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Sansuke (三助) is a term referring to the male working staff who provide specific services at the Sento (銭湯, public bathhouse) in Japan. They are usually hired for both men and women to assist in bathing and provide massage services.
Etymology of male bathhouse attendantEdit
Various theories exist to explain the derivation of Sansuke. In Japanese, Sansuke originally meant three types of services: kamataki (stoking of the boiler), yukagen wo miru (checking the temperature of the bath water), and bandai (fee collection). It was an occasional duty for the Sansuke to provide the services of scrubbing and grooming the customer. This role took on greater prevalence, and the image of the Sansuke was generalized to mean service to the visitor in the bathhouse later on.
Another theory suggests that when smallpox was rampant in Japan around the Nara era, the Empress Kohmyo built a bathhouse dedicated to the treatment of patients. It still exists today in the temple at Hokke-ji. Legend has it that she even sucked the pus from the boils herself. The attendants who helped the Empress during that time were called Sansuke (三典).
During the Edo era, a Genan (下男, manservant), or Komono (小者, humble servant) was widely described as Sansuke as well.
Sansuke in premodern timesEdit
Until the early Edo era, the services rendered by the Sansuke were provided by Yuna girls, who were attendants in the bathhouses called yunafuro. The Okami (the government) banned these bathhouses due to their growing reputation for sexual license and other forms of lax behavior. The hairstyles during this period were such that it was difficult to do one's hair without the help of an attendant. Hence, bathhouse male attendants started to offer the services previously provided by the yuna for a small fee.
Sansuke was the highest class of male servants who served a master at the sento. To become a Sansuke, there were several precursor roles: collector of firewood, boiler man, and Yuban, checker of the bath temperature, and so on. Yuban had the important work of checking the congestion degree of the bath or bathroom in addition to the previously cited tasks. It was, therefore, possible to become a Sansuke by gaining specific experiences.
Later, based on historical accounts, the Sansuke also started providing sexual services. This development is attributed to the nature of the public bathhouses as a convenient site for discreet sexual encounters.
The service of washing off the dirt and brushing done by a Sansuke is called Nagashi. When announced by Bandai that there are customers, a Sansuke laves hot water into Oke and calls the customers in. In case there are many customers, the Sansuke must take care of the waiting list and wash the customers swiftly. The Sansuke offers service for both men and women; he may be required to work in crowds of naked women, whereby he must apply his mental training to prevent himself from having an erection. It is said that women were not ashamed to be seen by his eyes .
When the washing service is complete he receives a tag from the customer, and his work was finished. His percentage of pay was based according to the number on the tag. The Sansuke belonged to a higher economic bracket in Sento and were considered to be gentlemen.
Sansuke to avoid sexual servicesEdit
Until the Edo period, such spa massage services were provided by women (湯女，yuna), but gradually changed to sexual services, which were banned by politicians. In the Edo period adultery with a married woman was a relatively serious crime. Consequently, with the prohibition of the yuna, men (Sansuke) came to play the role in their place.
Sansuke during early-modern timesEdit
Aka-suri, or massage, was called a Nagashi, and it reached the heights of popularity in the middle of the Showa era; during this time it was considered to be a luxury. Due to the subsequent proliferation of boilers and baths in general households, the need for Sansuke eventually waned and the service of Nagashi along with it. However, there are accounts that show the existence of Sansuke even during and after the American occupation of Japan. For instance, the Sansuke was referenced in the description of the communal Japanese bathhouse separated into two sections for male and female bathers. This attendant was identified as the only individual exempted from the gender segregation in the facility, providing services such as washing one's back and massage to both men and women.
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