Pavlov would be thrilled. In the 1890s he trained dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell in St. Petersburg. Now, in the 21st century, Japan has trained its womenfolk not to urinate unless they hear the sound of a waterfall.
Hold on, you say. Does this mean the lot of them have to haul ass to the nearest nature spot to take a leak? Fortunately not: instead, Japanese technology has sorted out that particular conundrum for them by installing neat little boxes in toilets, the “Otohime,” which emit a tinny version of Niagara. Apparently many of them find it difficult to tinkle without the jingle.
Morinosuke Kawaguchi, a technology consultant at Arthur D. Little who has written a book that covers how such technological concessions to human embarrassment can drive the Japanese economy, can barely contain his glee when he tells people that when the system was installed at a Japanese company’s headquarters in the United States, it didn’t take long for the American women become unable to pee without it.
“This proves that there is demand, even though people don’t know they want it before they experience it!” he exclaims.
It’s a scary thought, but the same one that drives marketing gurus such as Steve Jobs, who identified our desires before we even knew them ourselves. I, too, became used to using the otohime- to not to do seems, well, rude.
And so like the American women, I found its absence- in my native England- somewhat perturbing. Then I realised people couldn’t care less. Women talk to each other through bathroom stalls in the U.K.
“Oi, Sharon!” says one, mid-flow.
“…Yeah?” answers the other, after a splash and a short pause.
“You going out tonight?”
“Don’t think so. You?” – and with that, they both exit, cool as cucumber. I’ve even heard complete strangers begging for toilet paper- “I’m in the second from the right, pass it under, would ya?”
What a relief: not everyone is as prissy about bodily functions as people seem to be in Japan. So rather than trying to “solve” shame with technology, how about trying to help people over their neuroses?
Kawaguchi claims that the otohime is eco-friendly, because women used to waste huge amounts of water by flushing the toilet several times to camouflage the sound. Now, of course, it’s not Japanese water that’s being wasted, but tons of plastic in Chinese factories- and domestic electricity to boot. Yet another example of Japanese “doublethink”: they perceive themselves as green, and yet the reality is rather different.*
Yet to many, toilets are the standard by which a civilization should be judged. Monty Python fans will remember the “What did the Romans ever do for us?” sketch, where someone points out all the myriad benefits they brought to England- including drains and sanitation. After the empire collapsed, Britain slid backwards into the Dark Ages, replete with stinking, open sewers.
Travellers the world over bemoan the festering, shit-flecked toilet bowls they find in other countries. That’s probably why so many adore the customizable pampering available in spotless Japanese bathrooms, and declare it the mark of a truly refined nation (telling that to your hosts will get you ten points). One American lawyer even told me, “These things could prevent divorce. See how it can tell whether you’re a man or woman when you approach and lifts or lowers the seat accordingly?”
The Japanese are therefore inordinately proud of their Craplets- I mean, Washlets. Barely a week goes by without some executive wetting himself (the irony!) in a newspaper or magazine about the huge potential market for them overseas.
But to me, they’re superfluous, wasteful gadgets that elevate something natural into an energy-guzzling, machine-assisted endeavour. They’re the hygiene equivalent of Segways for able-bodied people. Manufacturers would have you believe that they’re “green”- but how can they be when they’re plugged in? (I’ve been warned before about not using them in a power cut). And if women flush five times to hide the noise? Well, educate them not to, don’t give them a machine to do it for them instead.
It seems to me that Japanese households have their priorities all wrong: it does make you wonder what’s going on when the bathroom is better equipped than the kitchen, which has only a portable two-burner gas stove and surface space no bigger than a postage stamp. And sure, the toilet might be the warmest thing in a Japanese house in the winter, while it’s the coldest thing in a British house. But that’s because they don’t have central heating- and anyway, where are you going to spend January, your living room or on the can?
We might claim them as a basic necessity, but toilets are a superfluous luxury. Mankind has been going about its business perfectly fine without them for millennia.
Certainly, in a city or anywhere with a dense population, some form of sanitation is necessary to prevent the spread of infectious disease. But this fact has made people think that they’re necessary everywhere. I remember traveling through South America and realising this really wasn’t true. One farmer told me an NGO had given a village a line of Portaloos, only for them to shun them within a month and go back to the hygienic pits they and their families had been using for centuries.
Economic development, however, tends to push up what people consider ‘essential’- from water to meat to broadband and flatscreen TVs. For me, the only criteria a toilet has to fulfill is that it won’t kill me, and it doesn’t smell.Traditional squat toilets with no physical contact actually achieve that better than the warm, germ-friendly surface of the Washlet.
It unnerves me when people want complex technology for the simplest of things, and some get that way about toilets: they want inbuilt temperature-controlled fountains, a perfume sprayer, even a faeces analyser…
We might welcome technology that furthers us from the “disgusting” nature of human waste, but I believe it’s wrong to feel that way about something inherently natural. It’s already getting to the point that we can’t sleep without pills, chill without a drink or tranquilizers, study without stimulants, read without batteries, commute without gas- for god’s sake, don’t let us be unable to piss without the prompt of an aquatic symphony.
Japan has the answer to plenty of other potential embarrassment: underarm pads you can fit into your shirt to absorb sweat, chewing gum that makes your sweat smell like roses, cookies that specifically stop your stomach rumbling.
Finding a “solution” to shame in such a way only perpetrates the origin of the embarrassment. It will become impossible to discern between those who are naturally equipped to avoid social faux pas and those employing technology to do so. Helping people get over their sense of shame about their natural selves would be more progressive than a gadget that embraces it. I thought we were done with the Victorian disdain for bodily functions- it seems not.
* Not only are the Japanese the most enthusiastic consumers of plastic bags in the world, it also surpassed New York for per capita electricity use in 2005. I wonder what this year’s energy conservation efforts did to those figures.