Thursday, January 11, 2007

Taking Care of Business in Japan

(Pictured: The TOTO toilet lures a child into it's robotic clutches using a song)
Have you ever been wandering in a busy metropolitan area when you were suddenly seized by a sharp, aching stomach cramp which indicated the epoch of a stinking beershit? Of course you have. We all have. The only thing there is to do then is bumrush the nearest comfort station and do your sinful business. But it ain’t always so easy. In the good old U of K, I was fortunate enough never to have been presented with such a dichotomy as to choose which kind of toilet to drown mud bunnies in. But here in Japan we have many different kinds. It’s true. Some are good, some bad. Some are brutally simplistic, while some are bewilderingly advanced. What follows is the definitive exploration and assessment of the main toilet types that you will encounter on a day to day basis, anecdotal scatology and solutions for your daily plop-plop.

1. The Squatter
The squatter is the typical toilet of rural Japan, and of public conveniences. Set into the floor, this porcelain menace can be intimidating for the first-time user. I confess I have only ever used one of these once, on the below ground floor of Nagoya’s Takashimaya mall. You can visit it yourself, there’s a plaque there to commemorate the event. Nevertheless my first visit was like everybody’s first visit – It literally couldn’t be avoided. I closed the door behind and stared at it the same way a pig looks at a typewriter. What was I going to do? I dropped my shorts, and squatted over the bowl, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was going to defecate at an angle and somehow soil them. I took off my shorts and left them in a pile in the cleanest looking corner of the bathroom. I let myself descend as close as I could to the porcelain without falling over and then let myself shit. I felt cold and naked, and didn’t enjoy it at all, as I usually do. Thirty seconds or so later the runny shit had passed, and I groped for the toilet paper. In doing so I had to let go of the plumbing and almost fell into the sticky mess below. A mercifully quick wipe later I was ready to assess the splatter damage. Despite the severity of my diarrhoea my shoes and bare flesh were miraculously untainted. More luck than good guidance, I thought, as I pulled my shorts back on. Dreadful.

The whole experience left me rather worse for wear, and thanking the good Lord that my own apartment’s squatter toilet came with a plastic converter. The converter itself is a poor defecatory experience, with its tendency to stick to ones flesh during the summer months and its habit of concealing the strange orange scum that gathers beneath the lips of the squatter toilet.

All things considered one might write the squatter off as a barbaric throwback to the days of yore when men were men, women were property and people hacked at each other with huge swords 24/7. But wait! There is an up side! There is method to the madness. The average squatter uses much less water than a western toilet, and are also easier to keep clean and are significantly cheaper. They are also (apparently) much more hygienic due to lack of seat contact, if you can manage to keep it all in the pan that is. In addition to that, squatting is a more natural position, and holds untold health benefits. For example, the position allows you to expel more slurry from the colon, and builds up muscles which help reduce incontinence. Some people also say that it improves breathing, strengthens ones knee muscles, and improves concentration. Some studies even maintain that the squatting position can prevent and even cure the Grapes of Wrath themselves, the deadly haemorrhoids. So by that merit, the environmentally friendly, hygienic and healthy old-school squatter should be the greebo or health-nut’s shitter of choice. Use it and be proud.

Comfort: 0/10
Splatter factor: 9/10
Green factor: 10/10
Healthiness: 10/10
Ability to operate while under the influence: 0. You may as well shit yourself now before you do it in your bed, fool.
Total: 2.9 out of 5

2. The Western Style, or Regular toilet
The Western style is found in most Japanese homes now, having overtaken the squatter as the shite-receptical of choice some time ago. Without the somewhat obscure health benefits of the squatter, the Western toilet provides a comfortable plastic seat with a porcelain funnel which allows the user a carefree and splatter free bowel evacuation without having to hoist oneself up by gripping the wall or plumbing or remove one’s clothing. Especially good for old people whose backs have been ravaged by decades on the squatter, who just want to sit down at their extended old age while they clip a biscuit. The twin flush option allows you to save water by making a small flush for a piss and a big one for a jobby. In addition to this, there is a sink on top of many modern toilets that allows you to wash your hands in the water that flows into the cistern in preparation for a new flush. Unfortunately, the rather slow flow of cold water doesn’t really cut it for washing one’s hands. I need a little more pressure to feel clean. And some soap. And a towel. Here’s a question for you; what is it with the lack of soap and towels in Japanese toilets? Am I supposed to carry soap and towels with me? The answer is, of course, yes, I am. Perhaps I should buy a brokeback man-purse to carry all these things in. But I digress.

