Photo/Illutration Children flee with bath pails on their heads in an evacuation drill in January at the Manzaiyu public bathhouse in Kobe’s Nagata Ward. (Provided by Satoshi Harasawa)

“Sento” public bathhouses around Japan have stepped up their anti-disaster efforts to ensure their customers, whether naked or not, can flee to safety and to provide comfort and security to residents in emergencies.

The public baths carry certain advantages in natural disasters. Their water can be used to extinguish neighboring fires. And some do not require electricity to keep the water hot, giving survivors some much-needed solace.

The Abenobashi bathhouse in Osaka’s Abeno Ward carried out a training session for evacuations on Sept. 1, which is known as Disaster Prevention Day, when many anti-disaster programs take place throughout the nation.

“I was worried about whether our employees will be able to lead customers to safe places in emergencies,” said Kazuko Mori, manager of Abenobashi.

Mori said the sento decided to conduct an evacuation drill that day because it is located near a terminal station and attracts hundreds of people daily.

Assuming a scenario of an earthquake hitting during business hours, Abenobashi employees called on bathers to flee and led them to safer dressing rooms.

“It would be difficult for so many people to evacuate unless they help each other,” Mori said. “The drill is to see if our guidance works well.”

A sento called Manzaiyu in Kobe’s Nagata Ward, which started operations in 1945, carried out a similar drill in January this year.

Although Manzaiyu was not open when the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake struck, the two-story wooden building housing baths and a residence was destroyed. Manzaiyu spent six months recovering from the disaster.

When Typhoon No. 21 lashed Kobe last autumn, the power supply was cut off around 8 p.m., putting more than 10 customers at Mansaiyu in the dark.

“I felt pressed because I could not find the flashlight in the darkness,” said Koichi Watanuki, 60, manager of Manzaiyu.

Watanuki said Manzaiyu intends to “be ready for action in an emergency” through the anti-disaster session.

Based on the assumption that an earthquake cuts power, about 60 elementary school children and others living nearby protected their heads with bath pails as Watanuki lit up the bathroom with a headlamp.

Towels were placed on the floor to prevent bathers from cutting their feet on broken glass during the evacuation.

“As memories of the Great Hanshin Earthquake fade, I will continue organizing the drill,” Watanuki said.

Since autumn last year, evacuation drills have been held mainly at sento in Osaka and Tokyo. The campaign was initially proposed by Satoshi Harasawa, 37, who runs the Sento Okunohosomichi website ( to introduce bathhouses throughout the country.

Harasawa, who loves to tour sento, talked with owners of public bathhouses damaged by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. He realized that lessons learned from the disaster were not being shared, resulting in insufficient countermeasures.

So Harasawa called on sento operators he knows to conduct evacuation drills. He also participates in those programs and writes reports that are distributed to sento-related officials.

“Doing something first of all is important,” Harasawa said. “I want the anti-disaster drills to further spread.”


A growing number of local governments are signing agreements with regional bathhouse operator associations because sento can provide various forms of assistance for disaster survivors.

Kobe and the city’s sento federation in September 2017 reached an agreement to provide free bathing at 37 bathhouses in the municipality for residents victimized by natural disasters.

Some of the sento boil well water with heavy oil or firewood, so such baths can be used even when the water and gas supplies are suspended.

Immediately following the Great Hanshin Earthquake, sento that survived the disaster in Kobe were made open to residents. Residents in Nagata Ward formed a line to pass down buckets of water from a bathhouse to extinguish a fire.

“The disaster reminded us of how important sento are,” said an official of Kobe city’s environmental health division.

When a huge earthquake hit northern Osaka Prefecture in June last year, more than 50 public bathhouses in the prefecture were open to victims free of charge. The prefectural government has started discussions to conclude an agreement with a group comprising 371 bathhouses in the prefecture to make sento accessible to residents for free during emergencies.

Tokyo is pioneering in the anti-disaster campaign using sento. The Tokyo Sento Association, which consists of 524 bathhouses, has developed and distributed an emergency manual to groups of sento operators in and outside the capital.

Ota Ward, which is home to the largest number of sento across Tokyo at 39, signed an agreement with the Ota Sento Association after the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Kazuyuki Kondo, 68, chairman of the Tokyo Sento Association, said he offered blankets and other goods to elderly and other nearby people who flooded his Hasunuma Onsen bathhouse in Ota Ward following the disaster.

“Sento are not only recreational places for residents but also social infrastructure,” Kondo said. “I wanted to do whatever I could do.”

Under the Ota Ward agreement, sento in the ward will be used as temporary evacuation centers as well as storage areas for blankets and other emergency provisions from the ward government.

As 80 percent of sento in Tokyo are equipped with wells, they should be able to provide water for residents and firefighting activities if the water supply is cut off in a disaster.

“No one knows when a disaster will occur,” Kondo said. “Sento are reassessed as anti-disaster facilities. We will continue contributing to local communities from now on.”