From Night Soil to Washlet
The Material Culture of Japanese Toilets
Volume 16, Issue 3 (Article 8 in 2016). First published in ejcjs on 23 December 2016.
Japan’s advanced toilets are the paragon of global standards and continue to garner international attention. However, few realise that Japan’s history of flushable toilets is surprisingly new—they did not come into widespread use until the 1960s, at which time only 6% of the population was connected to sewage lines. This paper provides a comprehensive overview of Japan’s transition from night soil to Washlet and thereby fills the research gap on Japanese toilets, which have, to date, remained largely unexplored. Using historical and literary sources, as well as visual aids, I highlight the developments that facilitated this complex and gradual transition and give a sense of the context surrounding the toilet habits of each time period discussed. I conclude that Western influences are the common theme accompanying each stage of the process and that the formation of Japanese toilet culture was an outgrowth of Japan’s power struggle with the West.
Keywords: night soil, toilet, Washlet, Westernisation, modernisation, material culture.
This contribution originates from a paper delivered at the 3rd Asia Future Conference in Japan, September 29-October 3rd, 2016, and is a part of an ongoing PhD project.
In 1999, an article in Los Angeles Times stated that Japan “has an enduring fascination with the toilet–replete with cutting-edge technology,” but this “enthusiasm is largely lost on foreigners” (Magnier 1999). It appears, however, that this situation has now changed. On the IS JAPAN COOL? Website, high-tech toilets are ranked the second coolest thing in Japan by foreign visitors, following Japanese hospitality. In 2015, the shopping spree (bakugai) was the buzzword of the year when a weak yen lured 450,000 Chinese tourists to Japan for Lunar New Year holiday shopping and the heated electric toilet seat, or so-called Washlet, became their third most popular purchase (Kimura 2015). The Washlet has even made it into the annals of American pop culture, with the popular TV series American Horror Story being the latest to feature it:
- That’s a Toto Neorest 700H, baby. The Japanese self-cleaning wonder toilet.
- Oh, I have always wanted to try one of these! (Murphy and Falchug 2015)
Add to that the numerous pictures and videos of their Japanese toilet adventures uploaded by visitors to their SNS profiles, and we may gain some understanding of “Japan’s toilet obsession” (Fifield 2015). Not many realise, however, that the history of Western-style flush toilets in Japan is surprisingly new—they did not come into widespread use until the 1960s, at which time only 6% of the population was connected to sewer lines. How, then, did Japan became a toilet superpower in such a short time?
This paper comprises a comprehensive guide to the country’s transition from night soil, human excrement used as fertiliser, to Washlet. Analysing the formation of Japanese toilet culture, I cite Western influence as the common theme accompanying each stage in the process. I argue that Japan’s status as the toilet superpower should be analysed as an outgrowth of its power struggle with the West: while the country first complied with Western mores of excretion in order to be viewed as a modern country, later, when Japan’s privies had gained approbation from the West, it began to use them as a form of soft power.
My research is based on document analysis, ranging from government policy records and leaflets to newspaper articles. To give a sense of the time, place, and attitude toward toilet habits of each time period discussed, I quote extensively from literary sources and rely on visual aids. I aim to portray what the Japanese mode of excretion looked like and how it has changed over time.
Finally, I aim to fill a research gap on Japan’s material culture, as the topic of toilets remains largely untouched in the extant English literature to date, apart from the following contributions. Matsui et al. (2003) provide information on toilet features in Japan until the end of the Heian period (794-1185). Hanley’s Urban Sanitation in Preindustrial Japan (1987) as well as chapter five in her Everyday Things in Premodern Japan (1997) are outstanding contributions that cover the period from 1590 to 1890. Other related papers mainly focus on the same period and add little to Hanley’s findings (Walthall 1988, Bay 2012, Howell 2013, Campbell 2014). Hoshino (2008) and Tajima (2005, 2007), describing the transition of human waste disposal to municipal management, touch upon the issue of the devaluation of night soil in the 20th century.
On the other hand, there is an abundance of related Japanese materials, to the extent that the term ‘toilet studies’ (toire gaku) is in current use. A seminal work in the field is that of Rinoie Masafumi who published the first compilation on the topic in 1932, while the latest major contribution was the Lexicon of Toilet Studies (Toire gaku daijiten) from 2015. Nontheless, to my knowledge, there is no publication that analyses Japan’s sanitary transition in terms of its power struggle with the West.
Thus, this paper will address, for the first time, the Western influence on Japanese toilet development, proceeding from an introduction of the first toilets, through a description of the infamous night soil, to the modern-day phenomenon that is the Washlet.
River house, the first flush toilet
The change to sedentary culture led to people avoiding their excrement—let’s face it, it does smell! Once people began to settle down and live in larger groups, the need to dispose of excrement arose. The citation below is from Man’yōshū, the oldest extant anthology of Japanese poetry (8th century), and it is interesting to see that excrement appears in the poetry of the time:
I will cut bitter orange and wild rose and build a shed over there. Lady who makes combs, defecate far away (Imube-no-obito in Man’yōshū 16-3832, University of Virginia Library n.d.) [Author’s translation]
In the 1990s, paleoparasitological analysis (the study of parasites from the past) was applied for the first time in Japan to locate ancient toilets, which are thought to have existed as early as the Yayoi period (300BC-250AD). Dung beetles, which live on faeces, were found in the sediment from moats encircling large settlements, suggesting that people used to defecate into these moats to keep excrement away from their houses (Matsui et al. 2003). In settlements with running streams, toilets called kawaya (literally, river (kawa) house (ya)) were built over rivers so that the excrement would be removed with the water flow. These thus comprised a primitive form of flush toilet (first mentioned in Kojiki (712), the oldest extant chronicle of Japan).
As settlements became more sophisticated, so did lavatories. In the Fujiwara Palace, the first capital of Japan from 694-710, there were two types of toilet: cesspit toilets and flush toilets. Cesspit toilets were simple holes in the ground, which, when full, were buried and another one dug. Sometimes, kusobera (chūgi) can be found inside cesspit toilets. Kusobera, literally ‘dung stick,’ are wooden sticks used to scrape away the faeces after defecation. Their presence is another indicator that holes were used as toilets.
