TOKYO — RAPID social change is draining a Japanese institution: the public bath. And what may be lost, besides a tradition, are some of the threads that tie this society together. Most Japanese - young and old - used to gather daily at temple-like, neighborhood sento. There they would visit, gossip, and relax, as well as get clean. But today Japan is becoming a nation of individuals, rather than a closed and feudal society where neighbors had few secrets and little privacy. The new Japan is symbolized by the growing number of homes with modern bathrooms.
Owners of public baths are not taking the decline of their industry lying down. The old Tokyo town of Asakusa recently mounted a sento photo exhibition.
``Our catch-phrase was, `Let's find good points about public baths,''' says Toyokichi Takao, a staff member at the exhibit. The show was designed to lure customers as well as document the baths that are left, he says.
The photos emphasized the baths' exotic appearance in westernized Japan, notably the large murals designed to make visitors feel they are in a hot spring outdoors. Sento boosters also point to the low price (about $2), the luxurious space, and - most of all - its role as a community center.
This last point has become a drawback: Many Japanese now cherish privacy. ``Public bathing has little attraction to modern Japanese,'' says Nobutaka Hoshikawa, an official of the Health and Welfare Ministry, which provides support to the industry.
Up until about 20 years ago, the number of public baths in Tokyo was increasing, nearing the prewar level of about 2,700. (Most of Tokyo's bath houses had burned down during the war.) Since then, though, bath house numbers have declined. As Japan has grown more affluent, more people can afford modern bathrooms at home. In fact, bath-going is in danger of becoming stigmatized as lower-class.
As of last March, only 1,948 Tokyo bathhouses remained. The overall effect has been to loosen what was a tightly woven Japanese society.
``People have a new attitude,'' says Kenichi Kitajima, the owner of Bentenyu, a public bath near Asakusa. ``They don't want others snooping around into their private affairs.''
Public baths today are dominated by the elderly, a fact that may put off young people. ``A public bath used to be a place where old people would teach manners to children,'' says Mr. Hoshikawa. But, if seniors do the same thing now, such as scolding ill-mannered customers, the young will stop going. ``Today's youth hate preaching,'' he says.
OTHER young people simply are too shy to go to a public bath, having never done it. Japanese adults are surprised to hear that some students wear swimsuits or do not take off their underwear while taking communal baths on school field trips. (Baths are sex-segregated.)
``I don't think we can bring customers back from their own home bathtubs unless we come up with interesting ideas to make our public baths more attractive,'' says Norihide Inoue of the Federation of Public Bath Operators' Unions.
Some bath houses have begun to add such luxuries as saunas, spas, outdoor baths, or even swimming pools in order to attract customers. To put self-conscious young people at ease, Bentenyu and others allow guests to pay at the bath entrance, rather than at a high watch stand where a bath-owner family member overlooks both men's and women's changing rooms.
Reformer Kitajima insists that bath owners should not only remodel their facilities but also change their attitudes: ``Customers will not come to a public bath unless we ask them to come,'' he says, criticizing a lack of effort by the industry to reform. ``Bath owners were just sitting on a high watch stand arrogantly. That's why this industry is left behind.''