The Japanese Toilet Takes a Bow: A Personal History


Hanako-san lives in a toilet. She has chin-length hair, a fringe and, according to numerous reports, lives in the third stall from the right, on the third floor of her school bathroom. Her appearance—even the thought of her appearance—frightens school children though she has not, according to the scholar Matt Alt, “ever killed anyone.” There are many Hanako-sans in Japan. In some prefectures she will answer if you call her name. Sometimes you must walk around the toilet three times to get her to appear, and even then, you may just see her hand thrusting out of the latrine. She is usually confined to the girls’ restroom, but occasionally appears before boys. In horror films of the 90s, Hanako-san was given a more complex identity; she was the spirit of a murdered girl; she was the spirit of a sexually assaulted child; she became murderous herself.

What I find most interesting about Hanako-san, however, is that she is a new ghost—a post-war creation, with her first appearances reported in the 1950s, and the peak of her activity in the 1980s. While no one seems to be able to pinpoint exactly how she arose, at least one Japanese television news program suggested that Hanako-san’s origins lie in the number of restrooms in Japan’s post-war public schools, which were dirty, old-fashioned, and poorly lit. In a 2002 article, which addressed the issue of both Hanako-san and dirty public school toilets, the Asahi Shimbun reported that the city of Izumi had just completed a renovation campaign of school bathrooms. The new stalls included Washlets, that most modern of Japanese creations: a toilet outfitted with a motion-sensitive opening lid, automated seat heater, and optional shower and air-dry for your bum. The total cost for the renovation: about $156,000. Presumably, Hanako-san has disappeared entirely from the Izumi school system. Sometimes technology can cure superstition.

I’ve never seen Hanako-san and don’t particularly want to, though I’m sure she exists. I’ve long been afraid of toilets in Japan, beginning with the one in the temple we visited every summer starting in 1975, when my mother and I began to regularly go to her homeland in a bid to make sure I was familiar with her culture. Like many lavatories of the day, the temple toilet was essentially a hole in the floor ringed by a porcelain splashguard and capped by a wooden lid. It did not flush. There was a basket nearby, easily reached from the squatting position, and filled with rough and folded paper towels. There was always a flyswatter handy. There was no air conditioning and in the sultry, tropical heat of the Japanese summer,japanese_toilet_1 the swelling odors, the rising mound of waste in the toilet bin, and the four-centimeter long wasps seemed dangerously bloated, as though at any moment something else might coalesce out of the humidity and take corporeal form.

These days, the Japanese refer to this kind of toilet as a “boton benjo,” pronounced “boh-TON BEN-joe.” The word “benjo” means toilet. The word “boton” is onomatopoeia. Japanese is filled with onomatopoeia; snow does not “fall,” it “comes down sura sura” and you do not gorge, you “eat mogu mogu.” Boton is thus meant to simulate the sound of feces hitting the bottom of the tank below the toilet. One squatted, did one’s business, and heard not one “boton,” but several. Boton boton. Just to clarify, a train makes the sound goton goton.

Accidents with the flyswatter were inevitable, though most Japanese who grew up with a boton benjo (and this, by the way, is nearly everyone born before 1990) have a story involving the loss of a slipper. You may or may not be familiar with the Japanese custom of leaving shoes at the entry to a home, and changing to a pair of slippers for use on the wooden floors indoors. Going to the bathroom requires yet another change of slipper from the hallway to the toilet. This custom most likely originates with Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan, which is organized around a few principles, including an obsession with cleanliness and a desire to avoid “pollutants.” The toilet, with its concentration of human waste, is a naturally polluted place. By swapping house for toilet slippers, the conscientious manage to contain these “pollutants” to the restroom proper. Once one has emerged from the boton benjo unscathed, one can exchange slippers, and return to the haven of the rest of the house where the pollutants do not congregate.

Nearly every Japanese person I spoke to about the boton benjo recounted a childhood accident involving an ill-fated slipper falling into the muck below. My mother tells me that I, too, once lost a slipper in this fashion. The slipper was fished out with the aid of that most useful of tools, the wire hanger. It was then washed and put back into service. I’ve blocked the experience from my memory. What I do remember is the terror of crossing the temple complex at night, with the cemetery just outside and looming high overhead, and carrying my stuffed animal as a talisman. At the door to the toilet, I changed my slippers. Then I faced a decision.

If my stuffed animal Wanwan, which means “dog” in childhood Japanese, were to accompany me, he might accidentally land in the goo. I doubted any washing would ever convince me to love him the same way again and so I feared this fate for him. There were no tables to put him on outside the toilet. There was only the floor and this, as we have already established, was full of pollutants. Sometimes risk was necessary; I took Wanwan with me because I was more afraid of the ghost I was sure lurked in the toilet than I was of Wanwan’s untimely death. I also have the distinct memory of taking one piece of rough paper, putting it on the ground outside the door, and putting Wanwan down on top. This was often the most satisfactory compromise between my fears and the cultural pressure and necessity of going to the bathroom. Like everyone else in Japan in those days, I was waiting for modernity to save me from the spirits.