(Japan Toilet Association 2015)
Flush toilets, meanwhile, used water flowing outside of defensive walls surrounding the castle. Ditches were dug to redirect some of the water into the palace site and a small hut was then built over the ditch. The toilet users would squat over the ditch and water took their waste out of the settlement. An edict from the mid-9th century states that prisoners must clean the gutters on the day after rain to prevent them from clogging with debris that has washed in (Matsui et al. 2003). This debris may have caused water flow blockages that affected the operation of the toilets, causing human waste to back up at various places and causing an unbearable stench in the Fujiwara capital. However, there is also a strong possibility that a construction mistake caused a permanent stench there. The Fujiwara castle was modelled after the Chang’an castle from the Tang dynasty and, just like its Chinese counterpart, applied the yin-yang and Five Elements doctrine (Japan Toilet Association 2015). Matsui (2001) points out, however, that flawed urban planning based on the Chinese example might be why Fujiwara castle only remained the capital for sixteen years.
The imperial palace was situated to the north of the capital, while lower classes occupied its southern parts. If we analyse the flow of the Asuka river, we can see that it ran through the capital from south to north, meaning that all the domestic wastewater and excrement would flow right under the emperor’s nose. One of the Rikkokushi, or ‘Six National Histories,’ noted that “the capital smells bad inside and outside” (Saeki 1929, p. 77). Moreover, capital cities after Fujiwara included water flow in their construction, thereby avoiding the same mistake and extending their longevity.
In the following ages, the Japanese continued to master their lavatories. Among the more sophisticated examples are the toilets on Mount Kōya and those in Akita Castle. Mount Kōya is the collective name for the mountains in Wakayama prefecture. It is famous for a Buddhist temple complex founded by the monk Kūkai in 819 and, along with two other locations on the Kii Peninsula, is designated a World Heritage Site. The toilets on the mountain also used water flow: first, water from the river was redirected by bamboo pipes to the temple kitchen, ensuring it was always clean for cooking. The water would then flow through the toilet and flush all domestic wastewater to the river.
(Japan Toilet Association 2015)
The toilets excavated in Akita Castle (built in 733) are a good example of manual flush toilets and are said to be the most advanced of their time in Japan. Lavatories were situated on a slope, away from the houses. In one hut, there were three private rooms with a hole in each. These holes were connected to wooden pipes which ended in a sedimentation tank at the bottom of the slope. As there was no flowing water available, people must have flushed the waste themselves.
In the Heian period (794-1185), the aristocracy’s toilet habits changed—they stopped using normal toilets and switched to chamber pots, a new fashion that came from China in 700. After relieving themselves, a maid would be called to empty the chamber pot.
No matter how beautiful the woman, she must defecate just like we do. If I steal a chamber pot with her faeces inside, I’m sure my feelings would fade, thought Heichū as he lay in wait outside the room. [Heichū steals the chamber pot and looks inside] What a mystery. It must be the faeces of a heavenly maiden from out of this world. When Heichū thought that, his feelings grew even stronger. [Author’s translation]
The fragment above comes from Konjaku Monogotari (quoted in Ikegami 2008, p. 422-424), a collection of Japanese tales from the late Heian period.
However, while the aristocracy moved toward refining their excretory habits, the lower classes continued to defecate in the streets. Gaki-sōshi, a Buddhist scroll from the second half of the 12th century, gives us insight into this aspect of commoner life in the Heian capital. It portrays people squatting on the streets surrounded by hungry ghosts (gaki), who, due to their bad karma, suffered an insatiable hunger and had to feed on all things repugnant, such as faeces. Thus, in the scroll, they eagerly wait for people to relieve themselves. Nevertheless, it was not the case that people relieved themselves wherever they wanted; the geta clogs, worn by all the figures in the scroll, even a child, suggest otherwise. Since geta clogs were simply too expensive for everyone to own, we can surmise that there were designated places for defecation and that the footwear was for common use, to prevent soiling of the feet.
(Tokyo National Museum n.d.)
Moreover, in Uji Shūi Monogatari, a collection of Japanese tales from the early 13th century, there is mention of an excrement alley (kuso no kōji) in the capital, leading some scholars to suggest that the original name stemmed from its function as a public toilet (Ota kuritsu kyōdo hakubutsukan 1997). When the Emperor heard the name, he thought it too straightforward and renamed it Nishiki no kōji, the name that remained until present-day Kyoto.
The Heian period witnessed frequent famines. Drought coupled with cold, damp summers were the principal reasons for bad crops, but poor agricultural practices did not help. Officials blamed farmers and encouraged them to till their fields (Adolphson et al. 2007, p. 200). Improved irrigation, double cropping, and ploughing boosted agricultural productivity in the ensuing Kamakura period (1185-1333) (Yamamura 1988), which in turn resulted in a lack of animal manure for crop fertilisation. This is assumed to mark the beginning of human waste usage in agriculture.
(Japan Toilet Association 2015)
From the Heian period on, kusobera disappeared from cesspit toilets, probably because they interfered with night soil collection; thereafter, people placed them in baskets beside the toilets instead. Moreover, from the 12th century, large cesspit toilets appeared—until then, they had been relatively small (Ota kuritsu kyōdo hakubutsukan 1997)—plausibly as a result of night soil collecting habits. In Keian ofuregaki, a 1649 proclamation by the Tokugawa shogunate to regulate farm life, it states, “Farmers should build the toilet with a roof over near the main house, so that even if it rains night soil will not dilute and waste” (Heibonsha sekai rekishi jiten henshūbu 1955, p. 333). This indicates that in the mid-17th century the use of night soil was already ingrained in everyday life and was even promulgated by the shogunate for use in agriculture, thus demonstrating its importance. By the Edo period (1603-1868), the demand for fertiliser had progressed to the point that farmers began visiting towns to collect night soil for their crops, initially in return for vegetables, but, by the mid-Edo period, it was collected by professionals and sold to farmers for silver (Hanley 1987; Nakamura 2015). Thus, night soil became a profitable commodity.
