Public bathhouses were even more popular in Japan before the war than they are today, with families, men, women and children gathering to bathe and socialise for many hours. Whilst legislation passed by the Tokugawa shogunate in the 19th Century and reinforced by the American Occupation forces in the 1950s insisted on the segregation of men and women, Hamaya’s enduring fascination with bathhouses saw him visit several old fashioned establishments which continued to turn a blind eye to mixed bathing. Both onsen (baths fed by natural hot-springs) and sentō (with artificially heated water) remain very popular all over Japan today, where many bathhouses boast regional health benefits particular to their local water supply.
This particular image was taken in 1957 in Sukaya, a town in northern Japan’s Aomori prefecture. It shows the female section of a traditional bathhouse. It is a beautifully composed picture and one can almost hear the fountain of warm water cascading down the neck of the central figure. Hamaya also made another wonderful picture of a bathhouse in his seminal book Snow Country, which shows a traditional bathhouse with complete families bathing together.
Born and raised in Tokyo, Hiroshi Hamaya (1915 - 1999) is considered to have been one of the most eminent Japanese documentary photographers of the 20th century. Working as an aeronautical photographer and a freelance contributor to magazines during the 1930s, Hamaya began his career documenting his hometown from the sky and the streets. An assignment in 1939 saw Hamaya travel to the rural coast of the Sea of Japan, where he became interested in documenting the traditional customs of its people and the austere environment of the region. Over the next two decades he recorded life in remote coastal prefectures, developing a more humanist, ethnographic approach toward photography. In the early 1950s Hamaya settled in the seaside town of Ōiso, where he began to review his body of work and put together his first photobooks.
Later in his career, Hamaya would return to the sprawling urban labyrinth of his youth, to chronicle Tokyo's massive demonstrations against the renewal of the US-Japan Security Treaty (ANPO) in 1960. The resultant photobook, Record of Anger and Grief (1960), would become one of the most famous examples of Japan's post-war visual culture of protest. Aside from his political reportage photography, Hamaya completed a series of landscapes, travelling within Japan and abroad: "I came to realize that natural features in Japan, like the nature of its people, were extremely diversified and complex. I intended to investigate this conclusion with my own eyes."
Hamaya was the first Japanese photographer to join Magnum, and his work was amongst the only Japanese contributions to Edward Steichen’s groundbreaking photography exhibition, ‘The Family of Man’ (1955). More recently, his accolades include the Master of Photography Award from the International Centre of Photography, New York (1986) and the Hasselblad Award. (1987). His works are included in renowned private and public collections worldwide, and he was recently honoured with a two-man show at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (2012).