The temple, Empukuji, run by my great Aunt Shizuko, is located in the north of Japan in a region known as “Tohoku,” which southern Japanese identify as a place of “strange and mysterious happenings.” Western guidebooks refer to Tohoku as a place where Japanese traditions are best kept alive, unlike Tokyo and, further to the south, Osaka, which have layers of Westernization lacquered over their Japanese roots, so it is possible today to spend a week in these great megalopoli persisting on nothing but McDonald’s and Coke, if the sight of fish turns you off. Not so in the north, where people are relentlessly Japanese because, well, that’s pretty much the only choice.

As for why we were at a Buddhist temple in Japan every summer: My mother was born and raised in Japan, and came to America for love at age twenty-five. When she tried to introduce her American husband-to-be to her parents, they chased her out of their home and ordered her never to return. My father, a calm and generous man who grew up on a farm in Nebraska yet developed a love of opera thanks to his short-wave radio, was bemused by and sympathetic to our Japanese family dramas. When he received Japanese Aerogrammes in the mailbox at our home in California and saw that the address was written in the shaky lettering of a furious hand, he returned the letters, unopened and unseen by my mother. These he followed up with small envelopes filled with pictures of a growing, half-Japanese baby. Eventually, my grandparents suggested that my mother and I visit, though no apology was ever issued for the grotesque manner in which she was once treated. Still, our visits made us both nervous. I knew the story of my mother’s disinheritance and had watched on more than one occasion as my grandfather’s temper had exploded and sent me cowering into the kitchen and away from his throne-like seat in front of the television. So it was that we often began our summer weeks in Japan in the north, in the safe haven of the temple, where no one had ever issued a judgment over my mother’s actions and where I, mixed child or not, was embraced.

I have vivid memories of arriving in the town of Iwaki at dusk after a several-hour train ride from the airport in Tokyo. From Iwaki we hired a taxi, and I would crane my neck to be the first to catch sight of the temple perched on a hillside in a narrow and verdant valley. Aunt Shizuko, my grandfather’s older sister, often stood outside, high up on the hill, wearing an apron and welcoming us with wide, enthusiastic waves. The car turned, and began to navigate a narrow road through a stretch of rice paddies flanked by fat-leafed clover patches. Where the road forked, the taxi driver invariably asked us what to do. The right side of the road became even more gravelly to indicate that it was for personal use only; it led up to a landing next to a house where Aunt Shizuko waited. The left-most side led to a car park, from which a set of steep stairs crawled up the hill, and threaded through a series of gates, which in turn were flanked by cherry trees that capped the walk with pink froth in the spring. At the top of the stairs was the temple, the slope of its eaves flexed like hands pressed together in prayer. To the left was another building set up for pilgrims, meetings or meals. Higher above was a cemetery, which climbed, stair-step, into the bamboo forest, home of tangled vegetation, badgers, and bears. We always asked the taxi to take us to the house; he always gunned the engine to get to the top of the hill.

All the buildings—house, temple, pilgrims’ quarters—were connected by ramps, making it possible to travel from the house to the altar without first going outside; this was a handy shortcut for the priest who needed to meet waiting guests, or more importantly, for the wife who needed to bring in some tea or treats when acting as a hostess. There were two toilets in the congregation hall: one boton benjo for women and one for men. We didn’t use these; to mix our waste with theirs subjected us to an even higher number of pollutants, many of whom, frankly, were strangers. Instead, we all used the house toilet, which could be reached by walking the full length the house, from one end to the other. From here, one entered a narrow hallway, whose sole purpose was to attach the toilet to the main house, as if the boton benjo were some kind of wayward satellite. When I complained about this arrangement, my mother reminded me that in her childhood, toilets had been located outside and that I had only a hallway to travel through.

Modernity eventually came to the temple, though the story of the uprooting and conversion of the boton-benjos sounds like something lifted from a rejected Dickens plot. Before the war, the temple had been full of men: three brothers and my great-uncle who, I later found out, was actually my great-grandfather. He and two of his sons died of tuberculosis. My grandfather had a complicated history, which spared him a similar death; he was adopted at the age of ten by his uncle, who did not have any heirs. Following tradition, my grandfather should have sent one of his own sons back to the temple to take it over, but he and they had refused; no one was interested in a future requiring days and nights spent performing funerals and memorials, attending wakes and maneuvering dead bodies. Anyway, after the war, Japan had greater ambitions than simply reviving century old traditions.

Aunt Shizuko had been engaged to a banker. If they had married, they would have had children, one of whom would have been trained to take over the temple. But at the eleventh hour, Japan’s thorough potential-mate-inspection-process had uncovered a defect in my great Aunt’s heart. She was an unsuitable bride. The marriage was called off. For years, Aunt Shizuko subsisted on her garden, on the kindness of neighbors, the few parishioners who brought her food and paid for her services, and the rent collected from the rice paddies at the base of the temple.

