[This is not a ‘how-to’ kind of post. Rather, this is a ‘why’ kind of post. If you need a jump-start on Japanese toilets, I found this simple Guide to Japanese toilet by the manufacturer Toto.]
“We have such a multitude of lavatory types because there is a traumatic excess which each of them tries to accommodate – according to Lacan, one of the features which distinguishes man from the animals is precisely that with humans the disposal of shit becomes a problem.”
– Slavoj Žižek, The Plague of Fantasies
In my previous post I mentioned the barrage of everyday objects in forms different than I’m used to, and what they say about Japan’s culture or vice versa. I didn’t mention toilets, but they’re an obvious example. I’m not the only one who has thought of this. Marxist philosopher and media theorist Slavoj Žižek has this to say about the differences in toilets around the world (if you can get through his lisping nose-scratching):
When he asked the designers from each respective country why the difference, each insisted that their country’s design had the most utility. It would seem that they couldn’t possibly all be right, but given the unspoken ideological assumptions of each country, each country’s toilets fit their assumptions with perfect utility. The utility of each toilet’s design depends on what its objective is with respect to the “…three different attitudes towards excremental excess: ambiguous contemplative fascination; the hasty attempt to get rid of the unpleasant excess as fast as possible; the pragmatic approach to treat the excess as an ordinary object to be disposed of in an appropriate way.”
Broadly construed, media is anything of human construction capable of conveying ideology. Thus, everyday objects and household appliances are just as much members of the media as anime or the internet. In other words, toilets are meaningful texts which can be read and understood, if only subconsciously. They are one of many mediums used to reinforce the dominant ideology of a society – just where you don’t expect it.
So what would Žižek say about toilets in Japan? Why hasn’t the washlet caught on in The States, and why is the squatter still a thing? What is the Japanese attitude toward excremental excess, and how do Japanese toilets accommodate this attitude?
I proceed on the premise that there must be an ideological reason for any major structural difference (and ignore the possibility that some differences or preferences might simply be random or due to other factors like logistics – but even if this is the case, resulting toilets will still convey ideology, even if difference in ideology didn’t directly effect their construction).
The Washlet® was born in the early 80s when the Japan-based Toto Ltd. (the world’s largest toilet manufacturer) combined a French bidet basin (a separate fixture from the toilet and sink for washing the nether regions), with a Western flush toilet and gave it an electric control panel with additional seat-warming, self-cleaning, deodorizing, and drying functions.
Žižek doesn’t mention the bidet, but it’s an important aspect of the French bathroom, especially in contrast to the Anglo/American. Bidets are almost as old as flush toilets, and they seems to fit the model of French revolution. The bidet reduces or eliminates the need for toilet paper. The Anglo/American, on the other hand, opted for toilet paper exclusively. Which might be more pragmatic, but in the long run how many more trees have been killed, how much more work is it, and how sanitary is this practice?
A guess is that the Anglos just wanted to distance themselves from a French practice. At first glance, it might seem that the washlet hasn’t caught on for the same reason the bidet hasn’t.
I posit that the washlet must be understood in the context of the standard bathroom-restroom setup of the Japanese dwelling (and in contrast to the Anglo-Saxon set-up). In most Japanese houses and apartments (but maybe not tiny Tokyo apartments or hotel rooms) bathrooms and restrooms are actually distinct and separate things. The restroom (お手洗い or トイレ) is little bigger than a closet – just enough room for you to slip on the toilet slippers, sit down, and close the door.This room has one purpose and one function only. Sometimes there might also be a small sink (that sustainably feeds into the toilet tank) exclusively for hand-washing. The vanity (洗面所) where you brush your teeth, shave, wash your face, etc. is entirely separate, and might be an extension of the bathroom.
The bathroom (浴室) is, aptly, for bathing. Usually there is an area to wash/shower yourself off before you get in the bath (as you would at an onsen). This ingeniously keeps you from bathing in your own filth. But the best thing about the Japanese bathroom is that it is a bathroom and not a toilet room.
Need I mention that bathrooms tend to get steamy? Why on Earth would you put the appliance you defecate on in the same room that you are supposed to clean yourself (including your teeth)? There’s an answer, and it’s ideological: Anglo/American pragmatism.
