“Public baths are the shortest route there is to moral and spiritual enlightenment. Careful reflection shows this.”

It does — comic novelist Shikitei Sanba (1776-1822) is quite right — and it’s a theme worth developing. First, however, a digression.

“The lord of Iyo (in Shikoku) lost a favorite hawk,” writes a Nagoya samurai diarist in an entry dated 1692, “and he sought it throughout his domain. One day, a certain farmer went out to tend his fields, while his wife stayed home with her weaving. A hawk flew in and perched on the loom. The wife took her shuttle and struck the bird, which straightway died.”

What was the punishment for accidentally killing (the woman had not struck with murderous intent) a lord’s favorite hawk? Whatever, the lord said it was. That, in essence, was Japanese law during the Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1867) — whatever someone above in the rigid social hierarchy said it was to someone below. Enraged, the lord had the woman crucified. He pardoned her husband, who hadn’t been home at the time — but he didn’t have to. Had his rage been a little greater, the husband would have been similarly dealt with, without anyone crying injustice or rising up in protest.

This trivial episode tells us much about Tokugawa rule — its gross cruelty, its boundless arbitrariness, its utter blindness to any moral standard beyond absolute submission to absolute power. As historian Charles Dunn tells us, “(The) criminal code, such as it was, could be changed without warning. This was in keeping with the fundamental Tokugawa attitude, derived from Confucian precepts” — selectively interpreted — “that the people should not be instructed as to what the law might be, but should be content to do what they were told.”

Astonishingly, they more or less were. They were not always docile. Famine drove peasants to riot thousands of times in the course of the Tokugawa Period. Impoverished townsmen too erupted from time to time. But on popular demands for individual freedom, human rights, minimal human dignity, the rule of law, the contemporary literature is silent. The poet Matsuo Basho (1644-94), whose unfettered lifestyle and supposed enlightenment should perhaps have given freedom some value in his eyes, wrote instead, “The august light of Tokugawa rule illumines the whole firmament, and its beneficent rays reach into every corner of the land so that all the people may live in security and peace.”

Peace, unquestionably, was an asset. Pax Tokugawa had been preceded by two centuries of civil carnage. A people forged in such fires might well give peace priority over freedom. Besides, freedom has many meanings. There is political freedom, which Tokugawa Japan knew nothing of; there is social freedom, which to the extent that it means a poverty-stricken peasant child may by dint of ability and application rise beyond his station, was practically nonexistent; and there is individual freedom, which was restricted enough but did exist, here and there, in isolated corners of this grim prison-society.

In the bath, for instance. “It is a truth of Heaven, Earth and all nature,” we read in Sanba’s “Bathhouse of the Floating World” (1809-13), “that everyone, wise or foolish, righteous or evil, rich or poor, high or low, goes naked into the bath.” Yes, “both master and servant stand naked after they’ve washed away the grime of greed and worldly wants and rinsed themselves with fresh water — and you can’t tell which is which!”

Two preliminary remarks may be made about the popular literature of the Tokugawa Period. One: there was a vast profusion of it, in response to rapidly spreading literacy. Two: it was boisterous, exuberant, crude, vulgar and so vivid, so alive, that perusing it (in brilliant English translations anthologized in “Early Modern Japanese Literature,” edited by Haruo Shirane) is as close to time travel as we’re likely to come.

In the metropolis of Edo (present-day Tokyo) were more than 600 sento (public baths). There was a gradual drift through the Tokugawa centuries from mixed bathing to separate bathing. Sanba’s bathhouse is separate; he sets one scene in the men’s bath, another in the women’s. Here reigns — floats, rather — the true spirit of Edo: “Naked, the lustiest young bathers feel bashful and hold towels over their private parts. Fierce warriors, washing themselves off before bathing, endure the hot water splashed by others onto their heads and resign themselves to the ways of crowded places. Even irritable toughs with spirits and gods tattooed on their arms say, ‘Pardon please.’ … Where else but in a public bath such virtues be found?”

Bathing is clean, of course: “Hot water warms the body, loosens dirt, cures diseases, relieves fatigue and otherwise shows the path of benevolence.” To scrub the body is to scrub the mind. Manners soften. “The path of courtesy is evident whenever a new bather entering the tub says, ‘Pardon me, I’m a rough country person,’ or in winter says, ‘Forgive my cold body.'” Higher truths come down to Earth: “The sign at the bathhouse entrance tells bathers, ‘Full payment each time’ and helps them realize that life is short and comes only once.”

Now it’s morning — “the streets are filled with the chants of beggars” — and the women’s bath comes alive. Sanba takes us inside. “‘Ho, it’s really cold this morning!’ says a shivering woman as she slides open the paper-covered door. Eighteen or 19, obviously unmarried, she looks like a singer and shamisen player.” She falls into talk with a young woman who works in a restaurant. How amusing their customers are! — guilty of this gaucherie and that — “Still,” says the shamisen player of the man she’d been up late entertaining the night before, “he’s gentle and well-behaved. And he buys lots of drinks and knows how to hold his liquor. He doesn’t lose control the way that Kasubei does.”

Who is Kasubei and what is his way of losing control? We’ll never know. The women finish up and part company, each to get on with her day, as we must get on with ours — very differently, and yet how differently, after all?

Michael Hoffman’s latest book, due out in November, is “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan.”

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