Japan’s Public Communal Baths Existed in Hawai‘i, Too
Kevin Y. Kawamoto
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Growing up in Hawai‘i, I often heard my father referring to his childhood when he had helped his mother clean their family furo (aka ofuro, a deep Japanese bathtub). I knew the real, old-fashioned ofuro; the Mö‘ili‘ili home of my aunt and uncle had a wooden one that I could soak in when I stayed overnight. But the one my father was talking about seemed much bigger, and it wasn’t made of wood. He’d have to climb into the concrete “furo”-style basin, after it had been emptied of water, then scrub it down from top to bottom — a labor-intensive task, if the job were done right.
I eventually learned that my father’s childhood furo was not the kind belonging in a private home. His mother was the proprietor of a commercial public bathhouse, what Japanese in Japan had called (o)sentö but which local Nikkei described as furo or furoya, except this one was in Honolulu’s Pälama district near Akepo Lane.
My grandmother’s communal furoya was more practical than fancy — not like a modern-day spa — and used by working-class people. In the neighborhood of my grandmother’s furoya, local residents may not have even had their own bathrooms. Multiple families living on the same floor of a tenement building often shared dingy (by today’s standards) bathroom facilities.
By contrast, the neighborhood furoya offered a place for residents to take a proper bath, to gather and chat with extended family members, friends and neighbors. My grandmother’s furoya was located at 629 North King St., somewhere between Akepo Lane and Dillingham Boulevard, in a two-story building which no longer exists. Old-timers who lived in that part of Honolulu may still remember it.
The area hosted small businesses such as a barber shop, a pool hall and mom-and-pop stores. On the building’s second level an assortment of rooms were people’s living quarters. A stairway linked a hallway from the bathing facility to my grandparents’ multi-generational household. Family members had walked up and down the stairs to assist with the business as needed if my grandmother were occupied with other matters.
A Brief History of the Community Furo
The predecessor to the neighborhood furoya was the communal bath of Hawai‘i sugar- and pineapple-plantation housing at the end of the 19th century. When early Japanese immigrants arrived in the islands to work on plantations, they re-created things familiar from their motherland: they reproduced Japan’s sartorial, foodway, religious and newspaper-writing practices. Their recreational pursuits included sumö, kendö, minyö (folk songs), Japanese dance and traditional festivals.
In camps with large numbers of Japanese workers, community baths were often how nikkei laborers cleaned themselves up after a long day out in the fields. Sweaty and dirty from field and factory, issei employees required more than just a splash of water to meet their cleanliness standards. Their bathing ritual had two parts: a thorough washing outside the bath; then, once the body was clean, a soothing soak inside the ofuro. These communal bathing areas are referred to in multiple oral histories and other documented remembrances of plantation-camp life.
In an interview conducted by the University of Hawai‘i Center for Oral History on the lives of Japanese Americans during World War II, veteran Norman Kikuta spoke on the community bathhouse in the West Maui plantation where he grew up in the 1920s. With a father working in the pineapple fields for Baldwin Packers during the early plantation era, Kikuta recalled details about their camp dwelling: a detached kitchen with a dirt floor separate from the main-living quarters; no electric stoves or gas stoves; and people fueling either kerosene or wood-burning stoves.
He recalls no private bath in the early years of plantation life. “We used what was called a community bath, furo,” he explained. “One family would be held responsible for getting the bathwater heated and the bathhouse cleaned and so forth. We used the community bathhouse until about the late 1930s, or else you took either cold showers or heated up water for your bath.” Kikuta said the plantation company provided die-sel fuel to heat up the water for the community bath.
Off the plantations, many Japanese immigrant families in their own new households constructed a simple furoba for bathing that was often separated from the main house. The bathing area to wash off was within the furoba. In a personal history on the 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans Education Center website, World War II veteran Keijiro Umebayashi, born in 1919, described a private family furo of his family in Kahalu‘u.
Umebayashi’s family had a pecking order about who bathed in the furo (tub or basin) first. “The custom was the eldest bathed first and then down the line to the younger family members,” he said in the site’s personal history. “The room was corrugated sheet metal and the original way of getting water was to use rain that fell on the roof, into a gutter and finally a wooden barrel. The barrels in those days were originally from shöyu, sake or miso tubs and recycled from the store.”
The order of furo use by age — oldest to youngest — makes sense since the water was probably too hot for younger members of his family if they bathed first, but the older members of the family may have liked it piping hot. It also taught children about the value of showing deference to older members of the family. In some families, the order of use was by gender (men and boys first) and then by age.
Public Communal Baths in Japan
Furoya culture in Hawai‘i originated in Japan where the practice revolves around sentö, the neighborhood communal bath. Bathing — cleansing the body with water — might not seem like a cultural phenomenon, but not all groups regard it in the same way or enjoy their baths quite as much as the Japanese seem to do. For centuries, Japanese have elevated bathing to the level of an elaborate social ritual. Their customary bath serves a purpose beyond simple personal hygiene.
