings were fully acceptable as “art” provided that frontal nudes showed no pubic hair. By the 1930s, even pubic hair, as long as it was not overly detailed, was getting past the police censors who monitored artistic and literary outpu t.9

Japanese businesses quickly learned that nude figures can attract attention in advertising. As European-style nudes became acceptable as art, advertisers began to use oil paintings depicting female nudes in one form or another to help sell beer, cigarettes, and other products. Because compared with "highbrow" art, advertising images reached a wider and, presumably, less discriminating audience, government censors were more strict in what they permitted. The more nudity of an exotic or alluring nature, the more attention the ad would attract from potential customers. But it would also attract the attention of police censors. Penalties for violating “decency” regulations were stiff, but the precise boundaries of what the police would allow were vague and often arbitrary. Police would not usually approve items in advance. They would only impose fines and confiscate relevant property after the fact, which made mistakes quite costly.

Let us consider an actual case. The *collection of images here* features four advertising posters and one piece of museum art. All feature nudity to one degree or another. One caused public outcry and prompted a police investigation for possible violation of obscenity regulations. Which one? Is it not obvious? Answer: the Akadama Port Wine ad of 1923 (top right) was the indecent image! The Sapporo Beer ad (bottom left) features a woman draped in a thin, sheer cloth that reveals the contours of her figure and two bare breasts. The ad for Tengū Cigarettes (top left) features a woman nude from the hips up before a mirror. Reclining Nude features full frontal nudity and even includes pubic hair, which is often an key element in attempts to define the boundaries of decency and indecency in public imagery. Why, therefore, was the Akadama ad so controversial?

The ad features a retouched photograph of opera singer Matsushima Emiko holding a glass of port wine. She appears to be nude, or at least her upper torso does, but only the shoulders and top of the breasts are actually visible. In a 1975 interview, Matsushima recalled the controversy surrounding the ad as follows: “As soon as we finished, [the ad] was scrutinized for possible censorship. It passed through many hands and finally received [in house] approval. Though there is nothing comparable today, at the time, the fact that it was a nude caused a big commotion. As a result, I even had to stop having visits from my relatives, and the police came to inquire. It was difficult” (7:207).

The difficulty arose not so much because of the nudity per se but because the ad poster was based on a photograph. Nudity, even to a high degree of explicitness, was acceptable for "art" (and, by extension, art used in advertising), but few in Japan and the time considered photography a real art form. After all, one only need press a button to take a photograph, unlike all the skill and labor required to produce an oil painting—at least that was the common assumption of the day. So the Akadama ad caused problems because it used a new technique that placed it outside the arbitrary category called “art.” It was only during the 1950s that most Japanese came to regard photography as an art form on a par with painting. To what extent does the boundary between “art” and something else (“pornography,” “propaganda,” “recreation”) remain controversial and contested today?

Policing Private Life: Campaigns for Underwear and Against Sheer Clothing

Today, virtually all Japanese wear underwear (bras, panties, briefs, boxer shorts, etc.). The practice would strike most contemporary Japanese as so “natural” and obvious that few would imagine that, for women, wearing underwear became the norm throughout the country only after the Second World War. Some Japanese women wore underwear as early as the Meiji period, but only when wearing European-style clothes. Even then, not all wearers of European-style clothes wore underwear beneath them (many men, of course, wore only underwear, at least in the summertime). Japanese-style clothing consisted of one or more robes wrapped around the body and secured with a belt, with no underwear beneath.

In 1923, in the late Taishō period, the issue of women and underwear received extensive public attention as a public safety hazard (note that in most modern societies “public safety” often replaces “morality” as the common justification for official or quasi-official attempts to regulate citizens’ private lives). In that year, a terrible earthquake devastated vast areas of Tokyo. The destruction of property and loss of life has never since been equaled in any natural disaster in Japan. (#See photographs of the earthquake's aftermath#.)The earthquake touched off rumors, the most destructive of which being that Korean immigrants had used the quake as an opportunity to loot. This rumor resulted in the slaughter of thousands of Korean immigrants at the hands of angry mobs. Another rumor was that many women died in the quake because modesty prevented their escaping fast enough. The main problem was that since most women did not wear underwear, they would not run at full speed because their robes would come open, thus exposing the private parts of the body for all to see. There is no evidence to support this rumor, and there is #extensive photographic# and #eye witness evidence# to question it. For example, in the days after the quake, it was common to see men and women of all ages bathing amidst the rubble in plain view.

