Lighting of public baths in the Edo period

Public baths became the tradition of Edo (Tokyo) in the Edo period (1603-1868) and are mentioned in the abundant materials produced by the writer and artist Kitagawa Morisada.

bathing tradition

The first public bath ‘sento’ appeared in Edo in 1591. According to ‘Realistic Stories’ data, a man named Issei Yuichi opened this new facility in what is now Otemachi in Chiyoda, in the central Tokyo office area .

The heat and steam were such that the man could drown and it was difficult to speak or open his eyes. But the inhabitants of Edo quickly became accustomed to the public baths – the temperature may have been adjusted – which became part of city life in the Edo period.

Public bathrooms sometimes had signs with allegorical drawings indicating an arch and an arrow, meaning “shoot an arrow from your bow” as if the meaning was “enter the bathroom”. But it became less common at the end of the Edo period. Since 1830, it has become normal to wear a piece of dark blue cloth with the letters ‘Men’, ‘Women’ and ‘Bath’.

The entrance fee was usually 10 monas per adult (1 moon equals about 12 yen today). But as part of the ‘tenpo’ reforms initiated by the shogunate since 1841, the tariffs were set at 8 months for adults, 6 months for children and 4 for infants. (These awards appear in the main image of this article, which describes a sign for a public restroom.)

Kitagawa Morisada, who wrote the sign, was a passionate historian who chronicles life in Japanese cities during the nineteenth century. He noted that the increase in the price of firewood around 1862-1863 brought the entrance fee for adults to 12 months.

Many goods became more expensive at the time because of the effects of opening the country into the hands of American Commodore Matthew Perry. The mogul’s degeneration also witnessed bloody events, such as the March 24, 1860 assassination of the Grand Minister (a position equivalent to Prime Minister) Ie Nausuke, and the assassination of a British merchant by a samurai from Satsuma (now Kagoshima Prefecture). ) on September 14, 1862 in the Namamogi incident.

Entry fees were further increased in 1865 to 16 on Monday and the following year to 24 on Monday as political uncertainty affected daily costs. This is the era that Morisada has marked.

narrow and dark

Among the materials left by Morisada is a sketch depicting a floor plan of a public bath in Edo.


A floor plan of a bathroom in Edo showing the presence of (1) ‘Doma’ which is an entrance space on the ground floor, (2) reception desk in the bathroom, (3) changing areas, (4) washing areas , (5) ‘zakuroguchi’, which are the entrances to the shower rooms, (6) the bathrooms. From the sketches of Morisada (courtesy of the National Library of Parliament).

Behind the reception area and reception desk, the bathroom is divided into men’s showers on the left and women’s bathrooms on the right. The design of the changing, laundry and bathroom areas is almost identical to the current bathroom designs.

What is different is the zakuroguch area between the bath and the bathrooms. The Koji dictionary defines ‘zakuroguchi’ as the entrances to the baths of the Edo period. It was low so the showers had to bend to cross. Thus the bathrooms looked more like separate rooms than part of the same space as the wash area.

Morisada shows the design differences between those entrances to Osaka and Edo.

Zakuroguchi in Osaka (left) and Edo.  From the sketches of Morisada (courtesy of the National Library of Parliament).
Zakuroguchi in Osaka (left) and Edo. From the sketches of Morisada (courtesy of the National Library of Parliament).

The baths originated in western Japan, so Zakuroguchi in Osaka on the left represents the first version. It is luxurious in design and features red caps and floral patterns. While the entrance to the baths in Edo is reminiscent of the torii gate of the temples.

There are also photos above the bath entrances in Edo showing landscapes and people, but the details are not clear. Today, Mount Fuji is a common feature in public bath artwork, but this connection between the mountain and public baths is believed to have begun in the early 20th century. Morisada’s sketches did not mention Fuji’s photos.

Born about 50 years before Morisada, writer Santo Keoden included sketches of bathrooms in Edo in his 1802 work “Mixed Wisdom and Stupidity in New Bathroom Stories.”


Men's bathroom in
Men’s Bath in Santo Queden “Wisdom and Folly Mixed in New Tales of Baths”. The upper image shows Zakoroguchi, and the lower image overlooks the wash area, with a visible bucket in the wash area (courtesy of the National Parliament Library).

Note the zakuroguchi model with western-style caps, which shows that this design was still seen in Edo in the early 19th century. But for some reason, it seems to have been replaced by a torii-gate design 50 years later.

However, the shower area was low, narrow and dark ceiling. It was not like the open and well-lit sentiment of our day. Despite this, it was a place of relaxation for the general public of the city.

Prohibition of mixed showers

Morisada wrote that mixed bathing was normal in Edo, but Matsudaira Sadanobu, a senior shogun adviser, ordered the bathrooms to be separate. It is true that mixed bathing in senti was typical during most of the Edo period.

The Kansei Reforms (1787-1793), initiated by Sadanobu, banned mixed bathing. For Sadanobu, who promoted austerity and the suppression of entertainment, men and women bathing together had a tendency to corrupt public morals.

But when he ran out of energy, some baths apparently brought mixed showers. But Tenbo reforms again tightened rules and public baths for men and women became completely separate.


Toyohara Kunichika’s “Naked Flower Rivalry in the Women’s Bath” (1868) depicts an imaginary scene of a women’s bath. Shown in the upper right of the photo, a bathroom worker assisting in the washing (courtesy of the National Parliament Library).

In some rare cases when the bathrooms are with limited space where the bathtubs can not be shared, there may be rooms for women. In a classic rakugo tale, yoyaban (bathroom attendant), a corrupt guy of a merchant dreams in his dreams that he works in Sento and that it is only for women, and has a good view from the receptionist station in the bathroom.

Coincidentally, a photo at the Ryosenji Temple in Shizuoka Prefecture shows a mixed bath in the last years of the shogunate. He describes the shower area in double designs typical of Osaka and Kyoto, and a mixed bath area. The temple witnessed the signing of the Japanese-American Treaty of Friendship and Trade in 1858, and the photograph is said to have been painted by a foreigner.

Thus, mixed baths continued outside Edos, though in this city they were forbidden, and the tradition is still followed today in some parts of Japan.

(Originally published in Japanese on May 22, 2021. Translated from English. Photo of the banner from Morisada sketches courtesy of the Library of the National Parliament)

Leave a Comment