What 3 years of sitting on Japanese toilets taught me


The first time I stepped foot in Japan was the summer of 2014. I was a wide-eyed, overzealous sophomore at Yale, all packed and ready to embark on a 2-month journey to Tokyo for a Japanese study abroad program that I only enrolled in so that my language proficiency would be tolerable enough to get my college crush at the time, who is of Japanese descent, to like me.

Pathetic, I know.

Little did I understand at the time that the initial kaleidoscope of butterflies fluttering around in my stomach at the mere prospect of stepping foot onto what seemed like a totally different planet would quickly and eventually be replaced with a rather humbling three years of international scholarly pursuit in Japan that taught me everything from attitudes and perceptions of the pervasive native/foreigner dichotomy in the cultural consciousness of Japanese society to how to properly position your shoes upon immediately entering someone’s home in order to show the utmost respect and politeness. All of these experiences were unfamiliar, new, and surprisingly…refreshing.

But perhaps the most valuable lesson I came to appreciate at the end of this dynamic journey was spawned from one of the most unconventional of places and most atypical of objects: a bathroom and … a toilet.

Yes, a toilet.

You see, in Japan, you can go to the most squalid of neighborhoods and enter the shabby stalls of a dilapidated bathroom and be hard-pressed to find a toilet seat with noxious urine or post-micturition stains on it. You would be even more hard-pressed to find an unflushed toilet bowl filled with a conglomeration of happily resting human excrement, teepeed seat covers that would put your average adolescent Halloween shenanigans to shame, or a sad, empty roll of toilet paper that would leave the next unlucky fellow trapped with mortifying desperation.

Conversely, in the U.S., you can go to the most opulent of venues and still find a toilet stall that would send convulsive shivers down your spine and cause you to want to regurgitate the last meal you ate. And if you are lucky enough not to, it is almost always the work of diligent custodial staff and not conscientious patrons.

Now I know what you are probably thinking: “there will always be a gross toilet no matter where you go. It’s unavoidable. That’s just life.”

To that, I say, “No. That’s culture.”

And when I say “culture” I do not just mean those feel-good manners and etiquette in the form of all that artificial, ostentatious tripe meant to perpetuate modern-day classism via socially constructed ideas around what is considered “sophisticated,” “elegant,” or “proper,” like placing the napkin in your lap within the first minute of sitting down for a meal or scooping soup away from you instead of towards you to appear more “refined” and “classy.”

What I am talking about is something that goes much deeper, yet is much simpler and does not require a whole bunch of flashy niceties aimed at social signaling and getting others to better appraise your perceived social worth and background. And that is a concern for the collective good of others as a personal reflection of yourself.

This means not only having a profound understanding of how our current actions and behaviors will negatively impact or trouble others down the pipeline, but also having what I call the “empathic responsibility” to actually do something about it. It is about expanding the scope of who we care about affecting (and burdening) with our actions (i.e., externalizing and cultivating our sense of interest in those beyond us), establishing and maintaining a steady stream of that regard for collective well-being no matter where we are, and adopting an attitude of self-valuation that hinges upon the integrity we carry within ourselves to socially behave in ways that do not inconvenience or disrupt others, even if it means putting in that extra effort of wiping down the seat that you just soiled, flushing a neglected but not defunct toilet bowl, or replacing an empty toilet paper roll. It is my personal belief that tiny acts of social integrity like these that contribute to a communal good can have profound consequences on a culture that has perhaps strayed too far in the direction of the individual to the detriment of the spirit of the collective welfare.

One of the many reasons I believe we have seen such flagrant non-compliance with stay-at-home orders for physical distancing and non-essential travel is that we have not fostered this deeply profound and externalized concern for those outside of ourselves.

Recently, I heard someone say, “I’m not afraid. If I get it, I get it. I’m not gonna let this pandemic get in the way of me having fun. Besides, I’m young, and I’m healthy.”

Well, that’s good for you. But what about everyone else down the line that could be affected if you become a COVID fomite or an asymptomatic vector infecting those who may not have the privilege of adequate health to survive?

Similarly, I have heard comparable sentiments expressed on the topic of face masks. “I don’t feel like I’m in any danger, and I’m not afraid of catching it. So I don’t feel like I need to wear a mask.”

Again, that’s good for you. But can we take a pause for a moment and consider the collective instead of you? Why must it always be about you? Why must you be at the center of everything?

It is precisely this distinction, this core value, which is baked into Japanese society, and is indispensable to the informal curriculum taught to children from an early age that has, in my opinion, contributed in a notable way to the success of Japan’s current management of COVID-19, and what makes unflushed, putrefying toilets there so anathema and exploded toilet paper bombs in bathroom stalls so unconscionable.

We need a cultural shift in our country to re-center our values so that they are not so off-kilter to the point of disproportionately favoring American ideals of individualism at the grave expense of the collective common good.

Personally, if I had to choose, I would go for a clean toilet stall over a drop or two of soup on top of an uncovered lap from a spoon scooped towards me any day. What about you?

Jay Wong is a medical student. He received his undergraduate degree in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology from Yale University. He can be reached at his self-titled site, Jay Wong, and on Twitter @JayWongMedicine.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com


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