"Turkish baths" by any other name

The politics of Japanese rubdownsSubtitle

By William Wetherall

Drafted 27 January 1985
Posted 28 Jaunary 2006

Article written for Far Eastern Economic Review but not published.


"The Turkish bath has so spread around the world that it has almost become a proper noun", wrote William Fitzpatrick, author of Istanbul After Dark (1970) and similarly titled tomes on fun capitals east and west. "You can find Turkish baths anywhere," he added -- from Stockholm, London, and Vienna to San Francisco, Tokyo, and Hong Kong -- even in Istanbul.

But in Japan, torukoburo (Turkish bath) is a controversial synonym for a "bathhouse cum massage parlor" that offers a "carnalcopia" of sexual services which may be cryptically listed on the schedule of charges at the entrance. About 1,700 "turkish baths" employing some 18,000 "attendants" are in operation throughout the country, mainly in the entertainment districts of large cities like Tokyo, Yokohama, and Osaka. They are commonly known as just toruko, but are called tokushu yokujo (special bathhouse) in legal parlance. Recent offshoots include mantoru (mansion Turkish bath) in condominium apartments, and hotetoru (hotel Turkish bath) that send "masseuses" to hotels.

One merely has to say "toruko" and most taxi drivers will steer you to the nearest tub of iniquity. This poses an embarrassing problem for anyone who asks to be taken to the "Turkish Embassy" -- but ends up in a narrow alley filled with gaudy neon signs flashing the three syllables which also represent the Japanese word for Turkey. Turkish citizens in Japan are further annoyed by the raised eyebrows and jokes they meet when saying where they were born or come from.

Japan's Turkish residents have long complained about the free use of their nom de nation with connotations of what some Japanese papers have called "illicit sex" -- as though the legality of the services mattered. But in September last year, a "young Turk" seismologist named Nusret Sanjakli, who the year before had advocated in a prize-winning speech in Japanese that Japan's "Turkish baths" were an insult to his country, petitioned the Minister of Health and Welfare to put a stop to the "derogatory and extremely injurious" use of the word toruko with connotations of bathhouse prostitution.

Turkish Embassy officials in Tokyo, beginning with Ambassador Nurver Nures, also took up the banner of reform. Information Attache Ilhan Oguz sent letters in both Japanese and English to the national dailies, thanking them for their editorial support of the name-change movement. Friends of Turkey throughout Japan also came to the call.

The Health and Welfare Ministry endorsed the name-change cause by dispatching notices to prefectural and municipal governments, asking them to "guide" bathhouses to drop from their names any words that denote a foreign country, person, religion, brand name, or public institution. While such name changes were to be left to the initiative of bathhouse operators, local health inspectors were encouraged to get involved. This, with the promise of greater "surveillance" by police when the recently revised Public Morals Business Control Law (REVIEW, 6 Sepember 84) goes into effect on 13 February this year, gave even more incentive for bathhouse associations to lather up their public image.

Other institutions also cooperated. The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) of Tokyo decided to stop using toruko when referring to the special bathhouses in its internal documents. And Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT), a public corporation, announced that it would no longer list toruko as a business classification in future editions of its telephone directories.

The All-Japan Confederation of Special Bath Associations, which represents about 570 or one-third of all bathhouses, had already been discussing the name problem when Sanjakli made his appeal to the government. Spurred by the new publicity, the confederation quickly agreed not to use the word toruko, and it directed all of its member associations to do likewise.

Within days of the appeal, most associations were conceding that their popular but criticized "tradename" needed revision, if only in consideration of international friendship. A few associations made name changes mandatory and set dates by which compliance was expected of member bathhouses. But some called only for voluntary action, while other adopted a wait-and-see posture or defended the word.

The 110 bathhouses affiliated with the Tokyo Speical Bathhouse Association (which are concentrated in the old Yoshiwara district of Taito ward, where prostitution used to be licensed) decided in December last year to call their places of business soopurando (soapland). Members had until 31 January this year to change their signs, at an average cost of about 1.5 million yen (US$6,000) each.

The 24-year-old trading-company employee who got a three-day trip to Hokkaido, for submitting the winning name in a publicized contest that drew over 2,400 entries, said he considered only English-based words, which are increasing popular in a culture that places a high premium on exoticness for its own sake. He first thought of baburu (bubble), but concluded that soopu had a nicer ring to it. Disneyland and other "playlands" were his models for rando.

But the sudsy name may not wash well with other bathhouse groups, especially Tokyo's largest organization, whose nearly 200 member businesses include most of the "special bathhouses with private rooms" in Shinjuku ward's notorious Kabukicho district. The Yoshiwara bathhouses are actually favored by the new Tokyo ordinances that will go into effect the same day that the revised control law begins to have legal force nationwide. The ordinances are primarily aimed at stemming but also reversing the growth of sex-related businesses in places like Kabukicho, especially those detrimental to juveniles. The revised national law will prohibit the opening of special bathhouses within 200 meters of schools and other public facilities, and will limit the continuation of such places now operating within such limits to the proprietorships of their present owners. Tokyo's new ordinances will prohibit the opening of any new massage parlor, or special bathhouse with private rooms, outside the old Yoshiwara area.

