Society for East Asian Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Public toilets are arguably the most gendered space in modern everyday life. Interestingly, although calls for gender equality are ubiquitous, many people still prefer their toilets separated by gender. Why? This presentation provides a socio-cultural perspective into modern hygienic imagination, focusing on Japanese toilet culture as an example. Legal and cultural norms that require the separation of public bathrooms by sex are relatively new – in the US the issue was not addressed until the end of the 19th century. In Japan, however, shared toilets were the norm. The main reason for this was a less stigmatized attitude towards defecation, which in turn allowed night soil collection to become a profitable business. Obtaining the product was far more important than in what manner it was produced, hence no need for separate facilities. The situation started to change after World War II, when Japan was urged by the occupiers to change its restroom etiquette to mimic that of the West. Currently, the vast majority of Japanese public lavatories are gender-segregated, but there are significant material differences between male and female toilets. Their sizes, placement, and distribution of appliances such as otohime (sound-masking device), are the most prominent of these differences. What do such examples of gendering space tell us about the Japanese hygienic imagination? I argue that by analyzing the material culture of Japanese toilets we can see how the country not only adopted Western excretory embarrassment, but also managed to take it to the next level.