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Sunday, April 5, 2009
London trauma points with relief to a convenient truth about Japan
Sometimes Japan is just different from everywhere else.
I was keenly reminded of this a few weeks ago while watching an NHK television program on expressions of conjugal love. One woman wrote a haiku about her passion for her husband: "My love for you Is like a warm toilet seat . . . "
I can't remember the last line, but I think those readers privy, if you will, to Japan's high-tech amenities will recognize the simile as referring to the heated toilet seats that one comes into intimate contact with in this country. Is there anywhere else in the world where a husband would smile at such a simile? If there is, please let me know.
Oh, I could write an ode to Japanese toilets — and all the more passionate a verse it would be after the nightmare experience I suffered recently in London.
I left Heathrow Airport, taking the ordinary subway line into the city and changing twice to get to my destination of Clapham Common Station. It was there that I suddenly realized I hadn't relieved myself since getting on the plane at Cologne. The kindly gentlemen manning the station told me that the public loo was up the stairs, but that "it's probably locked." It was, indeed, with a heavy lock and chain.
Fortunately there was a rather swish-looking coffee shop nearby. I hopped in, ordered a cappuccino, took a long drink of cold water, and asked the waitress where the toilet was.
"We don't have one," she said, turning briskly toward the cake section at the counter.
By this time my bladder was swelling like a balloon at a kids' party; and, with my tongue burned from downing a cappuccino in 10 seconds flat, I set out, dragging my heavy suitcase, for the library on the edge of the Common — only to find that it was closed.
By now my bladder was about to burst. Then I saw it: Wine and Spirit Shop — Wines from Around the World.
I entered, plopped my suitcase on the floor and, not to be impetuous, surveyed a few shelves of wine, nodding knowingly, before inquiring: "Uh, you wouldn't happen to have a loo I could use, would you?"
"Sure. Right through that door."
I tell you, dear reader, it gave a whole new meaning to the phrase, "The parting of the waters." I ended up spending nearly £20 (around $30) for a bottle of Australian wine that would cost one-third that in Australia, but that 750 ml was worth it. (No, I am referring to the lesser amount of liquid in the bottle . . .) And I kept repeating to myself, "This would never happen in Japan!"
Of course it wouldn't. There are working public toilets in all stations, in department stores, and, most assuredly, in all coffee shops. Often, a guy can even go in while the place is being cleaned (almost invariably by a woman).
Some of these public facilities boast toilets that do a lot more than merely provide the basics. "Washlets," as they're called in Japan, both wash and then dry; they squirt and they blow. Some seats even rotate and sterilize themselves. And I understand, from hearsay, mind you, that the ladies' lavatories broadcast pleasant sounds from nature to mask those embarrassing ones from nature that may emerge when a lady is answering its call.
And take the urinals! Female readers may not know this, but some of them even come with handy antidribble instructions. The ones at my Ward Office in Tokyo have a sign above them that says: Please take a half-step forward . . .
Now, hold your horses. I am not bragging or anything, but if I took a half-step forward I might catch a hell of a cold. I ask you (not being a frequenter of ladies' facilities), whether in ladies toilets you are implored to crouch down a little bit lower. Ladies who are well endowed in the basement could be in for a cold, rude shock.
However, the final blow struck me last summer in Iwate Prefecture, where I found myself standing before a urinal with this sign on it that announced: Flushing will take place 3 seconds after you step away. In winter, however, it may start 2 seconds later.
Ah, I thought, what bureaucratic genius rammed that one through the Prefectural Committee for Toilet Signage? Wouldn't a sign announcing "Automatic flushing" be sufficient to satisfy the most fastidious user?
This sophisticated approach to public facilities has not always been evident in Japan. Back in the late 1960s, when I first arrived here, lavatories at a lot of train stations were unisex. This meant that a woman in need of relief had to walk behind men lined up at their "morning glories" (asagao, the word for the morning glory plant, is also a traditional euphemism for a urinal).
Speaking of tradition, no writer was more sensitive to the trappings of micturition than Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965). In his essay on aesthetics titled "In'ei Raisan (In Praise of Shadows)," he waxes lyrical about the atmosphere in old toilets, praising the dim light in them and the view they provide the squatter.
Many years ago, a friend who had known Tanizaki well, told me of the latter's love of the sound of urine striking the bowl. Apparently, Tanizaki lined one morning glory with moth wings to produce a soft and soothing tone. I don't know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but I do know that it must take a hell of a lot of moth wings to cover the inside of a urinal.
So, the next time you are in the mood to come down hard on some Japanese institution or custom, please consider Japan's modern homegrown public toilets. I, for one, am prepared to sing their praises to the high heavens. "The Trauma at Clapham Common" is something to which I most definitely do not wish to have a sequel.
I am even willing to grit my teeth, think of Japan, and take that extra half-step forward. I am also willing to wait an extra couple of seconds as the morning glory makes up its mind to flush or not to flush.
So, if your Japanese wife or husband or partner writes, "Shall I compare thee to a toilet seat? / Thou art more restful and more heart-warming . . ." then take it as a compliment.
Even if you are not exactly pleased, at least take it sitting down.