When it comes to branding, there will likely never be another event like it.
On December 19, 1984, a bathhouse association held a press conference at the Akasaka Prince Hotel in Tokyo to announce the name “soapland” had been chosen for the style of sauna bath that provides full sex.
The naming was actually a renaming. Prior to the use of soapland, the bathhouses went by the name “toruko,” which is a shortened version of toruko buro, or Turkish bath.
The impetus for the change came via a Turkish exchange student who found displeasure with the association of his culture and sex. In August of 1984, he submitted a request to Kozo Watanabe, the then health minister, to change the name. “There is no connection between Turkey and the toruko baths,” the student said. “Such a strange image creates a feeling of unpleasantness.”
The history of such “unpleasantness” dates back to April 1, 1951, when the first outlet opened for business under the name Tokyo Onsen in the Higashi Ginza area. The establishments spread nationwide, peaking in popularity three decades later with the rise of the asset-inflated “bubble” economy. Popular red-light districts to this day that feature soapland bathhouses include the Chuo area of Kumamoto City, Tokyo’s Yoshiwara, Nakasu (in Fukuoka) and Kobe’s Fukuhara.
Among those who supported the change of the name in 1984 were politician Yuriko Koike, who was a journalist at the time, and representatives from the Turkish Embassy.
The Special Bath Association eventually got wind of the controversy. Its first consideration was to conceal lettering on the bathhouse signboards. However, it finally decided that a more permanent solution was in order. The November 16 issue of the Yomiuri Shimbun announced that prospective names were being sought.
The association received approximately 2,200 responses, including “Romance Bath,” “Colt,” “Lovely Bath,” “Toriko (Prisoner),” “Love You,” written with yu for hot water, and “Honey.”
In settling upon the name soapland, which is modified from sekken no kuni, or soap country, the association said it found “the bright and clean image” appealing.
The name was not well received initially. “On the face of it, it’s a nonsensical name,” said writer Keiichi Hiroka. “If one thinks of it as a surface name it is nonsensical. There is no sex appeal. There is no conjuring of an exciting image at all. I don’t get a feeling of wanting to go there and play.”
Writer Komimasa Tanaka was equally critical. “It sounds like something out of Disneyland,” he said, referring to Tokyo Disneyland, which opened the year before. “Perhaps this was mistakenly intended for children.”
Newspapers, however, embraced the change with such headlines as “Let go of turko; it’s now a ‘soapland.'” “From now, we want to only use the name toruku for the country of Turkey,” a government official said in the Osaka and Nagoya evening editions of the Asahi Shimbun on the day of the announcement.
In attendance at the press conference at the Akasaka Prince was the Turkish ambassador, who was satisfied with the decision.
“Japanese people have the heart to obediently make a correction if an error is pointed out,” the ambassador said. “In this case, Japanese pride has not been wounded; rather, the pride of Turkey has been protected, and for that I extend my warmest thanks.” (K.N.)
Source: “’Toruko’ → ‘soopurando,’” Shukan Asahi (Apr. 1, pages 46-47)
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