It’s simple. It’s not that the Anglo/American doesn’t care about maximizing hygiene, it’s just that it will always come second to practicality in the value system. (And by Anglo/American, I mean anyone who has inherited their ideology.) Put all the complicated plumbing in one room, take care of all your private business in one place, the thinking goes. And this brings us back to toilet paper and the washet. My hypothesis for the reason the washlet still hasn’t caught on in the Anglo/American world is that the washlet simply isn’t pragmatic enough. The washlet values hygiene over pragmatic simplicity. The washlet is a superfluous luxury. A nice idea, but not practical, so says the Anglo/American.
All the buttons and gadgets can seem overwhelming. I admit, I’ve found it easier just not to mess with it, and use the washlet the old-fashioned way. Maybe this is just because I can’t read all the buttons in Japanese, or the idea of having a nozzle squirt my anus is new and radical to me. But I think there might even be a deeper ideological reason. The Anglo/American says get in, take care of your business, and get out. This ideology is best fulfilled by the old-school wipe-and-flush model. And I admit, I’m ideologically biased. I like the idea of the washlet, but in practice I don’t.
Japan, on the other hand, is very particular about the separation of the inside/outside realm of the clean/dirty. The Japanese concept of uchi-soto (内外) literally inside-outside usually refers to in-group/out-group distinctions. But it can also refer to indoors/outdoors (内 can also mean house or home). Clean and dirty are also viewed in sharp contrast. The word for pretty (きれい) also means clean, and the antonym dirty (きたない) conversely has many negative non-literal connotations.
Ritual cleansing, called misogi (禊), is important in both Buddhism and Shinto. Temizuya (手水舎), water basins with wood ladles, are located outside of temples and shrines. They are for patrons to wash their hands and rinse their mouths out before entering. (A relic of this is the Japanese custom of gargling water upon reentering the home.) The torii gate and komainu (the guardian lion-dog statues) also mark the separation of the worldly outside and the sacred inner space.
So it is no surprise that the semi-symbolic ritual of changing your shoes/slippers like Mr. Rogers anytime you go inside or outside is a big deal in Japan. It’s almost a religious rite. This also explains why the most offensive thing you can do in a Japanese home is leave the toilet slippers on after leaving the restroom: you just trespassed on the sacred with the profane.
The Japanese style restroom/bathroom achieves this separation. And the washlet, as ritual purifier, is central. It is so valued, because washing is valued at a religious level.
I haven’t mentioned or discussed the washlet’s feminine functions. Mostly because I have male parts and try very hard to avoid pushing those buttons. If you think I’m missing some crucial insight, however, please leave a comment below.
The persistence of the primeval squatter seems to present a paradox when juxtaposed with the ultramodern washlet. In my view, the two present a tension that persists in Japanese ideology. The two accommodate separate attitudes toward excremental excess.
First of all, squatting itself has deep roots in Asian culture. Chairs are a Western invention (probably ancient Egypt). Which is not to suggest that the West had some sophistication Asia lacked. To be sure, chairs are just another form of ideological conveyance. (Thrones immediately come to mind.) And if nothing else, chairs are designed to elevate and separate you form the Earth.
For whatever reason, even after the introduction of chairs, sitting, kneeling, and squatting remains common. Indeed, the squat is a sort of rest position for Asians.
And, of course, Japan
To be fair, the squat is probably quite comfortable for those who grow up doing it, and weren’t taught it’s impolite or undignified.
The chair has made us soft. So naturally, we prefer to shit on toilet seats.
The reason we find the squatter altogether distasteful, is that it is so close to the ground. It’s a little too natural for our comfort. (Nothing unsettles the Western psyche quite like nature.)
But consider two very tangible benefits of the squatter:
- More hygienic.
The cool thing about the squatter is that you never have to make direct contact with the toilet. You can just hover above it. (Does a thin strip of toilet paper laid on the seat really do the job?) This is probably the main reason it is still so common in public restrooms.
2. Better for your bowels.
Sitting, or not squatting properly can put unnecessary pressure on your bowels and make it harder to have a natural bowel movement. 2-minute video by Business Insider illustrates: Scientists have discovered that we’re going to the bathroom the wrong way.