While most westerners undertake bathing as a decidedly private endeavor, the sentö is more of a shared social experience, serving not only to cleanse the body physically but also to psychologically — and some would say spiritually — soothe the human mind and calm the soul in the presence of other bathers.
Many Japanese find the sentö especially nice after a long, stressful day at work. The cares of the day seem to dissolve in the clean, hot water swallowing every part of the body right up to one’s neck while surrounded by the comfort of community. Although fewer people use sentö these days, communal baths can still be found throughout the country, often marked by the
hiragana character “yu,” which means hot water. Hiragana is used so that even children can identify it as a bathing establishment. Approximately 3,800 sentö operate today in Japan, according to a 2014 episode of NHK’s “Japanology Plus.”
Origins of Sentö
The roots of sentö reach back about 800 years when a bath for monks at a Buddhist temple was opened to the public such as travelers passing through town. Known as an öyuya (“ö” meaning large, “yu” meaning hot water, and “ya” meaning store), these bathhouses for monks to purify their bodies can still be found as part of the layout of some existing Buddhist temples. Nara’s famous Köfukuji temple, for example, which was founded in the 7th century during Japan’s Heian period, has an oyuya.
A Nara tourism website describes the Köfukuji’s bathhouse as having an earthen floor and two large iron cauldrons. Photos suggest that the cauldron was large enough for multiple people to soak at the same time and that in historic times the water would have had to be heated through the use of firewood.
“The practice of cleanliness at Buddhist temples influenced the growth of bathing culture in Japan seen in the popularity of sentö and onsen,” the website explains.
Although often confused for each other, onsen is a hot spring where the water is heated by the earth’s natural geothermal processes, whereas sentö tend to use heated tap water. Japan’s dynamic onsen culture is a whole subject for a separate article, but suffice to say there are more than 2,000 onsen throughout Japan, thanks to the country’s volcanically active geological features.
As mentioned previously, sentö establishments are more than just a place to take a bath. Regardless of their size, sentö are governed by a general protocol for bathers, well-understood rules of behavior followed by seasoned Japanese customers. Non-Japanese-speaking newcomers may be less aware of the protocol, especially if signage is only in Japanese. Perhaps the most important is to wash oneself thoroughly before getting into the furo to soak so as not to dirty the water for other bathers. This is an important Ja-panese value: Think of others, not just of yourself.
A website called “Tokyo Sento” (tokyosento.com/manner ; select English-language translation) explains the steps to take when entering a sentö establishment (slightly modified here for clarity):
1) Take off your footwear and put them in
2) Pay the bathing fee;
3) Find a vacant locker in the changing
room, and put all of your clothes in it;
4) Head to the bathing room with a small
towel, provided, to use for bathing;
5) Sit on a small stool in front of a wash
basin and wash off;
6) Relax in the large bathtub; and
7) Use the small towel to dry off before returning to the changing room to get dressed. The small towel should not be used in the furo but can be folded neatly and placed on top of one’s head to keep it out of the hot water. Most sentö are separated by the sexes, although children under a certain age may accompany parents of the opposite sex.
A 1990 NHK documentary about sentö in Japan called, “Aging in Japan: When Traditional Mechanisms Vanish,” examined one huge, modern sentö facility that was used as an ad-hoc full-time residence by many older Japanese adults. At this multi-level establishment, the building is open to visitors 24 hours a day and includes a common area where meals can be purchased and consumed, as well as a “relaxation room” that can be used by overnight guests for sleeping.
Some elders even prefer this sentö to living at home with their adult children and grandchildren. The sentö has become their de facto retirement community, a place where they can chat with other elders, relax in the furo, and sleep overnight in the large hostel-style room with dozens of modern futon-type mattresses laid out on the floor side by side. Of course, these overnighters have to pay a reasonable fee for the accommodations and services, but the elders seem satisfied. One older Japanese woman who was slightly disabled from a mild stroke had been staying at the sentö full-time for two years.
“For various reasons [people] have come to spend their last days away from home,” the narrator observes in the NHK documentary, “[among them] we found humble lives tenderly encountering one another.”
The documentary suggested that Japan’s rapidly aging population required options for various types of eldercare. While not necessarily an ideal solution, the sentö in question was one such option and even resembled a kind of community, where long-term customers seemed to look after each other’s welfare and bond socially.
Back to Hawai‘i
Very little research seems to have been done on the existence of Japanese public communal baths in Hawai‘i — whether on the plantations or as private establishments in communities such as Pälama, Kaka‘ako, Hale‘iwa or other places with sizable ethnic Japanese populations. Knowledge of their existence is typically through brief stories — in writing or by word-of-mouth — that were incidental to longer personal histories about other topics. But for many Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans, these community baths and furoya in Hawai‘i were an essential part of life at one time before they all but disappeared from the social fabric of twentieth-century Japanese American society.