Then one summer, my mother and I went to the temple to find a man living with her.

Sempou, it was explained to me, had been adopted. He was in his late twenties, far past the age that children were adopted in the books I read. I did not know then that he was actually the illegitimate son of one of Shizuko and my grandfather’s dead brothers. He later told me that he recalled family members from the temple had come calling to try to take him away from his mother when he had been a small child; she had refused. But as an adult, he had decided to go and claim his birthright, though it had meant turning his back on his natal family. Sempou dedicated himself to his work. One by one, the rice paddies were converted to cemeteries, a sure sign of wealth; funerals in Japan are costly. He bought and drove a white Mercedes. The road was paved. In 1989 the old house was torn down and replaced with a new one connected to a sewer system, beautiful hinoki floors and walls (Japanese cypress) and a second floor to house the three young boys who had been born in the 1980s. Most important, to me anyway, my cousin installed a Western-style toilet. When I asked Sempou what had prompted him to this sittable toilet, he explained that my Aunt Shizuko was aging, and it would nice for her to be able to sit and not squat while going about her business.

This general pattern of poverty-to-material-wealth-plus-new-toilet was repeated by all my family members. There were my uncles, Takehiko and Masahiko, who attended elite universities, then found jobs with two of Japan’s great corporations: Matsuzakaya, an exclusive department store, and Nippon Steel. With their newfound richness, both my uncles purchased brand new homes in the late 1970s that included plumbing and flushable toilets; their success came earlier than anyone else’s.

Slightly older than my uncles was Ryunosuke, my mother’s handsome cousin who had once thought of marrying her. He was also the first person in his wealthy Kamakura neighborhood to replace the boton benjo in his lovely prewar home with a real, flushable toilet, supplemented by his own septic tank. Ryunosuke was a sophisticated man, which meant he dabbled in all things Western, though he himself never came to visit us in the US or went to Europe. He once had me transcribe and teach him the lyrics to Stevie Wonder’s “Part Time Lover,” while he smoked Camel cigarettes as we sat on the floor by a screen door facing his private garden. He cooked multicourse meals on weekends when he didn’t work, while patiently pointing out facets of Japanese culture for me to remember back home in America. “We are a culture that values community,” he said. “It is very serious, what I am telling you.” At the time, I thought there was something amusing about the superficial but sincere worship of the West, the cultivated “man’s world” he inhabited, all mixed in with cultural lessons.

And then there were my grandparents. In 1981, my mother suffered a serious bout of viral meningitis, whose aftereffects she still battles. In June of 1982, still very weak and in pain, she boarded the plane with me as usual, determined to get us both to Japan. We visited the temple, and then traveled down to see my grandparents who, to my surprise, had replaced the boton benjo with a real, Western-style toilet. No longer was there a yawning, open sore of a hole in the floor, but in its place, the fresh, friendly face a porcelain seat lined with lime-green terry cloth.

“Why did you do that?” I asked my grandmother.

I still remember her answer, and how it surprised me. “For your mother,” she said.

Throughout the 80s and all around the country, flushable toilets slowly began to pop up in department stores, hotels and restaurants. It’s helpful to think of this change—the banishment of Hanako-san—as involving two steps: first, the introduction of a modern sewer system, and second, the sittable, Western-style toilet. Most of the toilets installed to first take advantage of modern plumbing were of the Japanese variety, which is to say, one still had to squat, but at lest there was no vat of communal goo. But here and there I began to see sit-down toilets and always searched for the stall labeled “Western style.” Over time, these toilets proliferated and going to the bathroom became a cause for much less stress. It was as though, with the holes in the floor finally covered up, the inside of the houses, department stores and restaurants, were somehow quieter and safer.

Then, something unexpected happened. Japan didn’t just replace the hole-in-the-ground toilets with the simple, flushable toilet that you and I use in the West. The new toilets mutated, like those characters in comic books who are accidently injected by some experimental elixir in a top-secret laboratory and wake up able to walk through walls or grow icicles in lieu of fingernails. These new toilets—the Washlets—are marvels of seat-warming, motion-triggered-lid-rising, R2D2-button-clad-efficiency. When I walk to the toilet of my friend Nobata’s house, the lid rises obediently. In Nobata’s house, there are no husband-and-wife toilet seat debates because robotics takes care of the problem. Most toilets now have a “princess button”; if you need to pee and you are in a department store, the “princess button” will emit the sound of running water or music to mask your own tinkling. Like Europeans, the Japanese eschew central heating, so most Washlets now feature preheated seats. And then there are the infamous bidet functions, which I confess I have never used, partly because I really can’t figure out the various commands: water only, hot water, dry, water no dry, etc.

What had happened?