Although it was impractical for the government to mandate that women wear underwear (who would police such a regulation?), public service organizations such as the Lifestyle Improvement Alliance (Seikatsu Kaizen Dōmeikai 生活改善同盟会) *expended substantial resources to encourage the practice*. The Lifestyle Improvement Alliance was not formally a part of the government, but it enjoyed the support of the state. The organization was a means by which civic activists could attempt to change the culture of daily life in ways they regarded as desirable. "Desirable" in this context often meant efficient and rational. Kashiwagi Hiroshi explains that "Strengthening the national polity through national renationalization, one of the Alliance's objectives, was thus carried out on a personal level through intervention into citizen's daily lives, rather than on a national level through manufacturing and industrial policy." ("On Rationalizing the National Lifestyle: Japanese Design of the 1920s and 1930s" in Elise K. Tipton and John Clark, eds., Being Modern in Japan: Culture and Society from the 1910s to the 1930s [Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2000]. p. 65.) One of the more well-known efforts of the Alliance was to encourage Japanese to use chairs instead of sitting on the floor. Less well-known was its attempts to encourage women to wear underwear. Although such lifestyle "improvements" were generally promoted in the name of efficiency or hygiene, there was an aesthetic dimension as well. These reformers tended to regard the appearance of modern efficiency as beautiful. Notice also that, unlike the Meiji period, during which treaty revision was a pressing foreign policy issue, the discourse on underwear in the 1920s and 1930s was not directly concerned with the views of foreigners, even if issues of foreign culture entered the discussion.

In 1932, the public took a renewed interest in matters of women’s underwear when a large fire broke out at Shirokiya Department Store in Tokyo. The likely cause was celluloid toys, which are highly flammable. Shirokiya employed many young women as sales clerks. According to rumor (spread by newspaper reports), because most of these women were not wearing underwear, they refused to climb down the fire ladders that had been extended to the upper story windows. In other words, they chose to die in the fire rather than possibly expose themselves to public view. Remarkably, this far-fetched tale continues to be repeated to this day despite no reliable evidence to support it. Wikipedia, for example, says (ca. early 2010):

The 1932 fire at the Nihombashi store is said to have been the catalyst for the decline in kimonos as everyday wear. During the fire, 14 customers and employees, all women, refused to jump out of windows onto life nets, for fear that their kimonos would fly open and expose them to the crowds below. Shortly after the fire, the sale of trousers and underwear skyrocketed throughout Japan. (It is, however, suggested, that this is an urban myth. [1]). (Main Entry: "Shirokiya;" Sub-heading "Legacy.")

The parenthetical item and the accompanying note refer to this chapter. Colorful urban legends never seem to fade away. Strictly speaking, of course, this entry is correct because of the qualifying phrase "is said to have." The final sentence is also accurate and indicates one result of the urban legend.

Is the explanation given in the urban legend version of the fire credible? Eye witness accounts by fire fighters and others at the scene give no indication that embarrassment or modesty had anything to do with the large number of deaths. As one fire fighter recalled in a 1956 interview:

The young women made escape ropes from cloth and slipped while exiting second and third story windows or let go without being aware as the flesh ripped from the palms of their hands, falling to the electric streetcar tracks below. In some cases, the escape ropes broke. These are the reasons they died. All the stories about the lack of underwear . . . would certainly have helped boost sales for a fabric company [the Shirokiya Department Store?] (11:185).

Furthermore, in other fires at banks and department stores from about the same time, modesty was no barrier to female employees using ladders and other means of escape—as several male eye witnesses took care to observe from below. One could think of several organizations (the fire department, the department store, local government.) that would have preferred the public think a lack of underwear—not structural problems with the building, lack of preparation, or poor performance by the fire crews—was the main cause of the deaths in the Shirokiya fire.

