I still don’t know what “standby mode” means for a toilet.
For two days I’d devoured a steady diet of chicken nanban, the specialty dish of Miyazaki City, and had just finished the last of those days with an ice cream soda and a side of fried shrimp. I am lactose intolerant and a former vegan, so my stomach responded as if I’d asked it to digest copper and asbestos.
Twenty minutes later my stomach was full of gurgling mud. We stopped at a gas station on the outskirts of rural Miyazaki. The stall was in the back, surrounded by gray plaster walls along dingy blue floor tiles. Makeshift paneling surrounded the toilet with about a half-inch of space off the ground.
Inside the enclosure was a porcelain trough set in the floor. It resembled a urinal set horizontal, with a small “hood” at the front. Pipes led to a separate flushing tank.
Short on time, I swallowed my pride, dropped my pants and bent my knees.
The first-time squat is a series of complex negotiations. You must decide which direction to face and how far to drop the pants. You have to figure out your balance, your hips-to-knees ratio. Failure at any of those points – particularly after nanban and ice cream – could be particularly disastrous.
For the sake of safety I completely removed my pants, faced away from the hood, stuck my fingers into the dank, dark half-inch crevice between the floor and the paneling, and girded myself for a conflict resolution session with my stomach.
Should any travelers to Japan find themselves in this position, it’s wrong. I’ve since learned that one should face toward the lip and that you should not squat so far that poking your fingers into mysterious holes is necessary. Your pants can safely hover around your ankles.
The Origin of the Squat
The squat toilet descended from one of the earliest forms of waste removal: Man-made streams. The water was fed to a nearby river. People would put one leg on either side of the stream, squat, do their business and let the water wash it away. Kind of ingenious, actually.
The same principle applied to holes in the ground. As a Buddhist nation, early Japan didn’t raise livestock, so putting human waste into the soil replaced animal fertilizers.
That kept human waste out of the streets and stagnant bodies of water, which helped Japan avoid the unhygienic nastiness and corresponding Cholera epidemics that struck European countries with a vengeance. (Furthermore, the squatting position is healthier than sitting).
While the British and French were leaving their culinary traditions to accumulate in “dung heaps” in their streets and basements, the Japanese were collecting it for use on farms.
To The Victors Go The Toilets
When the Allies took over Japan in 1945, they swiftly brought the era of the squat toilet to an end. Though Western-style toilets had been in use in castles and some urban districts by the end of the 19th century, they were rare.
With the rebuilding of an entire nation’s infrastructure, however, sewage lines were modernized (though by no means universal – even up to 1997, almost a third of Japanese homes weren’t connected to sewers). So began the age of the toilet.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Japan was rich enough and technologically advanced enough to build a gadget for every purpose. The bathroom was no exception.
So in 1980*, toilet manufacturer Toto introduced the first gadget-based toilet seat cover to Japan with the slogan, “Oshirimo kirei,” which I can only translate as “Everyone’s ass is beautiful” –
Within a decade they were everywhere – private homes, shopping malls, schools.
By 2002, there was a full-blown “toilet war” between manufacturers competing for a market that was more popular than the desktop PC. According to a 2002 article in the New York Times:
Japan’s toilet wars started in February, when Matsushita engineers here unveiled a toilet seat equipped with electrodes that send a mild electric charge through the user’s buttocks, yielding a digital measurement of body-fat ratio.
Unimpressed, engineers from a rival company, Inax, counterattacked in April with a toilet that glows in the dark and whirs up its lid after an infrared sensor detects a human being. When in use, the toilet plays any of six soundtracks, including chirping birds, rushing water, tinkling wind chimes, or the strumming of a traditional Japanese harp.
Sadly, the toilet wars have not escalated much since then, as the seat attachments I see in electronic shops share the same array of functions, and are still priced between $600 to $4000 USD.
The most common accessory is the bidet, which feels decidedly unhygienic to me but is a hit in water-and-cleanliness obsessed Japan; I suppose keeping hands free of that kind of business is a major perk. Seat warmers are standard (and glorious). Perfumes, health checks, and buttons to cover up the less elegant sounds of the bathroom are other options.
The bathroom itself is one of the few truly private places in Japan; this is a country where your front hallway is semi-public and train rides are more intimate than many marriages.
Paradoxically (or, appropriately) the bathroom is also considered disgusting, far beyond Western ideas. We tend to think the bathroom is “sorta gross” but we still shit and brush our teeth in the same room. In Japan, the bathroom is isolated from the bath and washing sink. You’re even expected, in some homes, to take off your indoor slippers and switch to in-bathroom slippers (my gym asks the same).
The Seat on TV
And, yes: A highly competitive toilet seat market means toilet seat marketing campaigns. This one has CGI Penguins.
* – The first electronic toilet seat was actually invented by Americans in the 1960s.
** – If you can do a better translation of “oshirimo kirei,” and I’m sure someone can, please leave a comment!
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