Swimming Pool Rules

Some time ago, a few years after I had arrived in Japan, I looked in the mirror and noticed that I had sprouted the breasts of a chubby thirteen-year-old girl. Well, one with nipple hair anyway. Thinking that this was not very becoming of a man, I decided to take up swimming at the local pool.

On my first morning, I changed and walked through the foot-cleaning pool, before lowering myself into the water. No sooner had I done so, however, than there was an almighty PEEEEEEEP, and an irate looking lifeguard  was hurrying along the side of the pool, whistle in mouth. I wondered what kind of faux pas I could possibly have made just by getting into the pool. There wasn’t even a poster with “No Petting” and other such prohibitions on it to give me a clue. The man blew his whistle again and then made a large cross with his arms in front of his face, the Japanese sign meaning, “No!” sometimes practiced by people who don’t want you drinking in their bar.

The lifeguard pointed at my head and I understood enough of what he said to know that I was being scolded for not wearing a cap. I pointed at my head too, and said, “I am bald” in Japanese. (Due to premature baldness I was in the habit of shaving my head to the bone; there was nothing for a cap to keep in.) A middle-aged woman wearing a cap was walking up and down one of the pool’s lanes, but some of her hair was dangling out and over her shoulders. I pointed at her and wanted to tell the lifeguard that my wearing a cap was pointless as I had no hair, especially when other pool-users’ caps didn’t even keep all their hair in. But my Japanese wasn’t very good and I think I said something along the lines of:

“I am bald. I can see that lady’s hair. I understand she is a hat. I understand. I don’t understand why I am a hat. Why am I a hat?”

The lifeguard crossed his arms again and said I could buy a cap downstairs. So, soaking wet, I went down to the reception area and paid a few hundred yen for a small black swimming cap, which I put on carefully in case some of my scalp should fall unhygienically into the water. Back upstairs the lifeguard smiled at me and motioned that it would be okay for me to get in the water now.

I looked at the large round clock on the far wall. It was just coming up to ten to eleven. “Right,” I thought, “I’ll see if I can do ten minutes continuous swimming.” I had done one length when I was greeted again by the friendly lifeguard who pointed to the clock and gestured for me to get out.

“Why?” I asked. The lifeguard pointed towards a small sauna area beside the kids’ pool and it was clear that he expected me to sit there for a while. After several trips to the pool I discovered that at ten to the hour every hour, all swimmers had to vacate the pool so that the pool attendants could do something. Level of chlorine checking, or something, I think, but anyway everybody had to get out and rest for ten minutes. I suppose the lifeguard hadn’t mentioned the fact to me when I had returned with my cap, because it was still 10:49 and therefore entry to the water was permissible.

At eleven o’clock we were told we could re-enter the pool. I had completed two lengths this time and was just turning into a third when I heard the whistle go again. I ignored it. It couldn’t possibly be for me. I had a cap on and was bothering nobody with my leisurely breast-stroke up the center of the lane. But, as I swam on my spirits sank. I noticed the lifeguard waiting at the end of my lane. What’s more, he was shaking his head.

“What? What?” I asked. The lifeguard began making exaggerated looping motions with his arms. Then he motioned swimming up and down the center of the lane and I understood that it was this that was forbidden. I looked at him with pissed-off surprise.
“I can’t swim in the middle of the lane?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. Apparently I had to swim up one side of the lane and down the other.
“But, I’m the only person in my lane!” I said
“It’s dangerous,” said the lifeguard.
“It’s not dangerous,” I said.
He made the big cross with his arms again and then went back to the looping actions, because he thought I just didn’t understand him rather than be questioning why the rule was in place.
“Why?” I asked.
“It’s dangerous,” he said.
“How?”
“It is a rule!” he said and we were back on the looping motions again.
“I understand that!” I said. “But it’s not dangerous. It’s only me in this lane!”
Then he told me that this was Japan, which I already knew.
I gave up, did a few more lengths, looping style and then got out wondering how it could be so hard to even just go for a swim.

These days I just wear a bra.

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10 Responses to Swimming Pool Rules

  1. Jon Allen says:

    I got told off last time I went swimming in the local pool for swimming in the ‘walking lane’! two white cones at either end of the pool delimit a lane specifically for walking in..
    Oh and don’t forget the outdoor pools will be closing in the next couple of days because ‘its the end of the season’. regardless of the weather.

  2. Craig says:

    I also like how in America we’re somehow problem solving geniuses where if there’s one person, we figure out how to swim down the middle, if there’s a second person we ask them if we could just split the land and give them a choice of side, and if a third person comes we’re able to figure out how to shift that into circle swimming….We even figure out how to pass each other…

    In Japan, I have to circle swim with some drowning old man and not allowed to pass either……

    My BIGGEST annoyance is that people freely cross through lanes…we just don’t do that in America. We get out of the pool or at least wait until people are at the other end to pop a lane over. Here, people seem to try right before I get to the wall and then they become like a squirrel in headlights, not sure which way to go as I come at them…. I angrily stop and glare at them, but instead of learning “I shouldn’t do this” I think they just learn “Foreign people are scary and impolite.”

    Oh well…

  3. Bill says:

    Trying to change or adapt a rule in Japan will only lead to frustration. The lifeguard was right – it IS Japan, easier to just do what everyone else does, even if it makes no sense to anyone.

    • True enough – you do get a lot less frustrated if you just go with the flow, but you do wonder about the thought process sometimes.

      • Jeffrey says:

        Aha! Caught swimming while gaijin! Last time I was confronted with the bathing cap rule I simply refused to swim. Yes, grumpy and stubborn, but this was a hotel pool, not some overcrowded public pool.

        I love my “second home,” but sometimes the Japanese can just wring the life and fun out of activities in a manner that simply can’t be explained away as “cultural differences.”

    • I think if it’s the rule or the way to be, then adapting is good if it’s not your home country. Another thing to consider is if they are singling you out or not. If not, adapt or leave and move on even if things are frustrating.

  4. Stacy says:

    As a competitive swimmer for 12 years, I think the pool rules in Japan particularly grated my nerves. Especially annoying to me were the “breaks” that we had to take (as you mentioned). I think there is some sort of evil plot to not let any swimmers swim continuously for more than 1 hour.

    Most grating was when I was wearing a hard-to-take-off tiny hoop earring underneath my swim cap. I of course had taken off my first piercings. But this was my second piercing, a little higher-up on my ear, so I could easily cover it. But either I did a flip-turn pretty vigorously or my arm rubbed against my swim cap the wrong way… and my single hoop was visible. The lifeguard must have had eyes like a hawk to see my little earring between my arms as I was swimming. He blew the whistle at me and would not let me go back in until I had gone back to the locker room and taken it off.

  5. Cryptnotic says:

    Having used public pools in the U.S. (YMCA, college pools, etc), I can say that some of them can have similar draconian policies enforced by overzealous monitors. Seriously, their only joy in life must be to tell people that they have to wear a swim cap.

    I wonder if you, as a gaijin, are an easier target for them. As a good law-abiding gaiji, you are more likely to listen to what he has to say and try to follow the rules. Also, they may be tougher against you because as a gaijin, they think you are less likely to know and follow the rules (all gaijin are criminals, etc). How far would it go if you ignored them? They probably wouldn’t call the police, but they might ask you not to come back to their swim club.

  6. chottom says:

    I Just wonder what was the temperature of the water in the swimming pool?

    I tried in our local sport center but at temperature of the water around 26-27 Celsius it’s simply not possible to make real swimming!

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