There were more formal elements to the growing campaign to promote underwear for public health reasons. Dr. Habuto Eiji, an obstetrician and editor of the journal Seiyoku to Jinsei 性欲と人性 (Sexual desire and humankind), decided to do some rigorous, quantitative research to see how many women were wearing underwear. He went to the Ginza district of Tokyo where he had discovered a place where the position of buildings created what amounted to a wind tunnel through which many people a day passed. The wind blew so strong that few women were able to keep their skirts, robes, etc. from blowing open or upward. Little did they know that Dr. Habuto, dedicated public servant, was watching to see if they were wearing underwear. According to the results of his study, the majority of women wearing European-style clothing wore underwear and the majority wearing Japanese-style clothing did not. Because those wearing Japanese-style clothing outnumbered those wearing European-style clothing two to one, the majority of women were not wearing underwear. We should note that the Ginza was the most upscale and sophisticated part of Tokyo and was therefore likely to have the highest percentage of women attired in European-style clothes. If Dr. Habuto’s findings were accurate, therefore, we may conclude that ca. 1930, very few women in Japan wore underwear despite all the attention devoted to the topic in popular discourse of the time.

It seems that the main motivation for many of those working to encourage Japanese women to wear underwear was a desire to “modernize” lifestyles better to fit their own idealized conceptions of urban life. Of course, there is no reason that underwear is necessarily or inherently “modern,” but that was the perception among activists at the time in the various lifestyle improvement movements of the 1920s and 1930s. Koga Harue was an artist who often painted #images of modernity#. Among his most famous works is the 1930 painting, *Makeup Outside the Window*. It celebrates modernity in the form of a young woman, painted disproportionately large, whose main feature is that she is clearly wearing underwear. The idea of observing the modern world through a window (of a passing train, for example), was a common artistic convention at the time.

To take an entirely different kind of example, let us go to the island of Okinawa, which Japan annexed in 1879 (and which we will study later). Although technically Okinawa became a full-fledged prefecture of Japan, its actual circumstances were often more akin to those of a colony. Governors of Okinawa were always mainlanders and always appointed by the central government in Tokyo. Their policies typically stressed rudimentary cultural and linguistic training for Okinawans to make them into proper modern Japanese citizens. With this context in mind, consider the following excerpt from a speech made in 1913 by Okinawa's Governor Takahashi:

Because from now on, things must change in accordance with the world's progress, we must reform what should be reformed and stop adhering stubbornly to outmoded ways. In this place [Okinawa], women do not fasten belts around their robes . . . No matter where one might go around here, there are women without fastened belts and women who do not wear underwear. . . . Even in Korea [then a colony of Japan], women wear underwear. . . . Try going to the mainland in your present state of dress. Not only will people laugh at you, they will hold you in contempt. However impressive and learned you might be, others will regard you as idiots.10

Of course, as we have seen above, most mainland Japanese women do not seem to have been wearing underwear at this time either. And the bigger question might be, in any case, what does underwear have to do with anything important in the realm of politics or social conditions? Incidentally, although not as concerned with issues of underwear as in Japan, it was also the case that in China at about this same time, we find much discussion about #hygiene and its relationship to modernity#. In both China and Japan of the 1920s and 30s, wearing underwear (in China the emphasis was sometimes on men's underwear) had become the sign of a modern attitude and outlook, which, if widely adopted, would help society advance.

Despite such quasi-official concern with women's underwear, we should keep things in perspective: most ordinary Japanese of the 1920s and 30s were not much interested in making major changes to the way they dressed. The notion that women of the 1920s and 30s were so modest as to prefer death to exposing themselves is part of a presentist and modernist bias, argues Inoue Shōichi. He further states that since the Second World War, there has been a sharp increase in prudery and self-consciousness about breasts, in the case of women, and the external sexual organs, in the case of both men and women. This development, he says, is the direct result of underwear becoming a standard item of clothing in postwar Japan. Postwar Japanese, in other words, have learned to become ashamed of the parts of the body they cover up with underwear (11:188-89).

In 1925, the police issued a policy against the wearing of *sheer garments by women* (Onna no usumono torishimari). Notice that previous police orders connected with nudity were aimed at controlling the behavior of ordinary people. The policy prohibiting sheer garments, however, was aimed at the well-to-do, for they were the only ones who could afford to wear the expensive and fashionable sheer styles popular in the 1920s. The rationale for the prohibition is that sheer clothing would entice young men into “inappropriate acts” (*though not everyone agreed*). In other words, the *police were aware of the erotic dimension* of fashionable clothing and in this case tried to suppress it. It seems that (male) fear of female sexuality had arrived in full force in Japan just as it was beginning to abate somewhat in Europe.

