FUKUOKA -- More public baths and hot springs in Japan are lowering the maximum age at which mixed gender bathing is permitted, from 9 to 6. The changes, which come as local governments amend outdated age regulations dating to the Showa period (1926-1989), have relieved many bathers.
"My daughter has always disliked changing in front of men with the exception of my husband," said a 35-year-old mother of a 6-year-old first grader in the southwest Japan city of Fukuoka. "I'm relieved that she won't have to face anyone close to her in age at the public baths going forward."
The city of Fukuoka amended an ordinance in July this year, lowering the age at which coed bathing should be restricted from 10 and older to 7 and older.
Kozo Harada, executive director of a trade organization for public bath businesses in Kagoshima Prefecture, commented, "Guests (who have seen boys go into the women's baths) have asked, 'Shouldn't they be separated from the women?' Children's bodies mature earlier now than they used to, so I think it's appropriate that we lower the age from 10 to 7."
In December 2020, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare amended hygiene management guidelines for both public baths and hotel businesses. The revisions lowered the recommended age for restrictions on coed bathing from "roughly 10 and up" to "roughly 7 and up," and prefectural governments, along with cities and special wards with public health centers, were notified.
The guidelines are not legally binding, but in addition to Kagoshima Prefecture and the city of Fukuoka, the prefectures of Ibaraki, Tokyo, Toyama, Ishikawa, Gifu, Osaka, Tokushima, Fukuoka and Nagasaki, and the cities of Sendai, Kanazawa and Kitakyushu have already lowered the age to 7, or made the decision to bring down the age to 7 through the revision of ordinances and other rules. This seems to be the nationwide trend, although there are exceptions: Saga Prefecture has left the decision to business operators, while Kumamoto Prefecture, where the maximum age had been set at 8, determined that this was already "roughly 7." The Hokkaido city of Sapporo, meanwhile, lowered the age from 12 to 10.
The revisions were triggered by a report released in July 2020 by a research group headed by Seiji Ueda, a professor at the University of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo who specializes in school health and health education. The team surveyed ordinances that 154 local governments had in place based on the Public Bath Houses Act in July 2020, and found 124 local governments stipulated restrictions on the age of coed bathing. Bans on co-ed bathing among children aged 10 and older were the most common, implemented by 93 local governments. Fifteen local governments applied the ban to children 12 and older, 14 local governments to children aged 8 and older, and two local governments to those aged 7 and older.
Meanwhile, in a survey covering 3,631 adult men and women, around 2,000 said they thought "children at a certain age should be prohibited from coed bathing across the board." About half of those people said that the ages when coed bathing should be banned should be 6 and older or 7 and older. When 1,500 boys and girls aged 7 to 12 were asked when they began to feel embarrassed about bathing with the opposite sex, the most common answer was "6," cited by 27.0% of the children, while 21.2% said "7."
The seemingly out-of-touch age limit of "10 and older" dates back to the Showa period. The health ministry at the time issued a notice that was different in name from the current hygiene management guidelines, and back then, the age was set at 10, too, according to a ministry official who added, "We haven't been able to pinpoint when the earliest notice was sent out." The oldest notice that set the age at 10 that professor Ueda's research group was able to find was from 1948.
"There had been issues with children begrudgingly bathing with their parent of the opposite sex, and of customers at public bathing facilities complaining to proprietors about children of the opposite sex coming into the baths," Ueda said. "I expect that these problems will be alleviated with the revision to the guidelines."
Chie Hoashi, the head of Inout Tourism Laboratory, a Fukuoka-based company that engages in inbound business and tourism marketing, indicated that it was necessary to lower the coed bathing age from the standpoint of welcoming inbound tourists, saying, "There are many foreign tourists who are uncomfortable with those of the opposite sex being in the bath with them, even though they are children."
Some people, though, worry about letting children who have just started elementary school bathe on their own, with concerns about them tripping and falling, and about the possibility of sexual abuse. An official in charge of public bathhouses in the city of Ibusuki in Kagoshima Prefecture revealed, "Businesses are worried about young children being on their own, too, so they ask regular customers to 'look out for them.'"
"Considerations must be made for a wide range of families, such as single-parent families and families with children who have disabilities," Hoashi said. "As a basic rule, each facility operator has the final say. But if a bathhouse were to provide a discount to families who need to rent out whole baths, for example, it could boost the number of fans of the bathhouse and help increase customers."
(Japanese original by Azusa Yamazaki, Kyushu News Department)