The usual explanation for the complicated bidet-meets-massage-chair-waste-remover is that traditional Japanese culture emphasizes purity and that this, along with a childlike propensity for buttons and toys, has resulted in the widespread popularity of “the Washlet” in Japan. And, indeed, the preponderance of toilet slippers and pollutants would make you think that purity is in fact the major sticking point. But I couldn’t help but think of these new toilets as being an almost hysterical reaction to filth. What’s more, each time I go to the bathroom and am confronted with the latest in robotic technology, I can’t help but feel as though a great big deal is being made out of my need to defecate. The toilet protests just a little bit too much.


Most Japanophiles, and even casual movie-goers, for example, know of the preponderance of robots in Japanese animation and movies. This emphasis is usually explained away as Japan’s coming to terms with the horror of losing the war, and of the years of starvation that followed and the humiliation of suffering not one but two nuclear attacks and an American Occupation. I wondered if the toilet engineers thought that technology giveth and technology taketh and it was best to make the most elaborate and giving robot possible.

And what about the Japanese obsession with purity? There was the time, for example, when I took my boyfriend to Japan and he blithely wore his toilet slippers out into the hallway, at which point the two Japanese with me gesticulated wildly that he was to “Go back!” Traumatic moments tend to break down in slow motion in our memory, and I distinctly see his well-meaning but confused expression as he turned to me for translation. I am ashamed to admit that I too began to cry in English, “No! Those slippers are only for the toilet! Go back! Go back! Go back with the polluted slippers!” Later he said: “Honey, I think we need to get some slippers for our toilet back home.” “Really?” Had all these cultural lessons had affected him in such a way that he was now going to understand me better because he too felt the pressure to be “clean?” But then he laughed and said, “No.” And I allowed my cynical side to return, to be the person who finds all this detailed tallying of what is clean and what is not to be so stereotypically Asian and anal. Were the toilet makers aware of their behavior? How far were they going to take this purity thing anyway? Were they perhaps one day going to invent a device that would forever do away with my need to squat or point and shoot?

As cynical as I was, a part of me was also unconvinced that the usual explanation—the Japanese are a purity and toy-obsessed culture—sufficiently explained the rise of the Washlet. Because, if purity was such a big deal in Japan, then why in did the Japanese tolerate the boton benjo for so many years, when the rest of the modernized world had long ago reverted to flushing? And if urinating is so embarrassing as to require auditory camouflage, then why did pooping and peeing regularly appear on television?

Nearly every comedy or drama on television in Japan includes a scene in which our otherwise serious hero or heroine must go to the bathroom. In the wildly popular TV drama Hana Yori Dango, the protagonists Doumyouji and Tsukuji are trapped in an elevator overnight. They climb on top of the elevator Hollywood style, hoping to escape via the shaft. And then… Domyouji must go to the bathroom. He puts his hand on his crotch and begins to dance. Tsukiji is horrified. Domyouji relieves himself with a look of satisfaction on his face. End of scene. In the animated series Escaflowne, the plucky heroine Hitomi is trapped in an alternate world, and must learn to master her psychic powers in order to end the war between the Zaibach and the countries of Gaea so she can return home. Her powers require the usual complete concentration that all psychics must have and her serious, battle-worthy expression is broken only when she accidentally goes to the bathroom at critical moments.

I have mentioned that the Japanese love onomatopoeia; they also adore puns. The term “un,” which means good luck, sounds suspiciously like “unchin,” which means poop. A small mound of gold poop on your key chain or hanging from your cell phone may therefore ensure that you have good luck. For a time, in 2009, the South Park-like television show “Unko San” had as its setting “Good Luck Island,” which was inhabited by a number of brown, droplet-shaped beings. The hero of good luck island is Unko-san, an earnest droplet, capable of bestowing “luck” on those in trouble. In one episode, the character Baba-kun tries to mug Unko-san to raise money for his father, who is in a hospital. Though Japan has an enviable national health care system, TV dramas routinely employ the trope of the child who must perform some kind of extreme labor—night-time highway construction work is a favorite—to pay for an ill parent. Unko-san casts a good luck spell on Baba-kun who, refusing to believe he has been blessed, flings himself off a cliff to commit suicide, thus upsetting a farm of oysters on the ocean’s floor; they do not want the surrounding water to become polluted. Babakun remains intent on disintegration and continues to sink. In desperation, one oyster spits out a pearl as a bribe. Now wealthy enough to pay off the hospital bill, Babakun resurfaces and returns to Good Luck Island to care for his father.


In an effort to reconcile these many contradictions, I arranged to visit the town of Tokoname, where Inax, one of Japan’s two major toilet-makers, is headquartered. The town is located on the Chita Peninsula, which is a convenient bus-ride away from my grandparents’ home. It is also easily accessible from the Chubu airport, the country’s third international airport, whose construction was almost wholly funded by the car company Toyota, also headquartered in the vicinity.