Night soil as an economic good
The commodification of night soil in Japan was remarkable. By the end of the 17th century, the price of fertiliser had risen so much in Osaka that farmers from neighbouring areas formed associations to obtain monopsony rights on the purchase of night soil, with fights even erupting over collection rights and prices (Nakamura 2015). By the mid-18th century, night soil had become so expensive that poorer farmers had difficulty obtaining it in sufficient quantities and incidents of theft began to appear in the records (Hanley 1987).
In Edo, present day Tokyo, night soil collection was not as popular. Edo administrators seemed more concerned with the appearance of the capital city than those in Osaka, and even ordered the removal of small toilets near the rivers. Still, by the first half of the 18th century, demand for night soil had increased even in the capital. Farmers wrote petitions to allow them to put buckets out on the streets, at least for urine collection, but the government refused permission (Hanley 1987).
Edo landlords who sold excrement from shared privies in tenement houses could earn an extra 30-40 ryō of annual income—almost twice as much as a normal carpenter earned annually (Ota kuritsu kyōdo hakubutsukan 1997). In Osaka, money for night soil from shared toilets became a standard part of the landlord’s income, and rent was based on the number of tenants—if someone moved out from a tenement house, the rent would rise, as the landlord would have less product to sell. Faeces belonged to the house owner, while urine was the property of the tenants (Agi and Ina 1990). Indeed, so large a part did night soil comprise of landlords’ incomes, that the saying emerged, “the landlord’s child is brought up on dung” (ōya no ko ha kuso de sodatsu) (Agi and Ina 1990, p. 121).
Urine and faeces were collected separately, because they were used for different crops. Urine was much more difficult to transport and so was less valued by landlords; it remained a good fertiliser for farmers, however, and was the primary fertiliser for the farmers of Kanazawa, a city in central Honshu:
Within one ri [approximately 4km] from Kanazawa in any direction they fertilise fields with urine and abundant manure. Within about three ri they use manure, rapeseed cake and dried sardine. Beyond four ri, manure, ash, dried sardine and raw sardine are used. In remote areas they also use bushes and grasses (Tajima 2007, p. 19).
Due to its value as a fertiliser, women urinated standing up but this practice was considered rural and unfit for the modern city. Indeed, the urination habits of the oft-romanticised Kyoto women shocked the capital’s men.
Kyoto women, they stand dripping. A small flaw.
(Jippensha Ikku, Tōkaidōchū Hizakurige (Japan Toilet Association 2015, p. 31)) [Author’s translation]
In rural areas, this practice continued long after the war. In Sutō (1988), the picture “elderly woman” (rōjo) portrays a woman from Okayama prefecture relieving herself while standing, in order to collect urine in a night soil bucket. The picture was taken in 1971 and its accompanying comment states:
She is urinating standing up. This kind of scene could be witnessed often until recently. [Women] roll the bottom and underskirt of their kimono up, stick out their bottoms a little, spread their legs and urinate. When they are done, they just shake their bottoms and do not use any paper. They have done it since they were little, so they do not miss the hole (Sutō 1988, p. 61).
It is also interesting to note that there was a night soil ranking: the wealthier the household, the higher the price, due to the varied diets in households. Wealthier households could afford a better diet; thus, their night soil made better fertiliser. Thus, the most valued product came from the houses (and rears) of feudal lords. Next in line were the excreta of tenement houses, while those from prisons were the worst (Yamaji 1994). Waste from the Edo castle was in a class of its own. Every farmer wanted to collect night soil from there, but the rights to it belonged to carefully selected farmers, who would collect it daily to keep the castle clean (Yamaji 1994).
However, the waste of the shogun’s wife (midaidokoro) was not collected. Her toilet was called man’nen, literally ten thousand years, and comprised a hole so deep it would not fill up even after 10 years. This toilet was for the lady’s private use and when she died, it was buried. When the shogun remarried, a new hole was dug for the new lady (Japan Toilet Association 2015). This custom probably evolved either to show respect for the lady by differentiating her excretory customs from those of the ordinary people, or due to a feeling of shame. Whatever the reason, the toilet habits of upper class women in the Edo period certainly differed from those of the commoners. For example, they used a noise reducing pot (otokeshi no tsubo), a primitive version of the oto hime (literally ‘sound princess’), which is present in many female public toilets today. When an upper class woman wanted to use the toilet outside, her maid would remove a plug from a pot to make the water flow, thus masking the associated noise (Yamaji 1994). Moreover, women from the shogun’s family had their maids wipe them clean after defecation. While this privilege was reserved for women of the highest status, such as the shogun’s wife, daughter, or mother, it was, nevertheless, a common practice. Maids accompanied the lady to the toilet to help with her layered clothing, but they also examined her faeces to check her health condition (Katō 2003).
First contact with the West
The value placed on human waste as fertiliser ensured that Japanese cities remained relatively clean (Hanley 1987, 1999), which surprised European visitors in the mid-16th century, many of whom praised Japanese sanitary standards and the practical attitude toward human waste, extolling, amongst other things, its use as a fertiliser:
We pay someone to carry our excrement away; in Japan they buy it and give rice and money in exchange for it (Luis Frois, a Portuguese missionary who arrived in Japan in 1563, quoted in FroÏis et al. 2014, p. 205).
The interior of the privies is kept extremely clean and a perfume-pan and new paper cut for use are placed there. The privy is always clean without any bad smell (Joao Rodrigues, lived in Japan from the late sixteenth into the early seventeenth century, quoted in Hanley 1987, p. 19).
In the entrance one finds a new pair of reed or straw slippers for those who have an aversion against stepping with their bare feet on the floor, which, however, is clean and covered with mats. People relieve themselves by crouching in Asian fashion over a narrow opening in the floor. The pot below is placed there from the outside and filled with light chaff, wherein the dirt disappears immediately (Engelbert Kaempfer, a German physicist who stayed in Japan from 1690-1692, quoted in Kaempfer and Bodart-Bailey 1999, p. 266).
At that time in Europe, night soil was not in popular use as a fertiliser and the lack of a sewage system meant cities were drowning in faeces. Stories of Londoners emptying their chamber pots out the windows or of the famous Palace of Versailles being a huge latrine have become well-known, and although we should take these with a pinch of salt, there is certainly some truth in them.
