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From the Chrysanthemum Throne to the Porcelain Throne: Anglo-American Tourists and the Japanese Toilet

Gavin Campbell

Last modified: 2010-12-12


In the array of imagery that suggests “Japan,” the modern, automated washlet toilet certainly holds its own against the geisha, the tea ceremony, and the temple.  Indeed, the washlet toilet has colonized the Anglo-American imagination to such a degree that tales of disastrous encounters with the mechanized monster are a thoroughly predictable feature of journalism, guidebooks, and travel writing about Japan.  In part this fascination stems quite naturally from suddenly confronting a toilet apparatus bristling with options never before seen and indecipherable to the average tourist.  Combined with separate toilet slippers and the ever-present threat of a native “squat toilet,” the rather ordinary experience of defecating and urinating suddenly is transformed into one deemed worthy of extended discussion.  Yet it is more than mere novelty that makes the toilet a magnet for the Anglo-American imagination.  As travelers find Japan increasingly “Westernized” the search for things that confirm Japan’s uniqueness and mystery becomes ever more important.  In particular the modern washlet toilet bundles together a number of long-standing ideas about Japan:  as a world of rule and ritual, as a society squeamish about its own corporeality, as a culture obsessively technophiliac, and as a place fundamentally inscrutable to the Western world.  This paper, in short, uses contemporary travel writing (roughly since 1980) to examine how Anglo-American visitors find in the washlet toilet a means by which they can construct a travel experience that fulfills their desire for an exotic Japan that is still substantially different from the world they call their own.