Three-year drop pleases some, but other parents unhappy.

Spring is the start of the business and academic year in Japan, and it’s also when governmental institutions start their operating year. Because of that, every spring brings with it not just cherry blossoms and wisteria flowers, but a whole slew of new laws and regulations going into effect.

One such change came to Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost prefecture this week, as the maximum age at which children are allowed to enter public baths for the opposite sex has been lowered.

In the modern era, almost all onsen (hot springs) and sento (public baths) have separate baths for men and women. However, allowances are made for mothers taking their young son with them into the women’s bath, or fathers taking their young daughters into the men’s. Sort of like with parents taking their kids with them into restrooms for the opposite sex, it’s a societal gray area as to what age it’s OK to do that until.

Legally, though, in Hokkaido the limit for taking boys into the women’s bath or girls into the men’s bath was up until the kid’s 10th birthday. That changed this week, and as of April 11 children will be barred from entering the opposite sex’s bath starting at the age of 7.

The impetus for the change appears to be a study conducted by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in 2021 which determined that six or seven were the ages at which the largest proportions of children (or perhaps their parents who were answering for them, as the exact methodology is unclear) said they would be embarrassed being unclothed in a bath with people of the opposite sex.

▼ In addition to the baths themselves, onsen and sento changing areas don’t often provide much privacy either.

Reactions to the new law have been mixed. Supporters say that it’s an important step both in protecting children and making adult customers feel comfortable. “Kids grow up so fast these days,” said a woman interviewed by Sapporo Television Broadcasting on the day the new law went into effect. On the other hand, some single parents, as well as married parents who periodically visit hot springs or public baths with their children but without their spouse, have voiced concerns. Not only do they worry about their children’s safety, they also worry about the possibility of their unattended 10-year-old getting rambunctious and creating a noisy, unpleasant atmosphere for other customers who have come to the bath to relax.

With at-home bathing facilities now the norm in Japan, regular trips to a public bath are no longer a necessity for most people. Instead, a trip to a hot spring, and increasingly even a sento, is seen as a leisure activity, so dissenting voices are unlikely to persuade lawmakers to revert back to the old, higher age limit, and with Tokyo also having lowered the age when kids have to start bathing in their own sex’s bath from 10 to 7, there’s a good chance we’ll see other prefectures following suit.

Source: Sapporo Television Broadcasting via Jin
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