Perspective: Modern Life and Attempts to Regulate Culture & Personal Behavior

There was a great deal of public and quasi-public concern during the 1920s and 1930s with culture as it related to personal behavior. Nudity and clothing, was but one manifestation of this broader phenomenon. Other manifestations around the world included concern with #proper posture# (Japan, China, & worldwide), attempts to ban or discourage tobacco smoking (China), attempts to reduce masturbation (Japan, #China,# & worldwide), attempts to regulate other aspects of sexual behavior (#Japan,# China, & worldwide), attempts to prohibit public spitting (#China#), and much more. We will examine several of these topics in greater detail in subsequent chapters.

The main impetus for attempts by certain private citizens, public service organizations, public intellectuals, and the state to regulate personal behavior during these years was motivated in large part by a sense of fear and of opportunity. The goal was to develop stronger societies, and the fear was that failure to do so could lead to social or "racial" stagnation or even degeneration vis--vis more dynamic societies in a competitive world. The flip side of this fear was the possibility of advancing the level of culture, vitality, and productivity of one's society or nation. In a very general way, the idea of developing a better society mirrored the realm of high-tech agriculture informed by the emerging knowledge of genetics. Much like animal or plant breeders creating better strains of livestock or crops, so too could social engineers--ideally with support from the state--create a better nation. Concern about private behavior was typically a major component of programs of national strengthening in Japan, China, and elsewhere.

In Japan, a major buzzword was "hygiene" (eisei 衛生), a potent term that in an East Asian context meant much more that sanitation or cleanliness. Between the 1880s and the 1920s, hygiene had come to symbolize modernity in the best sense of the term. Hygiene became a civic, political and moral virtue (#Chinese example#). It even became part of the justification for Japanese colonial expansion. The campaign for women's underwear was a manifestation of the concern to advance hygienic modernity. So, too was the concern with posture in Japanese schools during the early twentieth century. Indeed discussions of posture usually took place under the general label of #"school hygiene"# (gakkō eisei 学校衛生). We examine hygiene and related matters in more detail in the next chapter.

For a look at the changes in gender roles during the period of approximately 1850-1950, #click here.#


1 Takashi Fujitani, “Inventing, Forgetting, Remembering: Toward a Historical Ethnography of the Nation-State,” in Harumi Befu, ed., Cultural Nationalism in East Asia: Representation and Identity (Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 1993), p. 99.

2 Timon Screech, Sex and the Floating World: Erotic Images in Japan, 1700-1820 (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1999), p. 118.

3 Valerie Steele, Fashion and Eroticism: Ideals of Feminine Beauty from the Victorian Era to the Jazz Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 42.

4 Sex and the Floating World, p. 118.

5 Quoted in Masao Miyoshi, As We Saw Them: The First Japanese Embassy to the United States (1860) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), p. 77.

6 In Post-war Japan, until the mid-1980s, visiting hot spring resorts was popular mainly among the elderly. By the start of the 1990s, however, such visits had become popular among young people as well. With this development, it became the norm for bathers to wear swim suits.

7 Fashion and Eroticism.

8 David Freedberg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).

9 Modern Japan had an extensive censorship system, most agents of which were members of a special wing of the police department. Police had broad powers to censor art, literature, speeches, public meetings, and so forth. Although their main concern was political content, “moral” content was also a criterion for censorship. In today’s Japan, pubic hair is the main marker of the boundary between what is “obscene” (and thus prohibited by law) and what is not. Nearly anything is legal for sale or public display so long as it does not display any pubic hair. As you might guess, this strictly-enforced prohibition has generated a particularly strong interest in pubic hair among many Japanese men. Very recently, display of pubic hair has been permitted, but only for “artistic” (definition?) works. What will be next? Is morality about to go to the dogs?!

10 Quoted in Naha-shiyakusho, comp., ed., Naha-shi shi, Shiryō-hen, Vol. 2.3 (Kumamoto, Japan: Shirono Insatsu, 1970), p. 348.