For a process that’s as natural as breathing, eliminating human waste, not to mention the stuff itself, is hard to talk about. Those other sensitive topics, sex and death, have their endless array of unhelpful euphemisms too, but they also have neutral words—namely, “sex” and “death”—that adults can use to discuss them without being reduced to the mindset of giggling eight-year-olds. But not this one: the unmentionable gave way over the centuries to banal formalities—ordure, stool, feces and the like—that all seem both faintly ridiculous and coloured by enough of an ick factor themselves that feces, for one, has spawned 34 euphemisms of its own, according to noted linguist Steven Pinker. No wonder the boy hero of Dr. Seuss’s It’s Grinch Night politely asks permission “to go to the euphemism.”
Since social mores keep us from talking about it—although experts from physicians to sanitation engineers dearly wish we would—traditional elimination behaviour is glacially slow to change. Which is why, as Rose George’s compelling new book, The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters, points out, so many in the field are fascinated by Japan’s postwar toilet revolution.
For posterior cleaning purposes, the world, George notes, is essentially divided between wet cultures and dry. The washing side swears by its superior results, and quite rightly, according to most people who have examined the issue. One of the heroes of sanitation research is the intrepid J. A. Cameron, a British physician who surveyed the underwear of 940 Oxfordshire men in 1964. He was, to considerably understate the matter, appalled at what he found. The paper side, in fact, doesn’t claim wiping works better than washing (since it doesn’t); it merely finds something repulsive in applying water to bottoms, at least outside of a bathtub.
In 1945 Japan was still a pit latrine and paper culture. Now it makes the most advanced toilets in the world: devices that check blood pressure, play music, suck smelly ions from the atmosphere, heat their seats and put them back down (an application known as the “marriage-saver”), wash and dry posteriors with an in-toilet nozzle that sprays water and warm air. Turning these devices into the norm in Japanese homes took time—and a 1980s ad campaign that found the Holy Grail, a way of talking to people about personal sanitation that actually connected with them.
The TV ads for the TOTO plumbing company starred an attractive young woman, singer Jun Togawa, described to George as a Japanese Cyndi Lauper. Togawa, endearingly offbeat in her hair and clothes—traditional wooden shoes, flouncy dress, hair in bunches—would stand on a fake buttock reading aloud a letter purportedly from her rear end that said “even bottoms have feelings.” The ads appealed to viewers and the campaign was a huge success, making TOTO’s Washlet the dominant toilet in Japan.
But it’s a dud in North America. All our toilet ingenuity has gone into “improved flow technology,” thereby perfecting the removal of waste from our homes even as we’ve acted to block its removal from our bodies. The newest toilets now reach 16.5 inches in height, better for aging boomer knees, but worse for aging boomer colons: squatting frees the colon and aids defecation, sitting squeezes it shut and impedes removal. Many experts link our toilets to our rising rates of constipation, hemorrhoids and colon cancer.
It would all be comic, were it not for the fact human waste is human health’s single greatest hazard. A single gram can contain 10 million viruses, one million bacteria, and 100 worm eggs. That’s why water-borne diseases—another euphemism: it’s not the water that’s the problem—cause 80 per cent of the world’s sicknesses and kill one child every 15 seconds. Nor is human waste just a problem in faraway lands. In the developed world public sanitation is the biggest medical advance of the past two centuries, more important than antibiotics. Flush toilets and sewers, in some experts’ opinions, have added 20 years to the Western life span.
But we haven’t solved the problem so much as whisked it out of sight: 90 per cent of sewage still ends up untreated in oceans, lakes and rivers—often in the same sources that provide drinking water. Western sanitation, George writes, is based on “pipes and presumption.” The presumption has never really stood up to scrutiny—consider the 1,700 boil-water advisories current in Canada—and now the pipes are crumbling too, especially in the oldest sewer systems. With toilets that impede defecation and flush-and-forget sewage systems, it’s clear the Western world could use a Japanese-style, behaviour-changing ad campaign. Maybe Cyndi Lauper is available.