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Saturday, Aug. 18, 2001

JAPAN LITE

Visitors' deep-seated terror: Asian toilets


It's hard to say which culture is more enamored with the Western-style toilet -- the Japanese or the Americans. While in Japan, the Asian-style squat toilet still rules, the Western-style sit-down toilet is making inroads. In fact, most new homes are equipped with the Western "porcelain god."

Always out to impress, the Japanese have made elaborate renditions to the Western toilet, elevating it to the status of "porcelain goddess." These stunning home toilets are equipped with cloth seat covers, heated seats, bidets and dryers, all ready to receive the esteemed fanny.

While Americans don't insist on such toilet comforts, we do insist one sit down for the ceremony. The Asian-style squat and flush is not our style. Americans like to take our time.

You open the door to an American bathroom and the ceremony begins: large mirrors, subdued lighting, wallpaper and carpet or sparkling tiles. Faucets are rubbed clean till they shine. Matching sets of hand towels hang next to the sink. Decorative soaps and potpourris are common accouterments. The bathroom is often the fanciest room in the house. Magazines can be found stacked next to the toilet -- anything from Reader's Digest to Nature magazine and Popular Mechanics. Yes, the bathroom is a place to learn! Americans could complete an entire correspondence course on the toilet. A bit smelly correspondence course, but overall, not a bad atmosphere. A drain in the floor, like the Japanese have, would definitely ruin the ambience, if not the study atmosphere. In the U.S., we never say "toilet." It is properly called the "bathroom," a room to indulge in rituals.

Evidence of the popularity of the Western toilet can be seen at any public place in the U.S., where there is always a line of people waiting to get in. So it should be no surprise that Americans find the Asian-style toilets disappointing. Japanese-style toilets require far too much physical prowess for the average American. One friend of mine will never forgive me for not having warned her about the toilets before she visited. When my father came to visit, he had a map of the city in which he marked all the buildings that offered Western-style toilets. I heard of a foreign English teacher who was so perplexed by the squat-and-flush toilets that he removed his pants completely every time he went to the toilet.

Why all the toilet prejudice? After all, how many minutes a day are you in the toilet anyway? Especially in Japan, it'll only be seconds, since you're squatting. When Japanese people go to the toilet, they're out in moments. No mirrors, and often no soap. Perhaps that's why there is seldom a line in front of a public toilet in Asia -- people avoid using them as long as possible.

But I think toilet prejudice stems from something deeper. I once spoke to a Canadian tourist who praised the excellent Japanese-style "minshuku" he was staying in. Then he lowered his voice to almost a whisper and confessed: "The only downside is the . . . toilet. You'd think that in a modern country like Japan, they'd have Western-style toilets." Then he glanced around to make sure no one was listening, and said, "The Asian style is just so primitive."

I wonder what that guy would think of the toilet at my house. Before we moved in, the landlord insisted we have a Western-style toilet. So he placed a Western-style toilet over the Japanese toilet. The only problem is that the Western toilet takes up much more space than the other, so now there is no room to close the bathroom door. When you sit down, you look out the open door, which faces a window overlooking the sea. We now can boast the best toilet with a view.



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