Friday, May 3, 2013

Sexual Harassment in a Japanese Hot Spring

Since there are approximately 27,000 hot springs in Japan, a hot spring is usually close by. So far, I have bathed in about five hundred Japanese hot springs. Just recalling those hot springs returns the sense of relaxation, friendship, and well-being that hot springs give me. There have also been, though, a couple of negative onsen experiences. Once, an emotionally disturbed young boy in an aroused state followed me from bath to bath. I felt like the demon in the photograph.

Most Disturbing Hot Spring Experience

Sexual harassment is a terrible experience for anyone to undergo. It happened to me at a hot spring after a wonderful day of hiking and experiencing nature in Northern Japan during autumn when the mountain foliage turns the colors of fire. At the end of the day, my wife and I dropped into a Japanese onsen to reinvigorate our tight leg muscles. She went to the women’s bathing area and I to the men's facilities.

I was happily sitting alone, enjoying a cool breeze and view of flowers and greenery from a wooden deck of the outside bathing area with my back leaning against the outside surface of a ceramic gyumonburo, which is a small round tub for just one person, when a young boy of approximately thirteen years old walked in my direction, smiled at me, and climbed into the bath that I was leaning against. His behavior struck me as odd.

Men in hot springs often sit close together, but that is only when space is limited. Sitting close to a stranger in an open space is a violation of the personal  space. Feeling uncomfortable, I decided to move to another outside bath that was shaped like a rectangle. The boy immediately followed me. He entered  on the other end, so that we were facing each other. He was staring at me, which children living in the countryside sometimes do to foreigners, so I wasn't too concerned. I decided to close my eyes, forget about him, and concentrate on the sensation of the hot water on my skin.

Shortly afterwards, I opened my eyes. Unbelievably, right in front of me, he was touching himself. I saw the head of his penis protruding above the surface of the water like a periscope or an image of Nessie, the Loch Ness monster. He smiled at me again. I thought about shouting, but thought again. I am a foreigner in my fifties. He was a young teenage Japanese boy in his home country. If any serious problem developed, he could say that I was bothering him. Most people would believe him, and my Japanese wasn’t good enough to convince people otherwise, not too mention that police in almost every country tend to side with natives more than foreigners.

I fled into the washing area, and the boy, with his flag still raised, followed. Several people were busy washing themselves there, but no one said anything even though the boy’s excited state was impossible to miss. The boy sat near me again and started soaping himself. I left and settled into another bath. He would, I hoped, finally get the message and stay away. When the boy sat near me once more, I rushed to the dressing room, dressed quickly, and exited.

While waiting for my wife, I reflected on my feelings. Although, I hadn’t been touched, I had felt violated and powerless, too, because I feared that no one would believe me. The boy, most likely, was emotionally disturbed, but believing that didn’t make me feel better.

I remembered the story of a female friend who caught a man who had climbed a fence to stare into the women’s bath. Another woman had told me about a man exposing himself to her on a train. When I heard those stories, I thought their experiences were terrible, but I could not feel what they had experienced. The one positive result of this incident was that I now better empathize with the feelings of women who, statistically, are more often sexually harassed than men. The experience increased my awareness.

As mentioned at the start of this story, I have been to about five hundred Japanese hot springs, and only three have been bad experiences, which is a tiny percentage. Here is one humorous story of an embarrassing episode. Most Japanese onsens are fantastic places of healing and fun. Click to read an amusing story of friendship. This post is about music, hot springs, tradition, and learning more about Japan.