As I took the bus south from Handa to the Peninsula, I had the feeling that I was traveling back in time. Here, the houses were smaller, lower and weather-beaten, with intricate little gardens embroidering the small front yards or windows. I understood then that I was seeing a town whose buildings had been preserved from the Meiji era (1868-1912); whole neighborhoods on the Chita Peninsula had not been bombed in the war. After a while, I began to see large red clay urns lining the roads. These, I was told, were storage pots. Soon I saw numerous statues of large cats, one paw beckoning me forth. These cats were yet another pun, the “maneki neko,” or “good luck cat,” whose outstretched paw is intended to draw forth good luck.

Later, I would wander the streets of Tokoname and come across an embankment under a bridge where a group of artists had been commissioned to design tile “cats,” each of whom was able to grant a wish. There was the general happiness cat. There was a cat who could bestow good grades. Yet another brought success to athletes. When I turned off of this main road, I began to wander through quiet alleys lined on both sides by walls made of red clay vases, stacked one on top of each other, like the ruins of a carefully preserved Pompeii. Shop after shop owned by artists and artisans beckoned me in to look at carefully crafted tea-cups and pots. I passed kilns, roaring away and baking the plates of master potters. Tokoname, that center of toilet industry, is a pottery center. It is one of five famous ceramic regions in Japan, with hills and cliffs still filled with the red clay that made its teapots famous in the past two centuries. Inax, the toilet maker, had its origins not in gadgetry or waste eliminating wizardry, but in the quiet, earthy duties of firing pottery, of providing the essential instruments of the tea ceremony.

If you think about this, it makes sense. Most toilets are, after all, made of porcelain. When Japan made the leap from the boton benjo, to the slick Washlet, who else was going to be in charge but one of Japan’s major kilns?


No country offers hospitality like the Japanese. So it was that my mother, my five-month-old son, and I were greeted by Inax executives in a meeting arranged by my mother’s classmate, Kanazawa Katsuko, the owner of a regional cable company. It was May and already becoming hot in Japan. We were led to an air-conditioned room and served cold barley tea. The men in the room took turns greeting my very Caucasian-looking son, and then introducing themselves. I had sent in questions beforehand, and Inax had convened to find the right men to answer.

Like a good amateur anthropologist, I thought I might have better results and everyone might disclose more if they knew that, despite my mixed features and Western ways, I was also “one of them.” I wanted to telegraph that I had spent plenty of time on the reservation, and that they need not fear revealing their secrets to me. We all had a good laugh about the boton benjo, japanese_toilet_2and exchanged stories about our flyswatter and slipper incidents. But the conversation quickly turned. They already knew exactly what I wanted to know; they already understood my point of view. It was I who did not understand them. We began with a history lesson.

In the years during and after World War II, Japan did not have a modern sewer system, but relied on the kind of toilet that I had used as a child. In fact, as late as 1985, only 34 percent of Japanese homes were hooked up to modern plumbing to eliminate toilet waste. It would take until 2002 for this figure to reach 60 percent. This stood in sharp contrast to the adoption of the television. In 1957, less than 10 percent of homes were equipped with a TV; by 1964, this figure flew up to just over 90 percent. It is not hard to understand why; in 1964, Tokyo hosted the summer Olympic Games. The color TV was in almost 90 percent of homes by 1978. The washing machine, 1972. The automobile, that ambassador of Japanese practicality, didn’t surpass 60 percent until 1984. This figure meshes well with my childhood memory of train stations flanked by row after row of bicycles, and of older male relatives learning to drive (often badly) in the mid and late 80s. The toilet, however, took much, much longer to infiltrate the country.

A flushable toilet works because it 1) has a water supply and 2) has a place to send its waste. This is a tricky dance to master. As Thomas McKeown points out in his book, The Modern Rise of Population, the London water closet was a mixed blessing because so many residents flushed their waste upstream into the river Thames, and then reused this contaminated water downstream. For decades Japan had avoided this problem because it did not flush. The residents of Tokyo received their water from the Kamogawa River, located upstream. The waste was then collected and sold to farmers as fertilizer. Runoff water from washing and cleaning, on the other hand, was collected via a drainage system. If you visit older towns in Japan, you can still see stone-lined gutters, which would at one point have been used for draining waste. The temple that I visited as a child was part of this ecosystem. The rice paddies below the temple, which were rented out to farmers, were thus fertilized with our waste. This system continued well into the postwar years; even my mother remembers being checked once a year for typhoid, a hazard of eating food, which has been nourished by human fertilizer.

But this system, as oddly antiquated as it sounds, served Japan well for centuries. Pop culture enthusiasts may remember the TV miniseries “Shogun” based on the novel by James Clavell. In Shogun, the protagonist John Blackthorne is an Englishman shipwrecked on Japan’s coast, and eventually taken in by the fictional samuri Kasigi Omi. In the early parts of the story, Blackthorne is repeatedly impressed by the level of cleanliness the Japanese people enjoy. In fact, this was true.