There is a common misconception that the invention of the water closet improved the dire condition of European cities, but, in reality, it made them even more unsanitary. In London, for example, tons of untreated faeces were dumped daily into the Thames, the main source of water for the city. This meant that Londoners were literally consuming their own waste, which was certainly not inconsequential to their health, as evidenced by the several outbreaks of cholera in the 19th century. It was only after the Great Stink of London in 1858, however, that work on a sewer network for London finally commenced. This was opened in 1865 (although the project was not completed until 10 years later) and the water closet eventually succeeded in removing human excreta from people’s private as well as public spaces. Moreover, people could now pretend that they did not excrete—out of sight out of mind!
The introduction of sewage systems to European cities heralded, for many, civilised progress. In 1867, the Parisian sewers were opened to the public during the World Exposition, and it was “in part an issue of national rivalry, following the British Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851,” which hosted the first flushing public privies (Moore 2009, p. 110). Although Japanese sanitary conditions had remained unaltered since the 16th century, foreign visitors to Japan after its forced opening up, following over 200 years of limited contact with the outside world, were no longer enthusiastic about what they observed. In a travel diary from her trip to Japan in 1878, Isabella Bird complained that “bad smells, and the torments of fleas and mosquitoes are, I fear, irremediable evils.” She mentions “miasmata produced by defective domestic arrangements,” but does not give further detail, only admitting that “[m]any unpleasant details have necessarily been omitted” (Bird 2010, p. 168-169).
In Terry’s Guide to the Japanese Empire, Terry Philip describes the “evil odours from the sanitary arrangements” which are “abominable and suggestive of typhoid” (Terry 1933, p. xlvii, xxxiv). Finally, Henry Adams who visited Japan in the hot summer of 1886 noted:
Tokyo is beastly… nothing but a huge collection of villages, scattered over miles after miles of flat country; without a building fit to live in, or a sewer to relieve the stench of several hundred thousand open privies (Mansfield 2009, p. 117).
The Japanese custom of public urination also shocked foreigners. In the Kansai region, pots collecting urine were set up at roadsides for convenient use. In Tokyo, however, urine was not valued as a fertiliser at the time, so it was not collected—one simply urinated when one felt the need. There was little if any embarrassment associated with relieving oneself in public, but such behaviour seemed barbaric in foreign eyes. Soon, the many claims from foreign visitors that such customs were unbecoming for a civilised nation prompted the Japanese government to act upon it.
Such comments from foreigners hit a raw nerve, as the Japanese government wanted to become a civilised nation in Western eyes. Its long isolation had left the country relatively unaware of the latest technology in the age of industrial revolution and thus Japan was seen as inferior to Western powers. In order to stand equal with the West, Japan rushed to modernise and, by the end of the 19th century, “cultural enlightenment” (bunmei kaika) had become its priority. Thus, laws and ordinances were soon passed forbidding public urination, first in Yokohama in 1868 and then, in 1871, the national government forbade public urination under threat of a 100 mon fine. In the same year, construction of the first public toilets in Japan (not to be confused with shared toilets in tenement houses) commenced in Yokohama and, by 1872, 83 had been built. These toilets were very simple: a bowl in the ground to collect excrement surrounded by wooden boards (Agi and Ina 1990).
Despite these measures, the complaints from foreigners did not cease. In January 1872, the British legation protested to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs against night soil transportation, which in turn conveyed this claim to Tokyo officials:
When night soil collectors walk in front of the legation during the day, the stench pervades the building. It is a nuisance, especially for visitors; therefore, we demand that such passage [in front of the legation] be banned (Tokyo Metropolitan Archives) [Author’s translation].
In November of the same year, Ishiki kai’i jōrei, a “manner caution ordinance,” was promulgated. This was the Meiji equivalent of the current Minor Offense Law, which forbade everyday customs that, in the eyes of the government, were inappropriate for a modern and enlightened nation. Nakedness, sumo, mixed bathing, public urination, and transportation of night soil in buckets without covers were banned, among other things (Ota kuritsu kyōdo hakubutsukan 1997). To promote new habits, the government published ukiyo-e paintings, like that below which portrays people holding their noses as a man walks by with “honey baskets” on a pole.
(National Diet Library Digital Collections n.d.)
However, these government efforts did not really pay off, as public urination proved to be relatively deep-rooted—nearly a decade after the first restriction was passed, Tokyo police recorded more than 4,000 violations in a single year (Campbell 2014), and incidents of public urination were even described in newspapers:
Urination Incident involving Tahara Shinzō, stoker at Chō’u warship
On the 4th of this month, around six o’clock in the evening, in the 4th district of Honmachi, at the corner of Echigoya restaurant, [Tahara] urinated into a water bucket. When a policeman rebuked him, he answered that it has always been normal to urinate into buckets in Yokohama, then turned to the officer, lashed out at him and urinated again while swearing. Because of that great insult he was sent to court.
(Yokohama Mainichi newspaper 8/3/1872, Matsuda n.d.) [Author’s translation].
The usage of night soil, however, remained unquestioned. Despite the development of the medical knowledge that diseases such as cholera are transmitted via the faecal-oral route, many intellectuals continued to argue for the use of night soil in agriculture. For example, in his speech at a meeting of the Private Hygiene Society of Great Japan (Dainippon shiritsu eisei kai) in 1884, Fukuzawa Yukichi, one of the founders of modern Japan, correctly pointed to the differences in disposal of excrement between Westerners and the Japanese.
[Westerners think] that the stench of night soil is toxic, thus it should not be used, but farmers cannot do that.… They also find the sewage system important… but [this is because] in the cities of Western countries [people] dispose of excreta together with other drainage… I believe it is not necessary to apply the Western sewer pipes in Japan (Fukuzawa 1970, p. 372) [Author’s translation].
In 1889, Nagayo Sensai, the first head of the Sanitary Department of the Japan Home Ministry, and W. K. Burton, consultant engineer for the Sanitary Department, proposed the construction of a sewer network in Tokyo, but the proposal was postponed with the following rationale:
Night soil is a necessary fertiliser for farmers and, as such, night soil from the city of Tokyo can be sent to nearby prefectures for a potentially high price. Therefore, we see no need to follow the example of Western cities and discharge it into the sewer pipes (quoted in Tokyo Metropolitan Government Bureau of Sewage 1978, p. 82) [Author’s translation].
