Trying to “save face” can kill you – especially when taking a hot bath. That happened to me during my time living in Japan.

Back in the 1960s, while attending Waseda University’s International Division, I lived with a Japanese mother and her college-age son (his name was Kenichi) in the outskirts of Tokyo. Kenichi wanted to expose me to various aspects of Japanese living and so he suggested that I should go with him to a public Japanese bathhouse. This sounded interesting and so we went together to a local bathhouse.

I knew a little bit about the proper procedures of the Japanese public bath, so I wasn’t too concerned as we entered the establishment. I figured I could handle it and would just “blend in” Since I looked Japanese, I certainly did not want to appear as though I had never taken a bath before – hence I felt the need to look and act like a normal person in order to “save face” and not embarrass myself.

There was a locker room where we put our clothes and then, in the buff, we filed past a woman who was sitting up high above us in a chair and handing out towels for the customers. Kenichi informed me that the men filed in on one side of the wall and the women on the other side of the wall that led to separate bath areas. The lady looked at me quickly and then handed me a towel set – I figured she had seen thousands of bodies so my body features probably did not stand out in any way, figuratively speaking.

Kenichi and I went into the soap lathering area where one applies soap all over their bodies and then rinses off with a small plastic basin. I should have timed my lathering to coincide with Kenichi but I didn’t want to look like a novice so I made like I’d done this dozens of times and quickly scrubbed myself with soap and then washed it away with the water basin. I was done but Kenichi was taking his sweet time, scrubbing his body, washing and rinsing his hair, cleaning his fingernails, etc.

I was standing there and waiting for Kenichi but I didn’t want to appear like I was “lurking” (especially in a room full of naked men) so I decided not to wait for Kenichi but went into the hot-tub soaking area, which was in the room next door.

There was a long, rectangular hot tub with about 10 people relaxing and soaking. It struck me a little odd but everyone was way down on the right-hand side of the tub and no one was on the left-hand side of the tub. So I decided to enter the tub on the left-hand side – and got the shock of my life!

I stuck my right foot into the water, acting very nonchalant and cool — as if this was my normal, and then I gasped loudly as I discovered the water was soooo hot! I wanted to quickly extract my foot but then everyone sitting on the right-hand side of the tub would know that I didn’t know what I was doing – I would “lose face.” So what did I do? I put the rest of my foot into the unbearably hot water and now I was committed to go all the way. Next, I put in my left foot, and then, to look like everything was all right, I sat down and put the rest of my body in the tub.

I could see that everyone was watching me – I could not lose face so I sat there up to my neck in this ridiculously hot water. I could feel my heart thumping in my chest and I felt like a lobster being boiled for dinner. After about 20 excruciating seconds I thought I may have a heart attack, so I jumped to my feet and exploded out of the water like a Polaris submarine missile! It was clear I had fooled no one who was watching this spectacle.

Just as I erupted from the hot tub, Kenichi came up to me and asked, “Why did you go into the hot section of the tub? No one goes there because it is too hot – even for Japanese!” Now he tells me!

After we got back home and I thought about this bath experience, I realized that my concern about my self-image and saving face nearly killed me (or so it felt). It’s amazing what lengths we may go through in order to save face.


Bill Watanabe writes from Silverlake near Downtown Los Angeles and can be contacted at Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.


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