Comfort: 7/10
Slowly killing you? 5/10
Green factor: 6/10
Healthiness: 5/10. Healthy in the sense that not going to the bathroom would be unhealthy.
Ability to operate under the influence: 10/10. Textbook.
Total: 3:3 out of 5

3. The Super Toilet AKA Washlet or Ubertoilet
For the ultimate in toilet technology, next time you’re baking brownies why not head over to a TOTO washlet? Boasting more gadgets than James Bond’s Aston Martin, these state of the art toilets provide the pinnacle of comfort and cleanliness, if one can get over the intimidating interfaces and sometimes surprising injections of fluid into one’s anus. I’ll say one thing for the Japanese; they’re a people who take taking a shit rather seriously, as anyone who has listened as an overzealous workmate in the cubicle next to you hatches a loaf, punctuating every plop with the exclamation “Yosh!” Nearly half of homes in Japan sport a Super Toilet, cementing their importance as the pinnacle of conveniences. Since their introduction in 1980, the Super Toilet has evolved many striking features, such as the much loved heated toilet seat, which in some people’s opinion negates the need for central heating in one’s house. Some seats even glow in the dark, so you can drain the snake without even turning the light on when you stumble through in the early hours of the morning wishing you hadn’t drank so much soda. Super Toilets feature a high level of automation, some popping up the seat when you approach, or lowering it when it’s time for twosies. Perhaps the most striking feature is of course the integrated bidet, which sprays a jet of water at 38 degrees centigrade into the sphincter or special lady parts of the user. A foreigner first arriving in Japan will treat the integrated bidet initially with suspicion, then with disgust. This disgust will turn into curiosity and eventually acceptance. For most straight men and women, the anus is strictly out of bounds, and the idea of a powerful jet of water shooting out of the toilet evokes a terrible fear of anal intrusion. We worry that it might hurt, or worse still, in the case of straight men, that we might enjoy it and begin to question our sexuality. Gay men, I assume, fear the water jet less, knowing as they may well do that a water jet and anal intercourse are not the same thing. But straight guys are inordinately afraid of that sort of thing. So we reject the jet spray and label it sexually dubious. We become convinced that the Japanese people who use the water jet must be getting off. Indeed, that hypothesis still holds some water (No pun intended). One of my workmates, a Judo black-belt of enormous proportions is obscenely thorough in his use of the jet spray. Once I was standing at a urinal and my workmate came into the toilet, went to the cubicle, locked the door, and sat down. Immediately, I heard the spray start, full blast. He hadn’t even taken a shit yet. I finished my piss, went over and thoroughly washed my hands, and when I left, he was still spraying on full strength. While I secretly suspect he was merely pleasuring himself, a little research explains the process. Apparently, according to Dr Hiroshi Ojima, the fibre intake in Japan is not great (surely rice has a lot of fibre?) and that can cause constipation. This possibly dubious claim is backed up by the makers of the toilets, who maintain that constipation can be cured by rigorous application of the jet spray. Personally, I suspect this might be nonsense, but one can’t fault the hygiene argument. Of course scouring one’s exhaust port clean with a powerful jet of water is superior to merely wiping it wish low quality paper! In addition to that, since most public restrooms are without soap or hot water, it will undoubtedly leave the hands feeling cleaner too. Marvellous.

One particularly useful feature that is found on women’s toilets is the Otohime, or in English, the Sound Princess. This device was created after Japanese scientists realized that urinating Japanese women, mortified at the thought of other urinating Japanese women hearing them urinate, were flushing the toilets non-stop to conceal the sound of their urination and wasting around 20 litres of water per toilet visit. What the Sound Princess does is play a loud flushing noise to cover any noises made in the performance of daily ablutions. Of course, some Japanese women think the Sound Princess sounds fake and as such still constantly flush the toilet. But what can you do?