The available funds were instead poured into the water supply system. Thus, while it is evident that sanitation and improved hygiene standards were becoming an important issue for the Meiji government, particularly in the context of cholera epidemics, the use of night soil was not seen as contradictory to the government scheme. In 1900, for example, the first Filth Cleaning Law (Obutsu sōjihō) was established, but excluded human excrement from the list of waste to be cleaned. The handling of human waste remained a landlord’s responsibility; thus, they could continue to sell it as night soil (Hoshino 2008).
As has been shown in this section, when Japan opened its ports to foreigners, it was not immune to Western critique. Ordinances to change behaviours show Japan’s desire to be viewed as a civilised nation according to Western standards. At that time, however, abolishing night soil usage was not an option. Thus, I note that, at this stage, Japan’s efforts to alter the nation’s toilet habits were strictly aesthetic.
‘Cultural’ toilets of the Taishō democaracy
The atmosphere of the Taishō period (1912-1926) was principally established by the First World War. While Japan fought on the side of the Allies, it had minimal actual involvement. Nonetheless, Japan was recognised as one of the ‘Big Five’ nations in the new world order and was granted a permanent seat on the Council of the League of Nations. The post-war era brought prosperity to the country—Japan’s efforts to become a modernised nation had paid off.
One of the keywords of this period was bunmei jūtaku, literally “cultural housing,” which simply meant Western-style houses. Until the 1920s, only members of the higher social classes could afford to incorporate Western elements into their houses, but from the mid-Taishō period these features became more accessible to commoners. Western buildings, cinemas, cafes, and shopping centres spread in cities and the toilets within were as modern as the buildings themselves, even if some intellectuals, like Tanizaki Junichirō, lauded traditional latrines.
Compared to Westerners, who regard the toilet as utterly unclean and avoid even the mention of it in polite conversation, we are far more sensible and certainly in better taste (Tanizaki 1988, p. 4).
The Westernisation of the toilet propelled research in the field and many Western-style latrines with creative names were developed: the Taishō-toilet and Shōwa-toilet, the Cultural-toilet, the Home Ministry-style improved toilet, the Ministry of Health and Welfare-style improved toilet. Of these, the Home Ministry-style improved toilet, which was created in 1927, promised safe treatment of excreta. It comprised a western-style toilet with two openings: one for defecation and the other for collection of night soil. The tank was separated into three or five spheres—faeces fell into the tank and, as they were accumulating, the older lot was pushed into the next sphere. It took approximately three months for excrement finally to reach the opening for collection, which was sufficient time for bacteria and parasite eggs to die, so that the final product did not pose any health risk. In 1937, jurisdiction over toilets was transferred to the Ministry of Health and Welfare and a slightly improved version, named the “Ministry of Health and Welfare-style improved toilet” was produced (Japan Toilet Association 2015).
However, for many people, it remained unclear how to use such modern toilets. To familiarise people with toilet innovations and other modern facilities, a number of “lifestyle improvement exhibitions” (seikatsu kaizen) were held, the first of which took place in the Tokyo Educational Museum (current National Museum of Nature and Science) in 1919.
(National Museum of Nature and Science n.d.)
Not only was the appearance of toilets changing, but also was the material from which they were made. Originally, Japanese toilets were made from wood, and thus rotted easily. To improve durability, wooden toilet bowls began to be replaced by ceramic at the end of the 19th century. In 1891, a powerful Nōbi earthquake struck central Japan and caused widespread damage. Later reconstruction of the cities triggered the spread of ceramic toilets, which were often beautifully decorated, and even traditional ceramic manufacturers such as Seto ware or Arita ware began production. After the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923, ceramic toilets were installed in Tokyo, and the fashion soon swept the country (Japan Toilet Association 2015).
The imperial conception of a health regime
Health and hygiene were extremely important factors in Japanese nation-building from the latter half of the 19th century. In the Meiji period, the concept of hygiene (eisei) reached Japan with the government believing that it was the key to equality with the West and to promoting health as the citizen’s responsibility. The transition of health from a private to a national issue was viewed sceptically by many Japanese, however. For example, Natsume Sōseki, one of the greatest writers in modern Japanese history, criticised the strong national interference in people’s everyday lives:
But what a horror if we had to… eat for the nation, wash our faces for the nation, go to the toilet for the nation! (quoted in Bellah 2003, p. 43).
Even more alarming, to prevent cholera outbreaks, infected people were isolated and, as no treatment was available at the time, few returned alive. The rumours that they were being killed spread, creating uproar among the people (Rogaski 2004).
Hygiene also became crucial for the Japanese military. One report on sanitary conditions in the Japanese navy during the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905) noted that “a discipline exists that has no parallel” (Braisted 1906, p. 7) and suggests that this was a principal reason for Japan’s victory over the more numerous Russian fleet. Moreover, when it became clear that the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) would involve the main islands of Japan and that the country would engage in all-out warfare, the government strove to prepare the nation and the health regimen reached a whole new level. The National Spiritual Mobilisation Movement (Kokumin Seishin Sōdōin Undō) (1937-1940), a government-supervised organisation, rallied popular consciousness of and support for the war, relying strongly on the kokutai ideology, literally ‘national body,’ which viewed the Japanese nation as one superior entity organised around the emperor. Remaining healthy was equivalent to the whole country being healthy, as reflected in its slogan “Train both body and soul” (Mi mo kokoro mo kitaeru), while rising early, walking to work, and regular exercise were some of its recommendations (Inoue 2013).
This health regimen could not ignore toilet habits. In 1928, haemorrhoids were classified as a ‘national disease’ by the Asahi newspaper and, around the same time, reports of politicians, including Prime Minister Katō Tomosaburō, suffering from them hit the news (Bay 2012). The army even imposed strict regulations for rectal inspection and Alexander R. Bay estimates that”‘in 1925… over 55,000 army workdays were lost to haemorrhoid treatment” (Bay 2012, p. 155), with some blaming Japanese-style toilets for the disease. Dr. Hirano Kōdō, for example, declared that “squatting over the latrine and exerting all one’s strength blocked circulation and caused blood congestion around the anus” (Bay 2012, p. 148); therefore, Western-style toilets garnered favour.
