When I was a graduate student in Japan, I lived for awhile in an apartment in Tokyo. It was in a neighborhood with many small shopkeepers and their families. Central to the neighborhood was the public bath (sento). Although these baths have now been largely replaced by baths in the home in Japan, at this time many people, especially the neighborhood shopkeepers, went to the bath and bathing was quite a social occasion. In the evenings, as dusk fell, you could hear the clacking of geta (wooden sandals) along the streets as people walked, bath bowls in hand.

I too went to the bath. But in spite of the lively chattering of the neighborhood women soaping and scrubbing each others' backs, drenching each other in water, and then soaking together in the hot water, I was treated as if I didn't exist. No one talked to me, and I had no part of the soaping and scrubbing exchanges among the women in the bath. I seemed totally invisible. This went on for about a month.

One night I went to the bath to find a sign saying that on this day the bath was closed. I walked to another neighborhood close by where I had noticed another bath. This one was open and as I walked into the steamy area of the bathing pool, I noticed a group of women huddled together on the far side of the pool. Suddenly I saw them beckon to me, and call out "We're over here! Come over here!"

I recognized them from the other bath. They were the same women who had been chattering and scrubbing in my neighborhood bath, and who had never acknowledged my existence. Now they were chattering to me as if they had always known me. They now included me in the back-scrubbing, dousing, and soaking, as if they had always done so. And when we went back to our neighborhood bath the next night, I found that my identity had been established. From that time on I was a "known" member of the bath.

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