Toilet Worship

“There’s a beautiful, beautiful goddess in the toilet. Clean it every day, and you’ll be beautiful like the goddess.”

So sings Kana Uemura, her rich, melodious voice soaring in the ode to her deceased grandmother. In a nearly 10-minute-long ballad, Uemura describes her regret over drifting apart from the old woman who encouraged her to overcome a reluctance to scrub the bowl.

Despite the scatological subject matter, that song was one of the biggest hits in Japan last year. Or perhaps I should say, because of the subject matter.

Toilets hold a special place for the Japanese. They are pinnacles of high technology, personal comfort and even national pride. At last year’s Shanghai Expo, INAX Corporation displayed their gold-plated Regio model in an exhibit titled “World’s Top Lavatory.” According to a government survey, more than 70 percent of Japanese households have a high-tech toilet, commonly called a Washlet after the brand name of the major manufacturer TOTO.

The commodes are equipped with nozzles that squirt warm water to shower one’s behind. Such toilets are widely available in public facilities, too, such as train stations and shops where bathrooms often rival those of luxury hotels in cleanliness and state-of-the-art contraptions.

It’s hard to keep up with the improvements. A friend’s toilet recently greeted me with a beam of light emerging from the back of the bowl, creating a sparkling view of the water while functioning as a night lamp. Other modern features include the self-cleaning bowl (sorry, Grandma Uemura!), which determines the degree of cleansing by sensing the length of time on the seat, and the soothing tunes that pipe up as one sits down.

Public restrooms, especially those frequented by foreigners, often have directions on the wall that look like technical manuals for the switch plates that can have more than 20 buttons. For those in danger of spacing out in their comfort zone, signs warn, “Please don’t drop your cellphone in the toilet.”

You could say that the Japanese are obsessed. When my son was in day care, one of the mothers bemoaned that her boy could not have a bowel movement at the center because the facilities didn’t have Washlets.

At the time I thought the child was over-pampered, but now when my friends and I talk about life overseas, we cite the lack of Washlets as one of the hardship factors. In a questionnaire from my son’s elementary school asking the children what made them nervous during a home-stay program in Australia, one of the replies was, “the toilet water flushed in a different direction from Japan.”

Like Uemura, we aren’t squeamish about toilet talk. When I found out that the pre-installed Washlet in my apartment did not come with a warm-air function that blow-dries the bottom after its shower, I called TOTO customer service to see if I could get the feature as an add-on. I was soon in a discussion with a young woman about whether bits of toilet paper would remain on a wet behind without the hot blast. She offered, “I use a Washlet every morning without warm air, but I don’t have anything sticking.”

Toilet concerns used to be far more straightforward, the priorities being clean, light and safe. At my elementary school, 40 years ago, the lavatory felt quite different. The depths of the pit toilets seemed to travel down to eternity. A wagon drove around town sucking up refuse with a fat, gray hose.

Amid such dank bathrooms my friends and I would scare each other with tales of hands emerging from the pits or eyeballs floating down below.

The most enduring of such horror stories is the legend of Hanako san, or Miss Hanako, the chilling girl-ghost of school toilets. There are numerous versions nationwide, but most commonly, she is an elementary school student with a pale complexion and bob cut whose faint voice replies from one of the empty stalls. Hanako san storybooks remain popular in my son’s class, even though, as he says, these days, “the toilets are so clean Hanako san would never appear.”

Instead, you might run into a lonely soul eating lunch. In the last few years the slang “benjo meshi” or “bathroom meal” has entered the lexicon. It refers the practice of a student or worker dining in one of the stalls in order to avoid being seen as someone who can’t find a companion to eat with. I’ve never met anyone who does benjo meshi, and the concept may be an urban myth. But the fact that the phrase resonated suggests the complex layers of fear and solitude out there. No amount of high tech can compensate for such anguish.

At least not yet.

By Kumiko Makihara, a writer and translator living in Tokyo.

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