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Wednesday, March 3, 1999

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Toilet humor is only natural, no instructions necessary


Come on. Admit it. Toilets are funny.

Go ahead. Put the paper down for a second, walk into the nearest lavatory and throw a belly laugh at the john. It will make you feel great all day. Who cares how the toilet feels about it?

Like most people, my own life has overflowed with comical bathroom adventures. Whimsical trips to my Grandpa's outhouse. . . The hilarious day in grade school when the sewer backed up. . . Those merry times when, in pledging a college fraternity, the active members made me stand right in the bowl and keep flushing, all the while singing "Surfin' USA," frankly one of the highlights of my academic career.

In all this fun and games, though, nothing can match the chuckles to be found in Japanese plumbing. If humor is in part defined as the sudden schism between the expected and reality, what can be more humorous than an overweight Westerner, just off the plane, hurriedly flinging open the door to the stall, to find . . . a Japanese-style toilet. I have heard of a Western woman who giggled so hard at such a moment, she lost all need for the device. Literally.

Since people visit toilets often, this means each day is packed with amusing opportunities. I admit, however, when I first arrived in this country (back when Japanese-style toilets stood, so to speak, in the vast majority) I would often put off these festive chances for long periods of time, just so I could share the fun with a fixture from back home. In fact, I knew the location of each and every Western toilet in town, my favorite being one at a church not far from my apartment. That particular toilet led me to a church attendance even more regular than once a week.

After two years of close interaction with the Japanese toilet in my apartment, though, I considered myself past such frolicking ties with my parent culture. I was now a veteran. Battle-hardened. Becoming almost inured to bathroom mirth.

Then I got married. One of the first things my Japanese bride taught me (and I can't say how she learned this) was that for two whole years I had been facing in the wrong direction.

Now isn't that funny. She sure thought so. So did most of her friends when she told them. So much so that she began to very delicately work the story into almost every conversation. Like in this sample talk with the neighbor lady:

"Nice day, isn't it, Mrs. Suzuki? By the way, have I ever told you how my husband. . ." Even now, after 20 years, if my wife ever gets in a black mood, all I have to do to erase her gloomy spirits is to describe my early toilet usage. She laughs until her ribs hurt, which I take as a sort of revenge.

If anything is funnier than Japanese toilets, it is Japanese toilet women, those cleaning ladies who always pop into public johns at the most ill-timed moments.

In fact, I think they are probably coached to do so and all go through lengthy training sessions, just so they can surprise people when they least like it. Talk about a fun job.

When I lived in Kumamoto, I was convinced toilet women were out to get me. It seemed whatever facility I entered -- at the station, the airport, department stores, wherever -- no sooner did I set my feet than the door would bang open and in would waddle an old woman with rubber gloves and a bucket. I felt certain there must be some sort of association and these ladies were tracking me.

Moving to Tokyo didn't change this in the least, except that for a while I was convinced that it was not just toilet ladies that were following me, but, instead, one particular toilet lady. At least it looked like the same lady. When I confronted her, she even denied it with the exact same expression each time.

"Eh?"

It got so bad that I was afraid she would start showing up in our own house. For a while I declined to use the family toilet unless my wife checked it first. My wife enjoyed this immensely, since it gave her the gleeful chance to place a little sign reading: "Face this way."

Of course, no treatise on Japanese toilets would be complete without some comment on the high-tech washlets of recent years. When you think about them, they are downright scary. Darwinists say the human race took hundreds of thousands of years to evolve from shadier primates, yet toilets have now gone from mere holes in the floor to artificial intelligence in only two decades. Who knows to what sinister end this will lead? I, for one, often wonder: Am I operating the washlet? Or it is operating me?

My wife prefers washlets, yet, given the choice, I always pass. For one thing, after all these years of regular bodily functions, I find it silly to keep hauling an instruction manual to the toilet room.

Besides, I have just discovered a cozy church down the road. A comfortable place I want to make full use of.

At least until the toilet lady shows up.



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