Friday, February 12, 2010

Red in the Face

Paruresis: A type of phobia affecting both males and females in which the sufferer is unable to urinate in the presence of others, such as in a public restroom. The analogous condition that affects bowel movement is called parcopresis.

Pretty big words, and in fact they don’t even show up in two dictionaries I consulted, but in the process of looking I did come across some easier, more colloquial terms that include ‘bashful bladder,’ ‘stage fright,’ ‘urophobia’ and ‘pee-shyness.’

Call it whatever you like, most people in Japan describe it as hazukashii, which basically means embarrassing, and the feeling is probably more prevalent among women than men. The thought of being heard using the toilet is embarrassing to many Japanese women, but I would say the same is true of not a few men as well. It’s an interesting condition in some senses, because it arises in situations where identities are almost surely unknown, and because everyone is guilty of the same sounds at one time or another. It isn’t a feeling found only in Japan either. It probably is more common in this society, but I read somewhere that even Ann Landers has gotten letters about this ‘embarrassment.’ My guess is that the number of men who will admit to having similar feelings is higher than you’d think. According to an article recently in The Japan Times, in a survey of 200 male college students, 36 percent admitted to flushing the toilet while ‘doing business,’ and 66 percent said it was because they didn’t want others to hear.

Is this a condition found only in modern societies? Not according to Shigenori Yamaji, a researcher and expert on toilet culture (!) who says that this sensibility can be traced back to the 19th century in Japan. In the homes of some of the wealthy were water urns (otokeshi no tsubo) from which a disguising flow of water produced the same effect as the modern flush. (see photo)

Since the 1980s a device called the Otohime (sound princess) has been common in many Japanese public buildings. For many years, to cover the sound of bodily functions many women flushed toilets two or three times while using them, wasting a large amount of water. Education campaigns failed to stop this practice, so the Otohime was introduced. The device produces the sound of flushing water, alleviating the need for actual flushing and saving as much as twenty liters of water each ‘flush.’ On a smaller scale, among fart machines and other toilet games, the iPhone App Store also offers programs that produce a flushing sound, making your cell phone a sort of portable Otohime. You have to wonder though if the volume on its speaker is enough to give adequate disguise to unwanted sounds.

To my way of thinking, the Otohime is small potatoes, and only one enhancement of the Japanese toilet. Each time I return to the US, or travel elsewhere, I sorely miss the comforts of a Japanese toilet. It is an ongoing mystery to me why other countries have not adopted the innovations of Japanese toilet hardware. Toto uses the phrase ‘The evolution of clean’ as bywords for it’s Washlet toilet, and in my experience nothing could be more apt. These toilets are operated by a keypad on the wall or on the arm of the toilet seat top. The seat is heated, and when you’re done, it sprays, it dries, and some models even play music. One of these days I plan to install one of these in my Florida home.

As for embarrassing sounds, I myself am not altogether immune, and when the occasion arises, a covering ‘flush’ is always comforting. Might not the same be true for many of us?

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America