The 19th century scholar RW Atkinson presented a paper titled “The Water Supply of Tokio,” in which he presented the results of tests for organic matter in samples from various parts of the Tokyo water supply. While the water further away from the source did show contamination, Atkinson’s overall conclusion was that Tokyo’s water system was in fact purer than that of London.

The University of Washington scholar, Susan B. Hanley, takes things even further. In her book, Everyday Things in Premodern Japan, Hanley argues that the major differences between Western and Eastern toiletry were a superior system for water supply and a careful use of night soil. It was the very fact that human waste was collected and used to feed the growing rice crops outside of Japan’s major cities that kept the water supply clean and the population freer from the disease that plagued London. The Japanese knew of course that human waste was, well, waste. But they were also able to see it as an “economic good,” with entrepreneurial farmers setting up outhouses along well-traveled roads to collect extra “manure” for free. It may be difficult for the Western mind to wrap itself around such a notion, but certainly this view is reflected in the experiences I had as a child, the sort of everyday acceptance showed toward the collection of our waste. The waste was being used for a purpose. Taken in this context, the waste was actually not “waste” at all.

I began to think that it was not so much of a stretch to correlate bowel movements to good luck; “unchin” had in fact been an important pre-modern lubricant for all that made Japanese society healthy, wealthy and wise. I wondered if the Japanese were regretting the loss of the boton benjo, and pointed out to one of the engineers that Japan now seemed extremely focused on “being green” and recycling. All train stations now have numerous garbage cans, clearly marked as receptacles for “plastic and glass,” “burnable,” and “non-burnable” trash, and deciphering the signage and symbols usually means I take an extra ten seconds to dispose of my waste. Ten years ago when I took my Japanese friend Isao to a thrift store to rummage for designer clothing in New York City, he had recoiled at the thought of purchasing something used (and filled with pollutants); such stores had been rare in Japan. Now, however, everywhere I went in Japan I could find used kimonos and designer handbags. “Yes,” one of the men laughed. “It turns out that the old ways weren’t so foolish after all.”

I asked the engineers to cast themselves back to 1981, the year in which they had released the Washlet to the public. What had convinced them to ever undertake such a design? According to Inax historians, there had been a few “sittable” porcelain toilets long before World War II. Western diplomats living in embassies in Tokyo, for example, were not about to adapt to the Japanese habit of squatting. Inax’s rival, Toto, was carefully firing up the occasional porcelain seat as far back as 1900, though this was seen as a kind of one-off, a strange creation made to please Western sense. Who, after all, would want to “sit” on a toilet, given the tendency for pollutants to hang out in the restroom? If you really think about it, squatting is far more sanitary than sitting down on a seat where your bare bottom makes contact with a ring that in most cases has just been occupied by someone else.

The story, they said, began in the lead up to the 1964 Olympics. Tokyo had been badly bombed after the war, but the destruction and subsequent reconstruction had provided opportunity. As any visitor to Japan can tell you, the subway and train systems of Japan are among the best, most efficient and clean in the world. The new city of Tokyo would also include multi-story, Western-style buildings, which meant the boton benso would be impractical. How can one stack plumbing-free toilets one on top of another in a skyscraper? Instead, the new construction would need to include metal pipes and toilets with water pressure. After the war, Japan was also occupied by the American armed forces until 1957; these foreigners wanted a place to sit. Something would have to change.

I have seen photos of the earliest Western-style toilets. Like MOS Burger (Moon Over Sun, the Japanese competitor to McDonalds) and Pocari Sweat (a sports drink), this toilet looks familiar but is not a carbon copy of the thing it is meant to replace. The bowl is too round. There is additional heft, a bulbousness, as though an overly cerebral designer has added unnecessary ornamentation. Still, the toilet did its job. While this was going on, the bamboo-lined water pipes were replaced with steel, and the engineering companies put into place a reasonable sewer system.

I asked the Inax executives if the transition from squatting to sitting had been a challenge for the marketing team, if this could in part explain the slowness with which men and women adapted to the Western toilet. Why yes, they said, and produced reproductions of toilet seat instructions, which had been placed in those Western toilet stalls in the 70s and 80s—those very stalls I had sought out in a bid to avoid squatting. The diagrams were very clear—which seat to lift, which seat to sit upon and which lever to push. In the beginning, I was told, Inax received numerous complaints from customers who said that when they sat to release a load of poo, nothing would come. Their customers simply could not unclench. Later, I asked Japanese friends to recall the first time they encountered the Western toilet. My mother’s friend, Nobata Katsunari, who is sixty-seven, remembers he had to go to a wedding in the nearby city of Nagoya. It was, as many weddings are, in a hotel, where he had wandered around and around in the hallway, hoping to find a toilet that did not require him to sit down. When no such toilet could be found, he entered the toilet stall, studied the directions, and then, produced nothing. It had been an excruciating experience. Nobata and his wife did not install their Western-style toilet until 1992, primarily because their neighborhood did not have modern plumbing until then—all waste was controlled by a septic tank. This was a story repeated to me by nearly all my relatives. I couldn’t help but think of the women I knew back home who had insisted on squatting during childbirth, convinced that this was the most “natural” position for delivering a baby.