Robert C. Schmitt, once State Statistician with the former Hawai‘i Department of Planning and Economic Development, included a relatively brief discussion about “public bathhouses” in an essay called, “Pipes, Pools, and Privies: Some Notes on Early Island Plumbing,” in a 1982 issue of the Hawaiian Journal of History. The article was essentially about the evolution of bathroom plumbing in Hawai‘i, but he diverged to other related topics, such as public communal baths. Schmitt quotes an observation by Hawaii’s Commissioner of Labor who wrote in 1905 that “the Japanese bathe daily” and that “[h]ot water is used, and a single large tub — in which both sexes bathe together indiscriminately — suffices for the needs of a number of laborers. Private bath houses, conducted in much the same manner, are common in the Oriental quarters of Honolulu.”
From this excerpt and other parts of this article, we can determine that the furoya in the community must have existed at least as far back as the late nineteenth century. Schmitt quotes another writer who explains that as the Japanese moved off the plantations and into towns and cities, “they made the Japanese bath an integral part of their own dwellings or supported the establishment of public bathhouses. Before the war there were as many as a dozen public bathhouses, numerous furo baths in private homes, and even a few in the homes of persons of non-Japanese background.”
While Schmitt’s article is not primarily about furoya, he makes a good point worth repeating here. Modern indoor plumbing was not a convenience enjoyed by plantation laborers. Families in these camps were assigned outhouses for their use, and these outhouses did not have running water for flushing. This is reason enough for the outhouses to be situated a far enough distance away from the living quarters. Moreover, bath water had to be heated on an open fire, which made it prudent for the bathhouse — and for similar reasons, the kitchen — to be safely distanced from the main house. In fact, indoor plumbing was not common-place even in the 1940s. The U.S. Census of 1940 revealed that only 63.2% of dwelling units in the Territory of Hawai‘i had access to a flush toilet, and 63.1% had a bathtub or shower.
My grandmother’s furoya on North King St., Pälama, was probably similar to other communal bathing facilities in Hawai‘i in terms of protocols and physical layout. My oldest sister, Susan, lived above the furoya until 1960 and also regularly bathed there as a child, even helping to staff the front desk at times if no one else was available although she was still in elementary school. Her recollection of the layout provided the basis for the sketch that accompanies this article, which is not drawn exactly to scale as we are not architects.
Customers would enter the furoya from double doors on North King and proceed to the counter where they would pay a bathing fee of about five or 10 cents. They could also purchase some personal-hygiene items. There were two sections of the furoya. With one’s back facing the entrance, the right side was the women’s section and had its own door. The left side was the men’s section and had its own door, which required walking down a hallway on the left side of the establishment.
Each side had cubby holes where customers would place their clothes before proceeding toward the furoba. Between the cubby holes and the ofuro, people could sit on a low wall along the outer edge of the room. Cold water was available toward the inner wall. Customers would scoop water from the furo using a metal bowl for that purpose to wash themselves outside of the furo. Once they were clean, they could enter the furo. There was a step on the outside of the furo and another step on the inside of the furo to assist getting in and out of the furo.
Outside in back of the building, there was a common area where anyone could gather around to socialize, and there was also a wood-burning furnace. My sister remembers a pile of wood behind the back door in the hallway, but she was not exactly sure how the water was heated by the furnace and piped into the furo. When the establishment closed for the night, the water would be emptied; my father would scrub down the empty furo basin in preparation for the next day’s re-filling. My sister guesses each furo was about 15’ by 15’, large enough for a small girl like herself to do two butterfly strokes in it.
How my grandmother got started in the furoya business is unclear. She was born on a sugar plantation on Kaua‘i and grew up deep in Hanapepe Valley, the eldest of seven children, after her father left plantation life and took up rice farming so he could be his own boss. My grandmother had only an elementary-school education; she helped her mother raise the younger children. Yet she also managed to move to O‘ahu as a young woman and run her own business while her husband worked as a dental technician making false teeth.
In 1960 she was forced to close the furoya because the building was to be demolished to pave the way for a more modern housing development, which meant homes with reliable indoor plumbing, private showers and even bathtubs. Old Honolulu was disappearing, and along with it, the cultural artifacts of a bygone era. Western attitudes toward bathing prevailed, and the convenience of a quick shower at home took precedence over the public communal bath. By several accounts, my grandmother was sad to leave the business behind. As Hawai‘i changed, the furoya became a thing of the past.
For a time in Hawai‘i’s history, the community bath and the furoya were unique features of the Japanese immigrant/AJA experience. Fortunately, visitors to Japan can find similar bathing-soaking rituals at sentö and onsen. One wonders, though, how the current pandemic will affect the future viability of these establishments. Perhaps at some point when it is safe to do so, people will want to immerse themselves in the reportedly healing waters of sentö and onsen, metaphorically washing their worries away, and rejuvenating mind and body to celebrate our return back to normal.
Kevin Y. Kawamoto is a long-time contributor to The Hawai‘i Herald.