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From the ditches of Nara to the Otohime, a lav story

by Amy Chavez

Ever wondered what’s with the toilet slippers in Japan? Surely I am not the only foreigner to question whether we need to be entirely reshod before entering the restroom in a Japanese house.

Since the designated toilet slippers are usually plastic, as opposed to something more promising, like the glass slippers Cinderella wore, it’s hard not to feel at least environmentally unfriendly, if not like an environmental wretch. These slippers will not cover up your carbon footprint. Give me spiked heels made out of natural wood, and at least I’d feel sexy going to the toilet. But instead we have to cram our feet into cheap plastic-wear emblazoned with catchy English slogans such as “Happy Hippo Toilet.” I mean, who back home would believe this stuff?

Yet Westerners have been using the loo for centuries without toilet slippers. It’s a sobering thought. Maybe we’re missing something.

One reason for the special footwear could be symbolic — to show that you are leaving one world and entering another. Japanese chashitsu tearooms, for example, have doors so small that they require you to duck to get through them. This is to demarcate the crossing from the material world into the serene world of tea ceremony. Are toilet slippers indicative of crossing the boundary into the sublime toilet world? Probably not.

I suspect this special footwear is a hangover from the not-too-distant past when all toilets here were Japanese “squatters,” a type of Asian-style toilet. I say “type” because, having spent time in several different Asian countries, I can tell you that they all have their own ways of squatting over a loo. Japanese-style toilets are unique; no one squats quite like the Japanese do — in plastic slippers!

But all Asian-style toilets insist you mimic the natural position for elimination, as evidenced by the way we relieve ourselves out in the forest when there is no lavatory around. Even Japanese women used to squat out in the rice fields if nature called while they were tending to the crop. I have no idea if there were rice-field toilet slippers.

The Japanese-style squatter is an oblong porcelain bowl set into the floor that you straddle. Sometimes designated foot treads help you line up for fire. These toilets may be modeled after one of the first public toilets in Japan. During the Nara Period (710-784), a drainage system was constructed in the capital city of Nara by digging ditches 10-15 cm wide and diverting water through them. These were the first public toilets users could squat over, one leg on each side. Various styles of “toilet paper” were used, including seaweed, washi paper and even a wooden scraper called a chūgi (ouch!).

When using a contemporary Japanese squatter, you lower yourself from a standing position down over the porcelain basin of water, which resembles the ditches of yore. This position also affords you an entertaining view of the whole elimination process — something you just don’t get with a Western toilet. Who knows what goes on inside a Western toilet while you’re not watching?

I believe the Nara ditches were also the origin of the Otohime, or Sound Princess. These are the features installed in Japanese toilets that allow you to press a button and hear the sound of flushing water, which is meant to cover up the sounds of expelling your own waste. The Sound Princess replaces the gurgling sound of water flowing in the ditches. Furthermore, the Sound Princess is a lifesaver for those afflicted with paruresis, a phobia that leads to the inability to urinate when others are within earshot, and parcopresis, the equivalent for defecation.

Whether you are relieving yourself behind a tree, over a ditch or in a Japanese-style toilet, you will need to be able to squat. But apparently, many foreigners are not equipped with the prowess to do this.

If you cannot squat, well then, things can get messy. Not because of your poor aim, surely, but because of PTR: the proximity-to-toilet ratio. The farther away you are from the toilet, the larger the splash. If, during urination in a Japanese toilet, for example, you find that your cascading yellow waterfall is causing misty droplets to form rainbows in the air just above the porcelain, then you need to lower your PTR. A more obvious hint will be droplets tickling your ankles. Hey, it happens. And it will happen again when you flush the toilet and microscopic globules of toilet water land on the foot treads you just dismounted.

Now you know why there are toilet slippers. Be sure not to leave the toilet with the same footwear you came in with. Instead, leave the slippers at the door for the next person to put on.

Perhaps it’s not the presence of toilet slippers that is so perplexing but the absence of toilet boots — both ankle- and knee-length varieties to choose from according to the business at hand. There should be a fashionable array of toilet boots outside every public toilet. And, of course, they’d have to be plastic — for easy cleaning.

Interestingly, the Japanese have a history of disposing of fecal matter properly, as early on they saw the value of using human excrement as fertilizer for gardens and rice fields. Rich people reportedly could sell theirs for a higher price because it was believed they had a better diet and thus produced better fertilizer. I suspect fragrance may have had something to do with it, too.

So, now I hope you understand why the Japanese use toilet slippers. But even so, as more and more families install Western-style toilets in their homes, you’d think such specialized footwear would no longer be necessary. But no, the footwear is there to remind you that you are leaving a clean space and entering a dirty one — and to leave your rainbows and power plops behind you so as not to track any germs around the house, especially in a Japanese home where people may be sitting on tatami-mat floors.

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