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.
“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.