If you want to know a country, look at its loos. I’ve just returned from two weeks in Japan, and in between enthusing about its effortlessly superior trains, food and socks, my greatest level of wonder is still reserved for its toilets.
First, they are everywhere. If in London you are never more than six feet from a rat, then in Japan – even in an ancient shrine, or a lonely wooded mountain – you are never more than 12 feet from a ladies’. When we climbed 1,755ft up Mount Misen on the holy island of Miyajima, off the coast of Hiroshima, there were at least three signs regretfully warning us that there were, due to renovation, no loos at the top. We would have to make do with some tucked behind a temple 100 yards down the path.
Second, they are spotless. Normally, public loos operate on a version of James Q Wilson and George L Kelling’s famous “broken windows” theory – where vandalism is held to encourage antisocial behaviour and criminality by subtly normalising it. Britain’s bogs are a bit grubby when you enter them, which many people take as an excuse to leave them in a state closer to “utterly horrific”. In Japan, however, the average cubicle is considerably cleaner than my kitchen, and bountifully provided with paper which has mysteriously manged to stay in the holder, rather than trail itself like sodden streamers through the puddled floor. You are even trusted with proper rolls of the stuff, rather than having to risk your fingers in a battle of wills with a viciously serrated plucker that yields one sheet at a time.
Finally, Japan’s johns are – famously – hi-tech. Given the country’s continuing aversion to central heating, they often feature seat-warmers, and the Toto Washlets – over 30 million sold and present in two-thirds of homes – also come with a control panel offering you a range of bidet spray strengths, accompanied by baffling graphical representations of buttocks looking like sideways 3s. In ladies’ loos, you also get a button that plays “realistic flushing sounds” to mask any embarrassing noises. The only problem is that the flushing noise is obviously tinny and prerecorded, so you might as well sound an “Alert! I’m passing solids!” klaxon in your cubicle. Essentially, you’ve replaced one embarrassing sound for another.
Now, by this point, I feel as though I’ve marked myself out as some kind of creepy coprophile, but that’s just our western aversion to having any kind of sensible discussion of bathroom matters. In Rose George’s astonishing, compelling book on sanitation (a phrase that’s probably never been written before) The Big Necessity, she records Toto’s attempts to sell the Washlet internationally. Although they had managed to convince the Japanese to ditch their traditional squat toilets for western-style thrones within a couple of decades, Toto’s persuasive skills deserted them when it came to getting Europe and America interested in their up upgraded versions. Why? Because, as the sociologist Harvey Molotch found, in America, “the bidet has never risen above being seen as unavoidably French and therefore louche”. Their new prospective customers were simply not prepared to entertain the possibility of switching paper for water, even though the latter is demonstrably cleaner and less wasteful, because it seemed “foreign”.
That Japan has such a thing as a famous toilet manufacturer at all is pretty telling. I’ll bet the majority of Britons would never dream of comparison shopping through dozens of technical specs to find the perfect purchase. (“Nozzle at 43 degrees, you say? I’ll take it!”)
But isn’t it odd that of the two places that we think of as private – the bedroom and the bathroom –what happens in the first is now exhaustively chronicled across the vast frozen steppes of the internet, while the second remains stubbornly unmentioned outside academic journals and the pages of Viz? No sexual act is too baroque to be filmed in eye-watering high-definition, but after one crack at having someone talk about poo on television, the nation suffered a collective fit of the vapours and packed Gillian McKeith and her dodgy doctorate back into obscurity.
None of this would matter, of course, if our squeamishness didn’t cost lives. Rose George’s book rightly notes that the “waterborne” diseases that claim so many lives in the developing world are really faeces-borne, and yet a charity like WaterAid is well-advised not to change its name to the Diarrhoea Suppression Society. Every day, 200,000 tonnes of human waste deposited in fields and by roads and train tracks in India, by people who are too poor or overworked or Untouchable to get to a toilet. “Open defecation damages women most, because modesty requires them to do it under cover of darkness, leaving them vulnerable to sexual assault, snakes, disease and infection,” writes George, yet somehow I don’t think I’ll get many takers for my next Faeces Are A Feminist Issue rally. (Perhaps we can all burn those little blue cistern blocks in solidarity? We could call it SlopWalk.)
Loos are really, really important. Forget civilisation being two meals from anarchy; if all our privies broke tomorrow, there’d be rioting before breakfast and a hell of a stink by lunchtime. But we can’t repress the snigger that springs to our lips, even in serious medical or policy discussions. In Britain, for example, pensioners’ rights groups periodically try to get people interested in the steady closure of public WCs over the last decade, which have led thousands of elderly people to worry about leaving the house in case they’re caught short (called the “bladder leash”). Meanwhile, models and actresses are happy to pose winsomely in pink T-shirts advertising the existence of breast cancer but there’s no “celebrity face” of bowel cancer, even though it’s the second most common cause of cancer death in the UK. And no one’s making ironic designer clutches shaped like colostomy bags. We’d rather die of shame.