This, however, did not explain to me how it was that the toilet took on the functionality of a spaceship. I wanted to know what had inspired the engineers and designers to give the toilet such a fantastical quality. The engineer told me gently that he had heard all such complaints before. In 1999, he had taken a trip to various American cities in an effort to understand why the Washlet and Shower Toilet were not taking off in the US as had other Japanese exports, like the Camry. There was sadness in the way he related his experiences. Like many Japanese after the war, he had seen his fortunes rise. But he was also aware that there was a limit to his company’s wealth, which could not match the nearby Toyota corporation.

“The most surprising thing I heard,” he said, “was the idea that the only kind of person who would like a Washlet is probably gay.” This, he shook his head, was still a matter of great puzzlement. He was eager now to hear from me. Could I perhaps offer additional insight into this cultural miscommunication? Was there not some way they could more clearly explain the advantages of their superior loo?

We were treading on non-politically correct, culturally challenging territory. I tried to explain. The fastidiousness of all the options on the Washlet seemed prudish and anal-retentive. “To sit on a toilet and to contemplate so many buttons makes us feel like attention is being drawn toward going to the bathroom,” I said. “It’s like you are trying to make a statement. Look! I’m peeing! I’m pooping! It doesn’t actually make anything more convenient.”

But wasn’t it more convenient, they pressed, to know that I could push a button to cancel out any odor I might inadvertently emit after a meal involving too much garlic? If I were in a house where everyone could hear me tinkle, wouldn’t I like to mask such a declaration of bladdertude?

No, I said. In going to the bathroom, I am steadfastly a Western creature. I want it over with. Then I tried again to “trick” the engineers into revealing an unhealthy obsession with gadgetry. “What are you excited about for the future of technology?” I asked with enthusiasm.

“I’m trying to find a way to make the toilet easier to clean for housewives,” was the answer.

“Do you think one day we will be able to do away with going to the bathroom altogether?” I imagined a futuristic catheter, able to do away with any and all flushing and tinkling in the future.

“That would be strange,” they said. “Going to the bathroom is an important bodily function!”

We sat in sadness and silence.

I tried to think of something I could offer up to help them. “You know,” I said. “People in the West think that you do everything better in terms of design. And the environment.”

They scribbled this down.

“You know,” I continued. “The whole respect for nature. The being-at-one-with-nature. They think that you have that,” I said. “Like, Calvin Klein. He always has some kind of “Zen” or “Bamboo” collection for linen and tries to make these Japanese looking prints.

“But you have all those beautiful national parks,” they said. “And you don’t litter.”

“We litter,” I affirmed. “We just make people with DUIs go out and pick up trash from the highways.”

One engineer pointed out that Inax had a great toilet that used only a fraction of the water of traditional toilets. They were also putting out a series of environmentally friendly tiles that would rot and decay.

And then, perhaps because the men in the room were all older than I, and perhaps because the stigma of the misunderstood-but-superior-toilet had plagued them for so much longer than it had me, they made one final attempt to answer my question. They included so many buttons on the toilets, they said, not to entertain their clients, but to provide as many options as possible. Woe betide the host of a party whose toilet didn’t include an automated lid. Wouldn’t it be embarrassing not to have a princess button if a customer was accustomed to one at home? The preponderance of buttons was not a display of extroverted; they were there to show that the makers of the toilet—and the owner of the toilet—cared.

What was more: “Going to the bathroom is part of eating and enjoying life. I try to make the whole experience—eating and going to the bathroom—pleasant.”

“Oh! That makes sense,” I exclaimed, as though I had finally come to an understanding. But my acceptance was superficial. I know the Japanese excel at manners and hospitality. It’s a hallmark of Japanese hospitality to be able to read another person’s subtle cues and gestures and to know if they are tired, or hungry, or in need of fresh air. There is even a word for this kind of indulgent, caretaking: amaeru. The word sounds suspiciously similar to “amai,” which means “sweet.” It is as though one must treat others so well, that life feels extremely sweet. The Japanese psychoanalyst and author, Takae Doi, goes so far as to suggest that the basis of Japanese culture and interaction depends on the practice of “amaeru.” At certain times in life, one will “amaeru” others, as a mother does to her child and oldest son in particular. But there is traditionally a cost associated with this kind of indulgence; the oldest son will one day be expected to care for his mother as she ages, no matter her illnesses of challenges. And his wife, whom he will amaeru during their courtship, will need to amaeru the mother-in-law just because. Doi takes the argument even further, arguing that children in Japan grow up believing that their parents are actually there to indulge them. And while this is acknowledged as somewhat immature behavior, it is also seen as inevitable and an important part of every relationship. Doi even goes so far as to suggest that the ability to indulge someone is even more important in a marriage than romance.

