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Your uncomfortableness is making me uncomfortable..

February 17, 2014 The Wine Time Dad 0 Comments Category : , ,

When I was in Japan, I got used to seeing a cornucopia of cultural nuances that were and are considered strange by western standards. Now, personally I didn't think these nuances were strange or off, but so acutely aware of my own cultural unfamiliarity with these nuances, that I was determined to press on with an open mind. After several years in the far east, I really only noticed these things when other tourists or "newbs" pointed them out to me. With many [foreign] customs and cultural oddities, it was a breathe of fresh air.

For example, seeing the majority of the people around you wearing surgical masks became nothing to bat an eyelid at. I later discovered that many people use them as a social crutch, in that the mask gave them a bit of confidence where they normally lacked it, or they became uncomfortable without the facial shield. But, mostly they were used for supposed sanitary reasons (reasons that were sometimes misguided and misinformed). Even I got used to having to wear one, from time to time, when I was under the weather and at work (we rarely took sick days in Japan, unless you had the flu).

The junior high and elementary school kids I used to teach would even draw mouths on them or turn them into ninja or monster masks. Yes, the tide of asian faces with white surgical masks on eventually just grew on me. If I had walked out of my house or a Tokyo train station and didn't see anyone with a mask on, I would've assumed that I had awoken in a nightmare or the twilight zone.

Another custom of Japanese culture that I got used to and initially needed some guidance in was the public baths or onsen, where the rule is: no bathing suits allowed. Yup, everyone walks around naked with little vanity towels that many people just tie around their heads. Mind you, most of the public baths are not co-ed but still... There was just so much nakedness in a large open area (I d
That about sums it up!

It was literally a lot to take in, my first time in the world of nude public bathing. Everything from men grunting out stretches with their parts swinging to and fro, to children (girls under 7ish were allowed in either side as long as they were accompanied by an adult) running around and talking to you, totally oblivious of their nudity and yours. To old men massaging their junk- sometimes while staring at you. You even had other guys checking out your parts, to see if there was some stereotype to suss out while the opportunity presented itself.

While seeing non-Japanese people in the onsens isn't rare, depending on what part of the country you're in, it isn't always common. They may see a westerner in the onsen once a month or less, so it was totally okay to stare and compare. In some places, it's so much of a rarity that adults and kids will go out of there way to talk to you. My neighbor and I were once attacked by a pair of young girls, while their father sat by and just smiled, asking us questions about our home countries and whatnot. He didn't care that his naked children were splashing two foreign guys with water and making a racket.

It's just onsen culture, and I would take me more verbiage than I want to lay down, here, to explain.

Yes, nudity in the onsen was something that I became so comfortable with, that I no longer noticed after the 3rd or 4th time in one. It was just normal- an accepted part of life. Even getting dressed next to several men, with various parts bumping into me, didn't cause me much alarm.

It probably helped that it was a cultural thing, so there was no stigma against it. Even talking about various bodily functions in public wasn't a major faux pas.

So when I returned to the States, I thought I would be more comfortable with my own nudity in a locker room. I thought my years of cultural reeducation would, more or less, direct my sensibilities and I would be one of those guys who wasn't uncomfortable with standing nude in a locker room.

However, that's not the case and I'm no less shy about it than I was before I left the States. The only people, I've found, that consistently aren't bothered by their nudity or others, is older folks. Guys still try to put their undergarments on with a towel wrapped around their waists or try to give other people distance or just wait to get dressed, if their locker area is crowded.

After joining a gym in the States, I deigned to use the facilities of the locker room (sauna/ shower) before I went home. I'm paying for the membership so might as well save the money on water back home. However, once I was finished with my workout, I had a moment of uncertainty and didn't know what etiquette I should follow in the locker room. Most of the men were dressed and others were getting dressed under their towels. One guy was walking around naked but that didn't really give me the confidence to drop my towel and stand free and proud...

I started thinking 'why are we so embarrassed and uncomfortable with nudity, especially in a designated area where you're supposed to see it'? We really are a country that is obsessed with sex and body image, and not in a necessarily healthy way. Even in the right setting, many of us aren't comfortable leaving our parts out to those of our own sex. We're too self-conscious or worried. We have ideas of what they may be thinking or jokes they may be forming in their heads...

Anyways, just as I was about to drop my towel, protecting the few men in the locker room from viewing me in my naked splendor, some rather nervous young gentleman came out of nowhere and started talking to me.

"Oh, figures! Our lockers are right next to eachother... Well, I'll be out of your way in a minute. I'll just hit the sauna and shower while you get dressed. You're not going to be over here long, are you?"

He seemed very uncomfortable with the idea of us sharing the same space. So, at first, I started to reassure him that I would be leaving shortly. Then I was angry at myself for going along with his thinking- that we both shouldn't occupy a close space with our mutual nudity. No, no. There is something wrong with that. We can't get dressed in sight of eachother. Something awkward might happen. Bah!

Instantly, I was reminded of that Japanese yakuza who approached me the first time I walked into an onsen. Standing there, butt-naked, he walked up to me and asked me, in English, if this was my first time to a Japanese public bath. I told him it was and he nodded. He proceeded to show me the various parts of the facility and how to use them. He taught me that you have to wash yourself off before you go in and after, but more importantly you have to relax while in the bath. After that he left me alone and went on his merry way.

However, as I was doing my second wash up, he sat down next to me and asked me if my experience was enjoyable. I said it was. He said that he liked my tattoos. I looked at him and smiled and said he had some interesting tattoos and he laughed out loud with a knowing look in his face. Of all the oddity (to first-timers) that is the Japanese onsen, tattoos are usually frowned upon and those with them are sometimes asked to leave. Nevermind if you bring alcohol in and doze off for a while in there, that's totally acceptable.

Yet, despite what we may initially consider strange about the onsens, the whole experience was normal. Not weird or uncomfortable. It was reassuring, in way. All these average looking men with their imperfections doing their thing with no thoughts to the contrary. All the while naked.

Back in my present locker room, where tattoos are acceptable but nudity maybe, my nervous locker neighbor bounced off. I watched him out of the corner of my eye, in case he came back while I was standing there exposed, and we had ourselves an awkward moment. Still angry at the tension I was feeling in a place that should be absent of tension. I quickly got dressed and took off, determined to reach a state of mind where I didn't care if the whole locker room saw my parts. It's a locker room, you're supposed to expose yourself to get dressed again. That's the point...