Tokyo's ordinances will additionally make it illegal to open other places of sexual entertainment, including porn shops, within 200 meters of schools, libraries, child-welfare facilities, and hospitals and clinics. Shinjuku ward, its offices in Kabukicho and all but surrounded by sex-related businesses, recently opened a small library whose stacks of books will give the ward a legal fulcrum for leveraging some of the sex shops out of business.

The chief of Shinjuku ward is said to have asked the National Police Agency (NPA) in February last year to seek parliamentary revision of the national law controlling places of business affecting public morals. He apparently did so with the backing of Kabukicho citizens who viewed the spread of sex-oriented commerce as a cancer growing on their social environment and on non-sex-related businesses in their neighborhoods.

The "Turkish bath" issue has divided opinions inside and outside the sex industry. Bathhouse operators are obviously concerned because their businesses, by whatever name, are facing a recession due not only to competition from an over-proliferation of the species and the evolution of cheaper and more novel forms of sexual entertainment, but also to anticipation of the natural attrition that will follow enforcement of the new regulations.

Turkish Embassy officials are naturally elated that most of the "Turkish baths" will be getting new -- if diverse -- names, and Shinjuku ward bureaucrats are celebrating what appears to be a political victory of good over evil. But those who oppose the bathhouses themselves, and not just their names or locations, are disappointed that the revised laws encourage the idea that sex for pay is okay if zoned and monitored -- not withstanding the Anti-Prostitution Act of 1956, which legally prohibited aiding and abetting sexual transactions, but evidently failed to prevent "Turkish baths".

The new laws have provoked a number of "The Day After" scenarios. The shops that become illegal as of 13 February will go out of business or change to acceptable product lines, but others will merely redress their windows with the new laws and continue to market their proven stock.

Most sex-related businesses are banding together to help each other survive. Some Kabukicho establishments have formed the New Morals Improvement Association, which has adopted five principles intended to publicize the "sincerity" of its willingness to help its members "upgrade" themselves: (1) no sexual intercourse, (2) no drugs or gangster connections, (3) no employment of women under 18 years of age, (4) no employment of foreign women, and (5) honest bookkeeping.

But other establishments have formed vigilance networks to provide early warning of police raids, possibly with the help of the rumored "wires" between yakuza bosses and law-enforcement officials. Thus most observers are predicting that illegalized sexual entertainments will simply go underground, where the prices and risks will be higher in proportion to the gangster involvement needed to "manage" them.

The "anti-toruko" movement has also invited speculation as to whom, or to what, its partial success should be attributed. Japan Times columnist Jean Pearce credited "the Turkish people who followed a Japanese approach in working for change" along with "the good sense of the Japanese public who recognized the rightness of their cause."

A strong Japanese desire to keep on the good side of Islamic countries in West Asia, even those that produce little oil, could also account for the official and popular support of the name-change issue. This certainly seems plausible in the light of how the Japanese government has treated appeals -- especially from Koreans -- to moderate national laws that affect foreigner residents.

But the imputation of meaning to the name-change trend is not so simple. Relaxing an Alien Registration Law in the face of organized civil disobedience within Japan by resident aliens, most of them the offspring of Koreans who immigrated as colonial subjects before 1945, would weaken the conservative government's stance on law-and-order by accommodating what some Yamato majorities regard as the tantrums of an unwanted minority that has forgotten its place in the rising sun.

Even President Chun of the Republic of Korea, on his recent state visit to Japan, failed to move the Japanese government to ease its policy of prosecuting resident Koreans who are protesting the Alien Registration Law by refusing to give their fingerprints. Nearly 100 Koreans and other resident foreigners have thus far done so, and about ten are defending themselves in court with the argument that requiring fingerprints of all resident aliens, but only of Japanese who are suspected or convicted criminals, is both discrimination and a violation of human rights under United Nations conventions.

At a time when heroes are in great demand, it is truly tempting to think that a handful of Turkish residents, with little more than a determined gripe about the sexual behaviors that some people in Japan (but also elsewhere) are inclined to associate with the name of their country, succeeded in persuading the right people in and out of government to help them promote the disuse of the word toruko in reference to a "steamy bath" in which the "t" (as in "Turkish tradition") was somehow lost in transit or translation. But surely there is more to social change than this.

Supporting the campaign of a lone sojourner who represents a non-threatening nationality is, after all, wholly consistent with the Japanese government's overt campaign to restore pre-war social values, and with the less-avowed efforts of the National Police Agency to increase its autonomous power over how people act and think. Nor should it be forgotten that these symbiotic concerns of government and police enjoy the backing of a "moral minority" which has become more openly critical of Japan's drift towards forms of decadence and delinquency that are conveniently seen as infections of western civilization -- this despite all evidence to the contrary that Japan's sexual predilections are, like those of other human communities, culturally (if not biologically) both indigenous and indelible.