Other features utilized by the top of the range toilets include massage functions (which would be sure to leave the experience feeling even more sexually dubious) an automatic deodorant spray, and some even play relaxing music, possibly to induce some kind trance where defecation can be preformed with ease. Some toilets even collect usage data which allows them to shut down and save power at times when they are unlikely to be needed, and to provide and a toilet experience based on the user’s individual preferences. Smart toilets! Incredible. And they keep on advancing too. Toilets currently being developed can perform urinalysis, measure pulse and blood sugar levels to provide a health assessment of the user and fax it to a doctor if there are any problems. Also they have invented a toilet that talks to you and understands simple verbal commands, but frankly I can’t think of anything more perverse and ridiculous. What would I want to say to my toilet? What would it say to me? God only knows. Surely that would be an awkward conversation.

A downside to the modern Japanese washlet is the level of energy that they use. It’s estimated that 5% of the energy used by the average Japanese household is eaten up by the Super Toilet. This places something of a dampener on the other environmental advantages such as saving water. However, who cares about all that stuff? You’re sitting on the Cadillac of Commodes! Fuck Kyoto protocol and shit like a king.

Comfort: 10/10. So comfortable, it’s maybe even a little arousing.
Fear factor: 9/10. A little bit too much like colonic irrigation though.
Green factor: 7/10. Good on water, not so good on power.
Healthiness: 7/10. OK, but you’d be better squatting.
Ability to operate under the influence: 5/10. Likely to get confused and wind up injuring yourself.
Total: 3.8. The King of Toilets has been crowned.

4. The Pit Toilet
Technically these things shouldn’t even still exist. Although the earliest sewerage systems in Japan date from about the Yayoi period (300 BC – AD 250), in days of old pit toilets were primarily used. This was because one could go save the excrement for use as fertilizers. The Japanese diet was always based more on growing rice and other vegetables than rearing livestock, so there was always a need for human excrement to use as fertilizers. Because of this Japanese cities have were always cleaner than their European counterparts, where the citizens were usually ankle-deep in their own faeces because people’s idea of disposal simply involved tossing the foul-smelling excretions into the street. In any case, sewers were built in many places in around the late 1500’s, and in the 20th century, western-style toilets began to manifest, becoming more commonplace during the post-war American occupation. So the pit toilet should be extinct right? Wrong. They can still be found in certain places, like for instance in dirty, prefabricated restaurants on the side of a major road, or in filthy arcades where old men who drive small trucks play pornographic mah jong games and smoke. The pit toilet these days is of course connected to the sewers, but beyond that not much has changed. A circular hole, often concrete, leads directly down to the sewers. No flush to speak of. The hole is usually wide enough to fit a small to medium sized child down. And the stench, oh the stench! Don’t drop your keitai, watch, wallet or spectacles, whatever you do.

Comfort: 0/10.
Offensive scent: 10/10. Stinks to high heavens.
Green Factor: 5/10. At least it doesn’t waste water, because there is none.
Healthiness: 0/10. Possibly that smell is carcinogenic.
Ability to operate under the influence: 0/10. There’s a danger you’d fall in.
Total: 1.5. Miserable.

While other types of toilet do exist, for instance the female urinal, this esteemed scientist has not experiences them, and in any case they are immensely rare. As well as type of toilet, Japan differs from the west in terms of attitude to toilets, and the act of urination or indeed defecation. For example, where else in the world could you see a respectable looking man soberly urinating in a supermarket car park at 11am on a Saturday morning in full view of a crowd of schoolchildren? Where I ask you? And where else in the world can you find toilet doors that open directly onto urinals, allowing onlookers (women, children, old ladies) to glimpse a row of man-hoses every time someone opens the door. Japanese men don’t seem to have the same attitude to privacy while taking a piss that we do (maybe that’s why they always stare when I’m beside them at the urinal). There’s no law against public urination here, something which is grossly illegal and considered utterly barbarous in many western countries. Unfortunately, women don’t share the same rights as men, and for them public urination is illegal; possibly in case any prowling urophiliacs should see them and be unduly aroused. Which I think suits Japanese women fine since the idea of anyone finding out their sinful secret – that they do, indeed, pee and poo like everyone else – fills them with cold dread.

Going to the bathroom in Japan is like playing Russian roulette. 50% of the time you are going to be disappointed by a squatter, so perhaps it’s best to go at home. It’s always best to check the cubicles first in case there’s a Super Toilet hiding in the corner. In which case you might end up hanging a rat more comfortably than in your own home. But before you diss the old-school Japanese methods in future, think about the environmental and physical benefits offered by the poor, maligned squatter. So rejoice! There’s a toilet built for every preference in Japan, be it for comfort, cleanliness, or environmentally friendliness. The trick is to know where to look.