Japanese swimming pool etiquette and what I learnt from having a rest in an Osaka aquatic park

There are so many unique parts of Japanese life that it’s hard to remember them all. Recently an article called The expat art of giving up reminded me of a quirk I hadn’t thought about in ages: the hourly rest time at the Japanese swimming pool.

Swimming pool lanes, photo credit M Hooper /CC

Let me start with my first experience of this: a small group of Japanese friends had taken me to an aquatic park in the hills of Osaka. We’d arrived, paid our (exorbitant) entrance fee, got changed, found a pleasant spot for our towels and picnic baskets and headed into the pool. We’d been swimming for just a few minutes when a loud siren sounded.

Being Australian, I instantly thought it was a shark alarm. But no, we weren’t at the beach, we were in a public swimming pool. No sharks here. Just the same, everyone leapt out of the water with the same speed that I would if it really was Jaws poking around. As I often did in Japan, I followed my friends first, and only after the fact asked for an explanation.

“It’s rest time,” my friend Yuko explained. Obviously my expression turned a bit quizzical so she continued. “Every hour we get out of the pool and rest or stretch for ten minutes. It’s good if you go over there,” she pointed to a corner with a lifeguard leading some light exercises, “and do some stretching, but it’s okay if you just sit down and rest.”

“But we’ve only been swimming for a few minutes. We don’t need a rest yet,” I said.

I rarely would argue with something in Japan but Yuko was a good friend and I thought she might understand. Not really. “But it’s rest time,” she said. “We can get back in the pool in a few minutes.”

Of course, I sat down on my towel and complied. That was the funny thing about Japan – I often just went along with the rules or the expectations, sometimes just because I didn’t even know what was going on and just followed my Japanese friends, and sometimes because it seemed the appropriate and polite thing to do. If you’d told me ahead of time that I’d feel perfectly okay following along with things like this – and sometimes they were potentially much more annoying than a rest time at the swimming pool – I’d have said no way, I’m not a sheep, and I won’t follow rules that don’t make much sense. (The rest time thing is not completely dumb, but having to rest when you’ve just arrived isn’t that smart, either.) But I did follow along, and I actually wouldn’t go back and change it.

I found that there are a huge number of societal expectations in Japan, and I’m sure it’s not just because of the cultural differences but also that Japanese members of society are expected to be more compliant in many ways in their culture. Here in the West we are almost encouraged to be different, and to argue against things we feel are wrong or can’t agree with. In Japan, I felt that was discouraged, and of course that’s not always a good thing – but it’s not all bad, either.

Me swimming at Shirahama Beach (no photos of the pool – not allowed, I guess!)

There is something to be said for the peace of not arguing back, of just accepting. I feel I do that more these days: if something is odd, or unnecessary, but it’s not really going to make much material difference to me – for example, that ten minute rest at the pool isn’t really such a terrible thing – then I find I am more accepting than I used to be. I’m ready to fight the system when I think it’s important: racism, sexism, homophobia, whatever. But just for mildly annoying things? I’m more likely to let it go. That’s just the way it is, don’t waste energy fighting it.

But back to the article that inspired this post: remember the title was about giving up? I don’t see my acceptance of these annoyances as giving up. There’s a time to fight, and a time to accept. When you’re travelling – and especially in a place as different as Japan – there might be more times you have to make the choice of whether this is a fight or accept moment. But it’s not giving up.

What do you think? Fight or accept? Where do you draw the line?



  1. I think in some circumstances you have to accept out of respect for that culture. However, it may depend on what mood your in. Also if you feel uncomfortable, run Amanda run. xxxxx

  2. Strange custom indeed, why would anyone need to rest from a relaxing swim in the pool? Oh well, you have to accept and follow the rules of the country you are in I suppose.

  3. Cindy Siano says

    Man, I remember this kind of attitude from when I lived in Japan for five years. The Nazi gym supervisor in Tokyo insisted I warm up by going on the stationary bicycle. Me: ‘But I’ve just cycled from the station. I’ll just stretch and then go on the machines.’ Well, she just wouldn’t have it. I guess it was ‘decided’!

    • Hahaha – so it’s not just swimming pools!! I never ventured into a Japanese gym (I don’t do much gym-venturing at all, to be honest) but I’m not at all surprised …

      But backing up a bit, I didn’t know you lived in Japan for five years! Must discuss 🙂

  4. Such an interesting article about Japanese culture and attitude.

  5. I agree, zero tolerance for issues that really infringe human rights. But who cares if you have to get out of a pool for a few minutes? Feist is for the young — I can’t be bothered with that anymore. Picking your battles is energy-saving!

  6. This “rest time” in Japan in common in public swimming pools and is the time when the staff checks the water quality

  7. Oh my, when I read this, I am really getting nervous about my husband who is prepared to fight for his personal freedom with all his might…

    We better not visit any pools, ey? 😉


  8. Thomas Robert says

    I think it will reduce the possibility of someone peeing in the water.

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