Me: “お背中流しましょうか? (Osena-ka, nagashi-mashou-ka?)”
May I wash your back?
Random woman: “お願いします（Onegai shimasu)”
Thank you very much
How many times have I had this exchange in my life, starting from childhood? This is a normal everyday conversation and practice of Japanese people engaging with their family members, as well as total strangers, in every public bath and onsen (hot spring) for over a thousand years. And it is a key to a perennial question:
How can we cultivate the body and the senses to learn intrinsic values of understanding and respect between generations and, consequently, foster community cohesion?
This question has been a recurrent theme for me when formulating my community-engagement projects, when I am develoing pedagogical strategies for Intergenerational learning. I define Intergenerational Learning as a mutual learning partnership, based on reciprocity, in which people of different ages work together to exchange skills, values, and knowledge. Intergenerational body-connection is challenging to conceptualize, yet we certainly need direct, multi-sensory connections in order to experience the mysteries first hand.
While this question is personal, people across cultures, places, times, and disciplines, have asked it. Yet they have arrived at different answers. To observe this diversity of viewpoints is humbling. As we are currently witnessing, maintaining eye contact, while vital, is an inadequate substitute for ‘touching’ between a COVID ICU patient and a caregiver. So we understand how physical connection conveys interdependence, consciousness, and spirituality.
In the interdisciplinary work I do to strengthen social capital, bonding, and community cohesion, I challenge myself and my team to consider multiple models across multiple perspectives. This multiplicity is essential, because complexity and interconnectedness are central to understanding relationships within communities, including issues such as ageism, social isolation, generational fissures, and environmental degradation. As our understanding of the world is informed by multiple bodily senses, I often draw a picture to visualize perception as a spider web with us at the center. The web is supported at multiple points by a system of interdependent anchors. The issues that affect one sensation affect the others, eventually forming our perceptions, which in turn support the body. Thus, understanding the reciprocity between making sense and making sensual-experience, we can holistically construct solutions. But where and how does this happen today?
In our contemporary world, educational systems convey a lot of information to students in the form of monologues, but the curricula do not always treat students as two-way communicative and sensory beings capable of forming reciprocal relations with others and the natural world. Instead, they construct a preformed worldview in which phenomena are neatly divided and classified in disciplines, subdisciplines, and subjects, disconnected from students’ bodies. Integrated, interdisciplinary approaches are nonetheless becoming more widespread in academic institutions and civic organizations, increasingly in the form of community-engaged research (CEnR), a method which seeks to transcend silo-based and territorial approaches devoid of bodily experience.
With the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI), our habitual practice of utilizing the basic sensory modalities (light, sound, temperature, pressure, taste, smell, proprioception) is under increasing competition with multimodal, deep machine learning. Soon, “human touch” will fall into disuse, which is starting to happen in medicine, nursing, and elder care, where tactile inputs and outputs have traditionally been considered prerequisites and ultimate purposes.
How can we reintroduce body-centered thought as an essential complement to the prevalent, knowledge-based education system, and connect it to intergenerational learning? I turn to the 20th-century French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s concept of flesh. Merleau-Ponty clarifies what we lose when the body is not central to our understanding of our relationships with others and to the wider world. He argues that a return to embodied presence can explain otherwise fraught dichotomies, such as self vs. other and human vs. nature. This idea was further extended by Val Plumwood (2002), who argues that the ‘hyper-separation’ of man and nature leads to an instrumentalisation of nature, and a consequent failure to give intrinsic value to nature itself.
To carry Merleau-Ponty’s insights into our everyday lives, I suggest that we apply the simple notion of touch — carefully attending to not only the physical matter in front of us but also to immediate experience, which corresponds to the Japanese concept of “ma (間)” — a space that exists among and between our bodies. Merleau-Ponty pointed out that, when we examine everyday experience, we find ourselves connected with the world around us. In Japan, we have a proverb reminding us to cultivate a sense of interbeing or consanguinity between our human selves and all other beings: 袖振り合うも多生の縁 (sode-fureau-mo-tashou-no-en), which means that even the contact of two people’ sleeves is the result of fate from a previous life.