I’ve got to hand it to Japanese intuition and longevity. The only real problem with the squatter is that it’s so shallow, which means it doesn’t diffuse the odor very well, so Japanese public restrooms, especially in more rural areas, tend to stink more than usual.
Interestingly, the squatter (and by the same token, the Anglo toilet) seems to have had some cultural impact on how feces are depicted.
Take the emoji Pile of Poo. Though growing in worldwide popularity (it’s been incorporated into Unicode), Pile of Poo is Japanese. It is typical in Japan for poop to be drawn in a steaming pile rather than as a phallic-shaped turd like South Park’s Mr. Hankey. Turds are preserved by floating in a toilet bowl, not by hitting a dry surface. The way toilets handle and preserve our shit affects they way we think about shit itself. Make of that what you will.
The Japanese Urinal
At first glance, there seems nothing special about the Japanese urinal.
But having used my fair share of public restrooms in Japan, I’ve noticed they’re all basically the same. They all sit on the floor, but unlike other urinals that extend to the ground, the basin is still about a foot high with no puddle. This makes it a bit harder to piss on your feet, and I imagine it keeps the floor around it cleaner. Thus they reap the advantages of a one size fits all model (they’re kid friendly, with no minimum clearance), but avoid the pitfalls of other floor length urinals.
And the shape is kind of elegant, until you realize it’s just a vertical squatter.
They’re uniformly spaced slightly further apart than usual – which is nice since I’ve never seen any partitions for privacy. With more of a crowd culture, privacy isn’t as much a thing.
Finally, in restrooms with more than one or two urinals, there is usually one with handlebars. This is considerate for the elderly and handicapped, but it’s also super convenient when you’re drunk.
The Japanese urinal gets an all-around thumbs-up, but they definitely need a few partitions.
There’s a phenomenon in hotels around the world of folding over the last sheet of toilet paper into a ‘V’ to let guests know the room has been cleaned. I’ve noticed that in Japan this practice extends beyond hotels into all kinds of public restrooms. There’s something kind of charming and classy about it. And it makes me feel a little bad about disturbing that neatly folded sheet.
The last time I came to Japan I bought a toilet paper origami instruction book as a gift. It had everything from cranes to sailboats to neckties. A quick Google, and you’ll find all kinds of gems. I don’t really know anything about origami, but I like the idea of anonymously leaving an uplifting piece of art for the next person, in such an intimate space. Until it occurs to me that the artist probably folded it before washing their hands.
Even before the Edo period, people that lived in cities or towns would collect their sewage and farmers would actually buy it from them for fertilizer. This practice even continued up to the Occupation.
The barrels on the right were for collecting night soil. It was only after the industrialization of the late 50s and 60s that night soil was replaced by farmers with chemical fertilizer. Suddenly night soil went from being fertilizer to waste. That is, the attitude toward it went from reusable sustainer of life to excremental excess. Then came the problem of how to treat and dispose all that excess sewage.
Night soil usage is still around, however. It accounts for about 10% of the population, though it is treated at sanitation plants before being recycled as biomass. Japan’s night soil treatment system is proposed as a cheap, sustainable solution for developing countries.
(see History and Current Situation of Night Soil Treatment Systems and Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Systems in Japan by X.M. Yang, A. Morita, I. Nakano, Y. Kushida and H. Ogawa. Japan Education Center of Environmental Sanitation; Japan Environmental Sanitation Center. 2010.)
An Afterthought: The Taboo Isn’t Logically Necessary
Elsewhere in his discussions, Žižek mentions a scene from an old surrealist film: Phantom of Liberty, “in which relations between eating and excreting are inverted: people sit on their lavatories around the table, pleasantly talking, and when they want to eat, they silently ask the housekeeper, ‘Where is that place… you know?’ and sneak away to a small room in the back.” (The Plague of Fantasies)
We can imagine a world in which the norms are reversed. And there are different kinds of toilets with different ideological implications that haven’t even been invented yet. Everyone shits, but is that a problem?
I’ve just been shooting at the hip, so what do you think the cultural implications of Japan’s toilets are?
Also, if you’re Slavoj Žižek, and I got you all wrong or you have other ideas about Japanese toilets, do drop a line.
James likes adventure, obscure films, and craft beer. He lives deep in the mountains of Yamanashi.