A Tale of Two Toilets

It seems like everytime I open a newspaper I see another story about Japanese trade barriers. But not all the barriers are trade related, nor are they found only between the Japanese and foreigner--many are between the Japanese themselves. The Japanese squeeze a population of over 125 million into a country about the size of California -- so you can imagine how the lack of space encourages many physical and emotional barriers designed to preserve individual and group comfort.

For two years I studied in Japan and then joined a Japanese company in the heart of downtown Tokyo. For a year I worked there and observed the manoeuvres crafted to provide for everyone's comfort. At first, I figured the concern for ensuring privacy and respect reached its pinnacle in corporate offices or boardrooms, but I soon found that the most unique method for ensuring privacy occurred in women's bathrooms.

Breach of Etiquette

On my first day at work, a young female colleague conducted me on a tour of the building. In thorough Japanese style, the tour included an excursion into the women's room. It was a long rectangular room, with four enclosed toilet stalls (one Western-style and three Japanese-style) opening onto a long row of mirrors. Beneath the mirrors were cupboards in which the women kept cookie tins full of cosmetics, perfumes and sundry beauty items. At any given time of day, at least two or three women stood there touching up their faces, giggling over some social mishap or comparing notes on their weekends.

Taking advantage of the tour's momentary stop-over, I entered a stall, proceeded with my business as usual and flushed. I emerged to four pairs of eyes, reflected in the mirrors, staring in alarmed embarrassment. They quickly dropped their eyes to the countertop and re-focused on their lipsticks, powders and eyeshadows. My guide appeared eager to move on.

Over the years I had developed a sixth sense for times like these. Klaxons sounded and red lights flashed, "Warning...warning...disruption to the wa (harmony)." The signs were there, but what had I done?

Unless the Japanese feel a particular responsibility to you, consider themselves close friends, or are drunk, they rarely volunteer insights on your insensitive etiquette blunders. This stems from a cherished notion among the Japanese that they present an unfathomable challenge to "outsiders" and thus any attempt to explain themselves is doomed. (This is sometimes known as the ware ware Nihonjin or the "We, the Japanese" syndrome.) This ubiquitous silence becomes part of the challenge for the gaijin: learning to sense when a breach has occured, what the breach entailed, and-the real puzzler--how to rectify the situation.

In this case, I didn't have to wait long to understand my indiscretion. Several days later, on a return visit to the bathroom to brush my teeth, a woman walked in and headed for the toilet. Between brushes I heard the typical sound--a shuffling of clothes and nylon stockings, a settling in, a brief moment of silence. Suddenly, the toilet flushed. When the gush began to fade away a second, then a third flush quickly followed. I stopped brushing and tilted my head. The roll of toilet paper mingled with the fading sounds of water being sucked down a drain, and there followed a fourth and final flush. I heard a rustle of clothes and the lock opened.

With the snap of the lock came a resounding "A-ha!" experience. In this small room, the earthy tones of personal relief interrupted regular conversation and embarrassed everyone present. The solution: flush to mask any and every unsophisticated noise.

To Flush or Not to Flush

I encountered these kinds of cross-cultural situations on a daily basis, and with each one came a choice. To adopt the dominant behavior and "fit in," or to maintain my approach and stand out from the crowd. Usually the decisions I faced were far more complex and subtle. How far to push a point of disagreement before offending someone? How to handle being the first foreign woman in the finance section of a conservative business? How politically correct to be with an all-male, Japanese management?

In the case of the toilet, it was relatively straightforward: to flush or not to flush. Over the course of the year I often I conceded "my way" of doing things to demonstrate my willingness to learn about differences. As far as the toilet scene went though, I simply could not bring myself to waste all that water. When I was in the bathroom, everyone knew it.

I often wondered how the company dealt with its water bills. Surely someone somewhere was calculating women's average water usage and had realized the rate was extraordinarily high. I imagined this repeated flushing going on in office buildings all over Tokyo, indeed, throughout Japan, and shuddered.

Stereo Sound

A few months before I departed Japan the company moved several departments into a new, more modern building across the street. Once, while visiting a friend there, I found it necessary to locate the women's room. Upon settling down I noticed a button encircled in red at eye level on the wall to my left. A small plaque was posted next to it.

My first thought was to approach with extreme cautio--the Japanese have a penchant for toilets that warm, squirt and scrub. Having fallen prey to such devices before I leaned forward warily, squinted at the sign and saw the kanji characters for "sound" and for "press." I smiled, weighed the consequences, steeled myself just in case, and pressed the button.

A full-bodied flushing noise rushed from a hidden speaker in the wall and echoed loudly in the stall.

I was stuck there for quite some time, convulsed with laughter. As I struggled to pull myself together to leave the toilet stall I had to wipe tears from my eyes. Stumbling out, I surprised several women glancing in consternation at me. Still giggling, but trying to regain my composure, I clutched at the sink, wondered how to explain the situation to them, and finally gave up.

If you think negotiating auto parts or semiconductor agreements is difficult, try vaulting the humor barrier.

Copyright, 1996. Debra Carlson, WorldWeave Publications.