Recently, I was delighted to find a cheap second-hand set of the DVDs of Shogun, the American TV series from 1980. I am amazed at the quality of the actors, the impressive sets, period detail and locations. I also think the story it is based on – the life of William Adams (aka Miura Anjin) – is one of those phenomenal tales that history occasionally bequeaths.
But I am not going to review Shogun here. Rather I just thought I would write about something that amused me in the first episode when Anjin-san doesn’t want to get in a bath, despite having recently been urinated on, because he believes “a bath will make you foul sick”.
There is an excellent book on the life of Will Adams and his colleagues from the Dutch East India Company by Giles Milton, in which it is similarly explained how they were initially wary of bathing but soon came to love it.
When I was at school, one of the favourite anecdotes of my repetitive history teacher was that a diplomat had once written of Queen Elizabeth I that: “The Queen bathes once a month, whether she needs it or no!”
Certainly, Anjin’s reluctance to bathe and Queen Elizabeth’s apparent “fastidiousness” are amusing.
But if I think back to when I was a kid, I don’t think we were filthy dirty but by no means were we clean by modern standards. I remember that it was common to talk of “bath night”, by which it was meant “the night of the week when you had a bath”. A lot of kids at my primary school had a set bath night but in my house it was once a week or so.
I remember that we would play football during sports lessons, sweating healthily, and then just change back into our uniforms. It might be another couple of days before I had a bath. I remember that I used to think it was a nuisance to bath and could sometimes get out of it by pointing out, for example, that I had been swimming the day before. (Floating in chlorine was a satisfactory alternative, it seems.)
Very few people had showers in their houses. We associated them with American TV shows and upper middle class people. When I went to secondary school it was compulsory to shower after sports and the teachers used to check to make sure we did (some boys would try to avoid it).
There weren’t showers in my university dormitory, and one bath per (roughly) seven students. That worked because most of us had a bath about twice a week. In the unlikely event of wanting a bath and someone else already having locked themselves in there, you could just go to the bath along the corridor or on the next floor. One of them was bound to be available.
I do remember that there was a bit of bother with the two “modern” buildings in college because it had two showers per floor (instead of baths) and some foreign students who lived in other buildings would bring their towels and soap over and make use of them. It was considered intrusive and excessive by the students whose rooms were in that building.
Of course, I bath or shower daily now (including regular trips to the sento when in Japan).
However surprising it is to think that that people never bathed in the 16-17th centuries, it’s a lot more surprising to think back on my own chequered bathing history.