On 15th August, 1945 Japan surrendered to the Allies and the American occupation began. As the victor, the Allied Powers began to change Japan under slogans of liberalisation and democratisation, but also set new standards in everyday life. They viewed Japanese toilet habits as unsanitary and urged the country to modernise its toilets on the American model:
[T]he idea of sanitation… is entirely new to the Japanese who have previously been content to live in areas in which ﬂies and mosquitoes were accepted as normal and in which rats were looked upon as friendly inhabitants of the house (Crawford F. Sams, Head of the Public Health and Welfare Section of the US Occupation of Japan, 1948, quoted in Aldous 2008, p. 13).
One of the largest sanitary problems in the eyes of the occupiers proved to be the use of night soil and the consequent lack of a public sewer system in Japan. The rapid urbanisation following the First World War had resulted in a surplus of human waste in cities, while the demand for night soil was on the decline. In Tokyo, the urbanisation of agricultural areas near the city had made the transportation cost too high, while the low price of chemical fertilisers and unsteady, seasonal demand for night soil (Tajima 2005) also caused its devaluation. In the Kansai region on the other hand, a similar devaluation can be traced, but night soil continued to be the main fertiliser despite the popularity of cheaper chemical alternatives (Nakamura 2010; Nakamura 2015).
In 1930, these problems with night soil disposal led to a revision of the Filth Cleaning Law, so that handling of human waste now fell under municipal management. The government was well aware that a sewage system would be the ideal solution to the problem, but construction would be extremely expensive. Local governments searched for a temporary solution and decided to facilitate the shipment of night soil to distant farms, using oxcarts, trucks, ships, and railways. Night soil that exceeded the daily capacity and could not be shipped was disposed of in adjacent waters, but this comprised a minimal portion of the night soil collected; in Kyoto, for example, it constituted only 7% of the manure collected in 1931 (Nakamura 2010). As the war progressed, however, gasoline and manpower shortages hindered the shipment of night soil and, in 1944, only 70% of sewage could be handled each day (Aldous 2008), meaning that almost a third was dumped in adjacent waters.
…[T]he city was in a panic as it began to sink under the overflowing golden river of excreta. Among the drowning people calling for help, Hirotarō saw the face of the office worker, who said he would not pay him, because the way he collected [excreta] was bad and the face of the fruit vendor’s wife, who said that the number of people in her household had decreased, so he must reduce the [collection] fee or she would find another contractor. As the city disappeared under the bubbling excreta, in the blink of an eye, the sun rose and reflected beautifully in the gold (Fun’nyō-tan (literally, ‘story of excreta’) by Hino Ashihei, awarded the 6th Akutagawa prize; quoted in Ozaki and Hino 1973, p. 270) [Author’s translation].
Traditionally, human waste was removed manually every week or two by night soil collectors, accompanied by a horrible stench as excrement buckets were left for approximately three days before transportation. Thus, people had to endure both the smell and the flies that were drawn to the buckets (Murano 1996). Occupiers, not used to the custom, fled from night soil baskets on the street, which they called ‘honey baskets.’ Furthermore, while the Japanese were accustomed to cooking vegetables before eating them (Hanley 1987), Americans ate raw vegetables in salads and, consequently, many soldiers became infested with intestinal parasites. Accustomed as they were to life with a sewage system, and to viewing excrement as nothing more than filth, the Japanese practices were difficult for Americans to comprehend.
At the end of 1946, the American army set up hydroponic farms, which did not require soil, for their exclusive use. The government also eschewed usage of night soil and called for its total replacement with chemical fertilisers, which soon became the standard agricultural fertilisers. From 1947, GHQ began to issue multiple requests to the Headquarters for Economic Stabilisation (Keizai antei honbu) to deal with manual night soil collection (Japan Association of Drainage and Environment 2003; Murano 1996). Prompted by such pleas, a Hygiene Committee (Eisei bukai) was established in 1948 to devise a plan for mechanisation of excrement disposal. The following year, the vacuum vehicle (shinkūsha) was developed, but soon proved faulty. It took two years to improve the original idea, but in 1951, a functioning version called the vacuum car was released and sanitary conditions, particularly in cities, improved significantly (Murano 1996).
As has been observed, the Allied occupation found Japan in a dire state, but this was more the result of the devastating war than of its low sanitary standards, which prompted negative opinions from GHQ, as well as negative American attitudes toward night soil. During the occupation, Japan was in no position to negotiate its own conditions, so when the country was ultimately urged to cease using night soil, and to mechanise human waste collection, it had no choice but to accede unconditionally. When the vacuum car was developed, excrement largely disappeared from everyday life, but the problem of disposal methods remained. As a result, the mass dumping of untreated human waste into rivers and the sea began, which significantly added to the deterioration of adjacent waters.
In 1956, the Cabinet Office released its annual Keizai Hakusho—economic white paper—announcing that “the postwar period is over.” The TV, refrigerator, and washing machine thereby became the symbols of economic revival. Then, in 1964, Japan hosted The Summer Olympics, the first Asian country in history to do so. This symbolised the country’s stunning return to the world community and it is unsurprising that Japan strove to show its best face to the world.
In advance of hosting this major event, Tokyo received a massive makeover: highways, hotels, and stadiums were built; the fastest train in the world, Shinkansen, was completed; and everything was made ready for the international satellite broadcasting, marking the 1964 Games as the first to be telecast. However, the sewage infrastructure remained scarce, with just 6% of the population connected to sewer lines in 1961 (Japan Sewage Works Association 2002). Nonetheless, a sewage system was not seen as a condition for sanitary modernisation. A resident of the Yoyogi Park area, one of the sites of the Tokyo Olympics, recalls a letter from the Ward Office.
In June 1964, a letter from the Shibuya Ward Office was delivered to my house… [informing us] that ‘the Shibuya Ward Office is ready to make a loan to me to change my privy to a flush toilet.’ I guessed the reason was that we Japanese should be ashamed of using a privy, especially if a foreigner happened to visit.… [M]y mother immediately agreed and changed our house’s privy to a flush toilet (Shimizu 2011, p. 42).
