This the fourth in a series of guest posts by authors who, like me, have found themselves falling down into a Research Rabbit Hole, often with hilarious results. Because this is the true danger of research…it sucks you in!
Guest Author: Lyda Morehouse
This is a story of how I lost a day of my life to the history of toilets in Japan and learned something important about the nature of love while, literally, contemplating sh*t.
I’m an anime fan. Several years ago, I decided to try my hand at writing fan fic. My professional contracts had dried up, but I still had a keen yen to write. I ended up starting an epic gay romance soap opera set in the universe of Bleach. All you have to know about that anime is that much of the action in Bleach takes place in the afterlife, which, for reasons of style and plot, is roughly based on Edo Period Japan. I was writing about characters who lived in this samurai-style Land of the Dead, and, there I was, composing a very humorous, drunken love confession, when one of my heroes, being overwhelmed with emotion, suddenly needed to barf…
Where do samurai barf? I had no idea what toilets were like in Edo Period Japan.
Thus began my deep dive down the research latrine rabbit hole.
Into Google, I think put something deeply obvious, like, “Toilets in Edo Period Japan.” The first place I ended up was here (Edo Toilets), where I learned about something this author calls “Soukouka (惣後架.)”
I was immediately enchanted/horrified by the idea of a series of outdoor, public stalls where the door is some kind of half-wall thing that only covers the lower parts of your body. The author of this site also gives you this lovely image of early advertisement for various apothecaries plastered on the walls and the graffiti that you might find within.
Fascinating imagery, but, alas, completely unverifiable.
In fact, if you put “Soukouka” into your search engine, all you get is a YouTuber in Japan who posts pictures of their cats.
So, that was probably a bust. Besides, I didn’t really want my paramour to have to run all the way down the street to a public toilet. He’d never make it in time, for one, and, secondly, he was in the estate of an upper class noble. So I was left with the questions: Indoor plumbing? Chamber pot? What?
Then I found the promising title: How to Poop Like a Samurai, but it turns out this is not an article about what toilets might have been like in samurai era Japan, but a manifesto of manliness (I kid you not) and how to be prepared for a mid-toilet battle.
Finally, I found an article of the history of toilets in Japan called simply, Japanese Toilets , which introduced me to the concepts of “night soil,” “Asian squat toilets,” and a “wooden scraper” for cleaning. According to this source, I could at least allow my heroes toilet paper, since apparently something similar to the modern version made of thin, tissue paper like washi was in use by the Edo Period.
That was a relief. The idea of trying to describe the ‘scraper’… well, it scared the sh*t out of me.
At this point my mind was swimming with toilet possibilities, but I still had no real sense of whether or not a high-class noble in the Edo Period would have a toilet nearby and what it would look like.
But, like you do, I ended up getting distracted by the fascinating culture of toilet etiquette in modern Japan. I found out, for example, in this light, fun article entitled 5 Kind of Strange Things About Going to the Bathroom in Japan that toilet slippers (separate from house slippers!) are required. There are toilet paper vending machines! (7 Things You Need to Know Before Using a Toilet in Japan: There might even be urinals in the women’s bathroom or no walls around the men’s bathrooms.(
Then there’s this fascinating device called an otohime, the “sound princess,” that you can turn on when you need to cover the sound of your tinkle. The discussion of that led me to this bit of toilet history from the Japan Times–which was at least from my target time period—Masking Toilet Noise May Date Back to Edo. According to this article, for high-ranking guests a servant might be required to stand outside of the toilet deploying something called Otokeshi-no Tsubo (the urn for covering sound)–which apparently was basically a tub of water with a plug that could be released to make the sound of falling water.
In the course of all this, I find out, too, that November 10 is Toilet Day in Japan on a site called “Japan This!”. Even though I never found out what one DOES on National Toilet Day, I finally got a visual of something I end up using later in my soap opera fic, which is a thing called the Nara Period squat toilet.
At this point I start to wonder, what else can I possibly learn about toilets without ever finding out if chamber pots were a thing in Edo Period Japan?
Then, on a site called “The Rumpus,” I stumbled onto this amazing memoir about toilets in Japan. I kid you not, this essay is literally about how toilets in Japan are daily acts of love and respect. I recommend reading the whole thing. It’s full of wonderful bits of culture and so, so much about toilets…including a spooky urban legend of a female ghost that lives in toilets and how she disappeared with the advent of the modern flush bowl. “The Japanese Toilet Takes a Bow: A Personal History.”
But, did I ever find out if I could use chamber pots in my story? No. It was now midnight, and I’d spent the entirety of my waking hours reading articles about toilets. So what to do?
In a last ditch effort, I Googled: “chamber pots in Japan”… and found several images, including this:
Done in two seconds! Damn you, rabbit hole. Damn you. But, now I feel well-versed should I ever need to take a leak in Japan!
Lyda Morehouse is a science fiction and fantasy author. Her first four books, the LINK Angel series (Archangel Protocol, Fallen Host, Messiah Node, and Apocalypse Array), blend cyberpunk technology with unconventional religious themes. She is the winner of multiple national awards, including the Philip K. Dick Award‘s Special Citation of Excellence (2005),Shamus Award for Original Paperback featuring a Private Investigator (2001), and the Barnes & Noble Maiden Voyage Award for debut science fiction novel (2001)
(Bio via Wikipedia, Photo via Website)