I thought about Doi and his philosophy of amaeru as I sat in the conference room with this group of earnest, intelligent and patient Japanese men. They were all dressed in suits, despite the heat, and checked often to see if I needed more barley tea, or if they needed to call a secretary into the room to take care of my son. Though we focused on the subject of toilets, our conversation was also interspersed with personal touches—some men played golf and knew of Pebble Beach, an area not far from where I had grown up. Some had just had their first grandchildren, not much older than my son, and assured me that one day soon my little baby would be crawling. In their worldly, manly, and intelligent ways, they reminded me of Ryunosuke, my mother’s cousin, who had tried so hard when I was a child to teach me that being Japanese meant “honoring the community.” I began to wonder if perhaps this attitude was not some simple-minded, do-gooder nonsense to which I felt Americans mostly paid lip-service to back home, but an actual, bona-fide belief.

After our meeting, I gamely went out to tour the company factory and showroom, thus revisiting the postwar history of the Inax toilet. In the last room, samples of toilets ranging anywhere up to $5,000 lined up for examination. All are automated. And then, as though the toilets themselves had decided to work together to disprove the notion that they had been created for any purpose but entertainment, they began to salute. One lid went up and this motion triggered the lid of the toilet next to it, which then triggered another. The first toilet closed, but then, picking up more movement in the showroom, opened up again. It was impossible not to laugh; my son, in his stroller, watched with intense concentration. I asked if the toilets would ever stop, or if they were caught in a Sisyphian task of opening and closing. Nervously, the showroom manager asked us to stand back. We waited, not moving a muscle. The final toilet bowed. And then we left the room.

From there, I was driven to the Inax “Tile Museum,” a few minutes away. The engineers and executives went back to work, but we were still shadowed by an attentive, yet discreet female employee as I walked from building to building. It is a nice museum, made up to showcase the history of tiles in different regions, and you realize just how much of your life is made easier in service to the fired tile; the kitchen, the bathroom, the sidewalk. In one room, an art installation of waves and foam were in progress and we spent no small amount of time pushing around plastic paddles and gathering together a mountain of soap suds. In another building, visitors were making their own tiles to take home. I continued on, gamely, politely, while the attendants looked after my stroller as I paused to look at the exhibits.

Then, in a building that once was the original kiln of the Inax corporation, I saw something that stopped me in my place. In the museum, behind glass walls, were dozens of boton benjo porcelain splash guards and even some urinals. But there were not the simply white splash guards I remembered from childhood; these were painted blue and white, as beautiful and ornate as any Seto dish. There were peacocks and flowers and rivers and rocks. One set, a green and yellow toilet and urinal, had been painted to look like Kutani ware.

I asked where these toilets—most of which dated from the early 20th century—had been used. Most had been employed by restaurants or nice ryokan, Japanese inns. And then it hit me—these nice toilets were in fact an early example of the kind of hospitality of which the Japanese engineer had been trying to convince me. I thought of those lucky men and women from a century ago, visiting an inn located most likely beside an onsen, or hot spring. After an afternoon of bathing, they would retire to eat the inn’s special food. They would go from a meal of vegetables, fish, and sake to the restroom where they would not be confronted by the yawning mouth of collective human waste, but a gleaming blue and white receptacle, not unlike the dining set they had used in the other room.

I would think back to this museum often, after I returned home. I was traveling, as I said, with my five-month old son, which meant that a great deal of the time, I was pushing around a stroller. This was much easier to do in Japan where the majority of the doors in shops, restaurants and hotels opened automatically for me. And while the bathroom stalls were often too small to accommodate my Graco Travel Solution, most bathrooms did have a “child placement seat”; a specially designed chair where children could be strapped in safely while they waited for their mothers to finish going to the loo, and while the stroller waited outside. The rising toilet lid was just another of these conveniences on which I became dependent and in fact, once I returned home to the US, I am embarrassed to admit to feeling no small bit of irritation at the manual toilet system we have. There was no respectful rising of the lid. And once or twice, I know I forgot to flush altogether.

I would think about all these things. And I would think about the female attendant who offered to rock my son in his stroller so I could more fully concentrate on the beautiful blue and white boton benjos. I would think of how my experiences had been so seamlessly coordinated, that I had not stopped to think about the various points where my trip and research could have been disrupted.

I had been amaerued.


Rumpus original art by Peter Manges.

Marie Mutsuki Mockett was born to an American father and Japanese mother. American Harvest: God, Country and Farming in the Heartland (Graywolf) won the 2021 Northern California Book Award for General Nonfiction and is a tribute to the complicated and nuanced history of the United States and its people. Her memoir, Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye, (WWNorton) was a finalist for the 2016 PEN Open Book Award. With Kiese Laymon, she a series editor for the new imprint “Great Circle Books” from UNC Press, which aims to publish emerging writers of nonfiction. She lives in San Francisco and teaches at the Bennington Writing Seminars. More from this author →