The municipal government urging Tokyo residents to change to flush toilets demonstrates that what really boosted sanitary modernisation was foreign pressure. The government attitude at this time parallels that of the 19th century—the presence of flush toilets in places potentially subject to foreign scrutiny (no matter how slim the chance, as it was highly unlikely that a foreigner would visit a private house) was more important than the construction of a sewage system.
While Western-style toilets first appeared in Japanese harbours opened to foreigners in 1953 after the arrival of the Black Ships of Commodore Perry in 1853, they did not gain in popularity at that time. In 1958, the first apartment complex with western-style flush toilets, Sekime dai’ichi danchi, was built in Osaka and two years later they became the standard in all condominiums (Japan Toilet Association 2015). In 1977, the number of Western-style toilets sold in Japan surpassed that of Japanese-style toilets for the first time (Hayashi 2011), but the public sewage system did not become the principal sanitation system until the late 1980s and what finally led to its wider expansion was the environmental crisis.
In the 1960s, environmental pollution became a problem that could no longer be ignored. Industrial development not only caused environmental pollution but also harmed human health, as the four big pollution diseases of Japan (yondai kōgai-byō). Therefore, the 1960s witnessed a transition in environmental consciousness and a turn to eco-friendly practices. It was as part of this ecological turn that the need for a sewage system arose.
(Chiba city 1968)
The major source of water pollution is industrial wastewater, but domestic sewage comes close in terms of degradation of the water environment. It is estimated that in 1961 as much as 44% of Tokyo’s untreated waste water was dumped into the sea (Shibata 1961, p. 12). Tankers were used to dump the waste as far as possible from the shores, but due to the reverse flow, much of it returned to the bays. In order to save on fuel, some contractors even broke the rules and dumped untreated human waste into adjacent waters, causing ‘yellow waves’ in Tokyo Bay, yellowish fish in Osaka Bay, and stinking shrimps in Hiroshima. Dokai Bay in Kita-Kyushu was so polluted that it became known as the ‘Dead Sea,’ and even e. coli bacteria could not survive there.
As a key measure to prevent water pollution, the Japanese government revised the Sewage Law in 1970. It introduced new national standards for water quality and a series of subsidised programs supported the construction of night soil facilities. From that time, the public sewage system quickly spread in densely populated urban areas to become the main sanitation system from the late 1980s. Today, it serves 77.6% of the population (Japan Sewage Works Association 2015).
In the 1960s, an increasing number of households installed western-style flush privies, but the sewage system was scarce. The government urged citizens to change to flush toilets, but the diffusion of the sewer pipes progressed only following revision of the Sewage Law in 1970, as a result of the environmental pollution. This means that before the revision, the Japanese government was largely preoccupied with how toilets looked, and not with waste treatment—during this period, the aesthetic aspect proved to be the most important issue.
‘Japan, the Washlet country’
By the 1960s, Japan had become the world’s second largest economy. Although the 1973 oil crisis had slowed economic growth, it did not threaten the country’s already strong economy. However, unstable petroleum prices resulted in many industries reducing their dependence on oil, seeking alternative energy sources, and shifting to other industrial sectors. This propelled technological development, which in turn brought significant advancements in electronics and computers. New technology promised higher housing and living standards, exactly what the Japanese needed, and, by the beginning of the 1980s, could also afford to have.
Observing these market tendencies, in 1980, TOTO introduced the Washlet, an electric toilet seat with various features, such as water spray cleaning after defecation. Interestingly, the original came from America: the ‘Wash Air Seat’ was invented in 1964 for medical use by the American Bidet Company. While sales in America were slow, TOTO saw its potential and imported the idea to Japan. However, TOTO was not the first Japanese company to notice the wash air seat—it was INAX (Ina seitō at the time) who began domestic production in 1967, but TOTO who ultimately mastered the device. As seen in this quote from Hatoyama Ichirō, prewar Minister for Education and Culture, in 1934, continuing to refine things even when others would stop is a characteristic of Japan’s craftsmanship approach:
Considering the achievements of our long national history, the fate of the world some centuries from now may well be to see our nation assimilate and refine even Western culture. I firmly believe this is our nation’s great aspiration and indeed its manifest destiny (Paramore 2015, p. 269).
When TOTO began domestic production of the wash air seat in 1969, their target market remained hospitals and nursery homes. Unfortunately, the trademark washing function had two major flaws: first, it often caused burns as it was difficult to stabilise the water temperature; second, it did not always hit the right spot. As no scientific data existed for the anal position, TOTO asked its employees for help.
Even as a coworker, I don’t want you to know the position of my anus! (Hayashi 2011, p. 18).
As seen in the above quotation, not everyone cooperated at first, but TOTO eventually managed to collect data from 300 employees. The resulting improved version was called the Washlet and went on sale in 1980, this time targeting private consumers. However, the idea of washing one’s buttocks did not, at first, appeal to the Japanese. Only twenty years had passed since Western-style toilets had begun to spread and now the country was confronted with another bizarre idea. A 1982 commercial sparked the diffusion of the Washlet. It starred a rising idol, Togawa Jun, who explained: If you dirty your hands, you wash them, not wipe them with paper; why not do the same with bottoms? The advertising slogan “your bottom wants to be washed too” (oshiri datte aratte hoshii) received a great deal of attention and became an instant conversation topic, not necessarily to the positive. The broadcasting station received complaints from viewers upset that toilets had been shown on TV at dinner time, between 7 and 10 pm (Hayashi 2011). During the post-war period, some magazines and newspapers refused to even run toilet ads (Hayashi 2011), so the TV commercial was something of a revolution. However, true to the adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity, the product gained wide recognition and had its breakthrough.
Today, the Washlet continues to evolve and antibacterial and self-cleaning nozzles have become the standard, with some models even featuring sensors that automatically raise and lower the lid or spray deodorisers. Cutting-edge models can even play your favourite music or check blood pressure, while the most luxurious model, Neorest, learns the owners’ habits and remembers their preferred temperature and water pressure. Toilets in Japan have thus become much more than simply a place to relieve oneself; they are a place of pampering where the excretory experience reaches a whole new level.