When I lived in Tokyo for eight years, I used to commute to school and work by subway, and I would stand in the train with others, all of us packed like sardines. This could be unpleasant for someone who views themselves as singular and separate. But it trains many Japanese people to practice mindfulness, cultivating subject-object integration and bonding, rather than subject-object dichotomy and alienation. It evoked feelings of being “in the same boat”. I fondly remembered many variations of Japanese politesse in my subway rides. Far from being gropers, many gentlemen quietly strived to create a kind of ‘scaffolding’ around me, protecting me from being buffeted by sudden stops and accelerations. The kindness of strangers. Most “salary-men” knew how to precisely fold and unfold a newspaper within the width of the shoulders, like origami, when reading during the ride, conserving the shared space. Most people closed their eyes if they had to face each other in the packed train, creating a mental ‘private’ space. The white gloves that Japanese subway staff, including passenger pushers, wear to arrange passengers during rush hour, signifies respect by avoiding direct touch. A Tokyo subway ride is, in this way, a testing ground for body-learning, because it demands conscious cultivation of the lived body and sense-experience — meanings we share with other people.
As touch and feel have profound implications for how we view our relationship with others, it is worthwhile examining our everyday shared space and activities that might foster sensitivity towards others. Returning to my bathing experience in Japanese onsen, I think the onsen is the most fertile intergenerational space for accessing our most primordial mode of being. Japanese bathing culture dates back to the year 720 CE, and Japanese people today enjoy nearly 30,000 onsen (hot springs) throughout Japan. This is partly due to geology (the product of earthquakes!). Like all Japanese people, my family loves to visit numerous onsens in my hometown, sometimes several times a week. In onsens, people engage in naked companionship not only with family, friends, and strangers (of the same gender) but also the unspoken custom of washing the backs of nearby strangers, including elders. It might seem unimaginable to someone like my teenage daughter, who grew up in North America and has been taught the idea of “My body belongs to me.” The body is more of a private affair in the West. By contrast, Japanese people find it natural to touch and be touched in a non-sexual way in the context of an onsen. There is even a Japanese term, “スキンシップ (“skinship”), that means bonding through physical contact, and applies to family and social bonding.
I do not remember when and how I was taught to follow the practice, but I remember being four years old, enjoying an outdoor onsen, washing my beloved grandmother’s back. I can even recall the ‘feel’ of the water quality in my finger tips, as each onsen has different dissolved impurities. Once we start washing someone’s back, we often ask politely, using the honorific form, “How do you like the pressure? Should I scrub more strongly? Is there anywhere I missed?” Almost all the time, I would receive great appreciation and a reciprocal offer to be scrubbed. That is called intercorporeality in Merleau-Ponty’s terminology, and it implies the importance of social interaction in the construction and behaviour of the body, and vice versa.
Out in nature, people tend to enjoy the renewing beauty of the environment and treasure momentary human encounters. These once-in-a-lifetime meetings can generate beautiful, corporeal empathy with both people and nature. I washed my grandmother’s and mother’s backs countless times. These were precious opportunities for me to have direct, intimate physical contact with my loved ones and express my care and gratitude. I still vividly remember the ineffable feeling of my hands washing my grandmother’s back when she was close to 90 years old. While washing her and feeling her smooth skin, I wept as I observed her small, frail frame, wanting to keep gently scrubbing as long as I could, wishing for one more onsen outing with her. Luckily, my tears were invisible in the steamy onsen.
Where can we find such shared spaces for intercorporeality today? In our increasingly polarizing political and digitized environments, we need to re-evaluate the social nature of the body and the bodily nature of social relationships, and creatively open up new opportunities for intergenerational connections. An enhanced focus on the senses and the body does not require complete disregard for the conceptual, cognitive and rational elements in intergenerational learning. These cognitive and rational elements are not replaced, but rather relieved of surplus contents that operate in our consciousness without any fruitful function.
I am trying now to imagine a modern, Western version of the onsen. “May I scrub your back?”