When people are asked to name first word about toilet culture in Japan that pops up in their head, I believe most people would say “bidet”. It is the most common and exposed feature that we, foreigners to Japanese culture, know from media, anecdotes and etc. Here is a great example of what many people think about Japanese toilet culture:
However, it is not only about fancy bidet and removing what was in the body. It has its own unique culture that was developed by the biopolitical power from the nation in order to mold Japanese bodies into more Japanese way. There are many attempts to do so, let’s start with body posture in the toilet culture. To begin with that, it is vital to understand the shape of toilet. For a long time, Japanese used their own traditional style toilet, which is also known as the Asian toilet or a squat toilet. The shape of squat toilets and method of using it differs a lot from Western-style toilets. An easy way to picture the shape of squat toilets is to imagine modern western male urinals horizontally into the floor. Because of the shape. it doesn’t require direct contact with skin and toilets. It, however, requires users to squat over the toilet instead of sitting on it. Using squat toilet was logical with their own body habits since traditional Japanese furnitures and house required a lot of squatting and sitting on floor. It was also convenient with farming because human wastes were used as fertilizer for the crops. (“Japanese Toilets”,2016)
However, there was a dramatic change after the Second World War because it left Japan with a damaged water and sewage treatment infrastructure. Only a tiny portion of the country still had access to a sewer system by the end of the war. Also, the American occupation had a big influence over this transition as well. As american forces were stationed in Japan, western-style toilets were placed in buildings for bureaucrats, superior housing, hotels, department stores and so on. Over the next 40 years, there was a rapid increase in the number of sitting-style toilets sold, and by 1977, more Japanese were sitting than squatting. (George, 2008) This new change was not limited only to the toilet culture. Japan as a nation had to accept whole western lifestyle and it required a very different body than the Japanese traditional body. At this point, it is important to ask why body posture such as sitting on toilets versus squatting is vital to understand Japan’s national attempts to harness the body through toilet culture. And what was the purpose of it? The answer to that is body posture does not simply represent the movement of body in a bigger context: biopower.
Moreover, Allen Chun from Flushing in the Future noted that “Norbert Elias’s ambitious History of Manners was doubtless the first attempt to articulate systematically the relationship between, on the one hand, the social and psychological control of the body and, on the other, the emotions and the genesis of social institutions. The fact that socio-political power and civility can be viewed as tensions that have arisen gradually from certain repressive forces and sublimative tendencies to control and domesticate otherwise primal human behaviors, as might be epitomized by the constraints of etiquette, makes a powerful case for arguing that the regulation of the body, no matter how trivial, cannot really be divorced from social life and institutions.” (Chun, 2002) Taken all together, Japan as a nation, who lost their position in the global power game after the war, had to regulate Japanese bodies and gradually forced them to become more idealized citizens in order to make them suit better with the nation’s standards. It was being open and supportive of a successful converge with the Western, especially the United States. Thus, the existence of sitting style toilets in Japanese toilet culture is a byproduct of regulated education and socialization by the nation.
On the other hand, hygiene is another aspect of Japanese toilet culture. As it was argued before, the body is an important reflection of societies and this scope can also be used to analyze hygiene culture and how it has affected the body. In regard to hygiene, Japanese put a lot of emphasis on it in their daily life. This value carries a lot of weights especially when it is related with the toilets. When the bidet was first introduced as the Washlet by a company named “Toto”, the company put a big emphasis on bodily hygiene as an explicit selling point. In particular, women were drawn to the fact that using Washlet saves them from unwanted contact with menstrual flow and provides special care for pregnant women. Although there was a slight resistance to such a foreign idea of spraying water on the bottom, the Japanese were still attracted to its biggest benefit: hygiene. In Flushing in the future, Chun mentions that “In Japan, the promotion of new notions of cleanliness in relation to the body, which invokes broader conceptions of social etiquette and physical health, seems to have had cultural appeal to the Japanese consumer.” (Chun,2002) Among all other things, Japanese placed hygiene and cleanliness at the top of the list when they make decisions to consume products.
Chun, A. (2002). Flushing in the future: the supermodern Japanese toilet in a changing domestic culture. Postcolonial Studies: Culture, Politics, Economy, 5(2), 153-170.
Foucault, M. (1990). The history of sexuality: The use of pleasure (Vol. 2). Vintage.
Feel the cleanliness of Japan's toilets. (2016, March). Retrieved March 31, 2017, from http://japan-magazine.jnto.go.jp/en/special_toto2.html George, R. (2008, August 31).
Japan's hi-tech toilets. Retrieved March 31, 2017, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/3358291/Japans-hi-tech-toilets.html
Japanese Toilets. (2016, January 25). Retrieved April 02, 2017, from http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2003.html