As of 2015, 77.5% of Japanese homes have high-tech bidet toilets (Cabinet Office of the Government of Japan 2015b). Using electric bidet toilet seats is now so common that, for many Japanese people, their absence is one of the biggest inconveniences they can face abroad; indeed, there is now even a portable Washlet for travellers. In the eyes of the non-Japanese, however, Washlets were at first viewed mostly with suspicion and the Japanese “enthusiasm… [was] largely lost on foreigners” (Magnier 1999). The situation has begun to change, however, as more and more foreigners view Japanese high-tech toilets less with suspicion and increasingly with curiosity or even fascination. Realising its commercial potential, the Japanese government included high-tech toilets in its Cool Japan agenda, the country’s spin-off on the concept of soft power.
The concept of soft power was coined by Joseph Nye, and describes a form of power used to achieve a goal through attraction, i.e. promotion of culture, rather than coercion, i.e. military power. Soft power is now officially recognised from scholars to politicians; thus, when Douglas McGray released an article titled Japan’s Gross National Cool in 2002, which argued for the hidden power of Japanese pop culture, it was very well received in the country. In July of the same year, the government established the Intellectual Property Policy Outline, aiming to make Japan “an intellectual property-based nation” (Intellectual Property Policy Headquarters 2003). Put bluntly, this is Japan’s attempt to boost its economy after the ‘lost decade,’ or rather decades at this point, mainly through promotion of its innovative technology and ‘cool’ culture to foreigners. Japanese high-tech toilets, definitely both innovative and cool, fall perfectly within this government scheme. In a statement of the Cool Japan action plan from 2011, we can read that ‘fully automatic’ toilets are one of the items from Japanese everyday life that foreigners find attractive, and although the Japanese themselves might be unaware of this, “the potential of a new Cool Japan is growing infinitely” (Intellectual Property Policy Headquarters 2011). As mentioned above, Japan uses soft power in its international relations strictly to promote economic revival and Japanese privies serve this purpose well.
On the eve of the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, the Japan Toilet Challenge (Japan toire charenji) project was launched, which, among other goals, aims to improve toilets in tourist areas before 2020 and, as an initiative of this project, the Japan Toilet Awards (Nihon toire taishō) were launched in 2015. In a pamphlet calling for applications, the contest’s motivation was clearly stated:
The Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics are in 5 years, in 2020.
Getting ready for the increase in foreigners visiting Japan, we want to move toward toilets that are easy to use for everyone.
We will announce and award outstanding examples of toilet facilities or activities involving toilets that deserve to be introduced to the world (Cabinet Office of the Government of Japan 2015a) [Author’s translation].
When the Olympic Games were held in Tokyo in 1964, the state of Japanese privies was also an issue. Contrary to the previous Tokyo Olympics, however, when the motivation for improvement was the need to present the country’s toilets as equal to those of the West, Japan now wants to demonstrate that it surpasses the rest of the world in terms of its toilets. The government campaign has thus boosted and possibly influenced TOTO’s promotional campaign, which now calls Japan ‘the Washlet country.’ In a commercial aimed at foreigners, a Japanese woman dressed in a kimono walks into a traditional Japanese room with tatami mats and sliding doors. The Washlet is the only accessory in the room and when the woman approaches it, it greets her and automatically opens its lid. In another promotional video, a foreigner lands at Narita airport and his flight ends with the words “we look forward to the day when life without a Washlet would be unimaginable to you.” Japan certainly wants you to love its toilets; if the country’s appeal is not enough, just remember: “your bottom wants to be washed too!”
This paper has portrayed how something as mundane and largely overlooked as excretory habits reflect a country’s history and cultural background. Japan’s long dependence on night soil resulted in the country’s relatively high sanitary standards, which first received praise from foreigners but later, in the 19th century, became a marker of Japanese backwardness to Western visitors. Negative comments regarding sanitary conditions prompted the Japanese government to alter its national toilet habits; however, the economic value of night soil was too high to simply dispose of it. In the post-war period, the Japanese were impelled to definitively change their defecatory customs on the model of the American occupiers and human waste was disposed of in neighbouring waters, thus adding to the environmental deterioration. Finally, the Washlet rose to prominence and with its increasing international attention, Japan acknowledged the commendation and turned its toilets into a form of soft power, using them to appeal to foreign visitors.
As I have argued above, the common denominator throughout this process has been the Western influence. This exegesis of the Japanese privy has demonstrated that Japan has unconditionally accepted Western standards, according to which it strove to transform its toilet habits, even if only for aesthetic value—for example, by moving night soil collection out of sight or urging the diffusion of Western-style toilets—rather than developing a sewage system. Therefore, we can see that the motivation for these changes was often simply to hide excrement from the public sphere, rather than for sanitary reasons.
Second, by juxtaposing the original Japanese and Western ways of dealing with human waste, it is clear that their respective attitudes differ considerably. Western-style toilets and excretory mores are often considered the ‘civilised’ way of doing things, while countries whose practices differ are regarded as Third World countries (Moore 2009). I point to the colonisation of the privy along with the Western condemnation of excreta as a separate issue that is vivid in Japan’s sanitary transition, but as it goes beyond the scope of this essay, I will not elaborate on it further here.
Finally, I suggest that it was precisely the difference in these attitudes that enabled Japan to become the toilet superpower. Whenever the topic of toilets and sanitation is mentioned at a national level, it is usually from a negative perspective, such as open defecation. Japan, however, uses its toilets as a form of soft power. The ubiquitous Western toilet has remained basically unchanged for centuries, while other popular equipment has undergone frequent improvements—smartphones, for example. The bathroom is a fundamental place, but at the same time is neglected and seems a mere necessary evil in our everyday lives. In Japan, however, this is not necessarily the case; the country has managed to surpass the Western privy and take it to another level, the Washlet, precisely because it lacks Western biases. Thus, Japan has won the power struggle with the West in the excretory field and, once condemned for its toilet habits, has become the toilet superpower that sets sanitary standards worldwide.
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Article copyright Marta E. Szczygiel.