Tokyo Stories

Richard Lloyd Parry is engaged by a lavatorial history of Japan, but not by a British minister's World Cup predictions
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The Independent Online

For all its economic troubles and political discontents, there is one arena of human striving in which Japan remains a colossus: the technology of the toilet. Even in these straitened times, Japanese lavatories remain the most advanced, the most luxurious and the most ingenious in the world.

These days, the "Warmlet" (with built-in heater in the seat) and "Washlet" (which directs a cleansing jet of water between the buttocks) are old hat. Japan's premier loo manufacturer, Toto, is developing a new generation of conveniences which will not only dispose of your waste, but also analyse it and submit the results electronically to your doctor.

So it was only a matter of time before this great Japanese theme found its historian: a 54-year-old civil servant, Shigenori Yamaji. Following his Toilet Archaeology and Notes on the Toilet, Mr Yamaji has recently published his third book, the 216-page Journal of Toilet Culture. Lavishly illustrated with photographs of unusual toilets encountered on his travels, rich in allusions to literature and myth, the book sets itself an unashamedly ambitious task: to view all of Japanese history through the prism of the lavatory.

Mr Yamaji's insights are inspired by the smallest details. Visiting a historic samurai house, he heads for its smallest room and is at first puzzled by a hook on the inside. Its purpose, he deduces, was to hang a sword – for the house's first owner was deeply involved in political intrigues. Nowhere was he free from the threat of assassination – hence the need to keep his blade on hand. "Even in the toilet," Mr Yamaji observes, "we can feel the tense atmosphere of the Bakumatsu period."

Other highlights include the revelation that, until the 19th century, Japanese women as well as men used to urinate standing up into street troughs which were channelled into the fields. "With the coming of chemical fertiliser, changes in underwear styles, and a growing feeling of embarrassment, the custom disappeared."

But the most moving part of the book concerns a visit to China, which even unfastidious travellers regard as the Hades of toilets. To Mr Yamaji, however, the open cesspits and partition-free communal loos of Beijing have a charm. "In China, everything is open and people don't worry about their natural desire to go to the toilet... It is necessary to discharge bodily waste after we eat. It is a simple philosophy, and I liked the way that Chinese toilets reflected that simplicity."

The British embassy in Tokyo is everything that a British embassy should be. Situated in its own grounds, shaded by cherry blossoms, and just across the moat from the Imperial Palace, it is a place of tranquillity where the Foreign Office's finest intellects ponder the future relationship of our two great island nations. From time to time a trade delegation or minor royal passes through, but by and large there is little to distract from the complex tasks of cultural exchange, export promotion and political analysis.

In recent weeks, though, Her Majesty's emissaries have been preoccupied with the imminent arrival of the 8,000 or so England football fans expected for the World Cup in June. Aware of their less than unblemished record in past tournaments, the Japanese media have run a stream of reports about soccer hooliganism, which is inevitably associated with England. British diplomats have crossed the country, liaising with local police and assuring local residents that not everyone with a shaven head, exposed beer gut, and drunken demeanour is a troublemaker. "Fans' Embassies" – tents or mobile caravans staffed by local Japanese-speaking British expats – are to be set up at the grounds where England will be playing.

For the whole of the tournament it will be all hands on deck as the embassy's brilliant linguists and negotiators are deployed to welcome and assist their compatriots. Keen to do my bit, on a visit to the embassy the other day I offered to publish the home phone numbers of British diplomats, as an aid to fans who might get lost on the subway or run out of money late at night while in Tokyo. To my surprise, the offer was greeted unenthusiastically.

The Home Office minister, John Denham, was here last week to address the subject, and made two predictions. The first was that there would be little crowd violence. The second was that England would win the World Cup, narrowly beating Japan in the final. If Mr Denham's understanding of hooligans is as shaky as his grasp of football, the people of Japan should prepare for a rocky June.