Living Japan #4: Hygiene and yes, the toilets

You’ve seen videos of Japanese school kids cleaning up their classes together or the Japanese supporters tidying up their sections at a World Cup 2014. So “Japanese”, aren’t they? The habit of keeping personal hygiene starts since childhood.

Many Japanese adults still brush their teeth after meal. Although the dental medics society have been continuously debating on the merits of brushing teeth before meal or after meal, I’ve never seen it done by friends from other countries. It’s also a habit to wash hair every day, no matter the season, something that may come in the way when a Japanese dates a person from another country who are used to showering once a day (give or take). I once heard this issue becoming a hot topic in a radio interview with a Japanese guy-European girl couple: he had a problem with her washing her hair “only” every two days. To her defense, she was preventing it from becoming oily (a common misconception about hair washing actually).

The Japanese also have a custom of major house and shops cleaning on December 31, before having soba dinner and osechi breakfast the day after. Windows are especially cleaned, symbolizing a clean, clear opening to the new year.

Taking care of the surrounding environment is as important as taking care of one’s own. The custom of taking off footwear and wearing house slippers in Japanese houses (and some restaurants) is world-famous, but you may not know that the Japanese schoolkids wear different types of shoes for indoor and outdoor activities. Schools educate kids on manners, discipline, and life habits to prepare for their grown-up lives in the ‘outside world’ where each person looks after themselves (not going to mention anything about cultural diversity, tolerance and other topics now). Even in the grown-up world, some restaurants and public places still provide rubber slippers in their toilets for hygienic convenience.

The Japanese are also trained to always leave the space they used as it was. In restaurants, you may find small towels on the tables, which you can use to wipe your table after eating (in addition to oshibori – towels given to you for wiping/refreshing your hands). These are not ‘exceptional manners’; these are common practice. Don’t expect to get your “I thought so” moment by seeing high school students or middle-aged men leaving their seats cluttered – you’ll be disappointed. It’s a habit so well-bred that everyone does it without thinking. Of course this applies to normal circumstances in normal places. Nor have I seen piles of dirty plates in someone’s sink—but I’ve never made a surprise visit :p

Like the Japan supporters at the World Cup, people left the space they used as clean as it was before. They bring trash bags to picnic spots and don’t leave a small piece of napkin. At fast food and coffee shops joints, empty plates and cups are brought to the counter or to the special kiosk located near the cashier.

At those special kiosk, you’ll see properly differentiated garbage bins. Trash management plays a major portion of daily life in Japan. Yes, people are asked to sort their garbage at homes and dispose them according to city schedule. But it goes beyond that. Milk cartons should be cut and laid open to dry before tied up a pile and thrown into the ‘recyclable garbage’. Wrap that fragile little light bulb with newspaper and label them ‘dangerous’ before throwing them on a ‘noncombustible’ Tuesday. If you mix up Monday with a Tuesday, that huge bag of yours may be left behind by the garbage trucks to shame you until you decide to pretend you’re taking care of someone else’s mistake. Diligent people will stop to think twice whether a tube of toothpaste or that box of orange juice is a ‘recyclable’ or ‘combustible’ (the tube is combustible and if aluminium foil coats the inside of that juice box, it’s combustible too – it’s recyclable otherwise). An NHK program “Tokyo Eye 2020” once showed how tricky this sorting game is.

In some areas, papers are recycled into products such as toilet papers. I once came home to find two toilet rolls hung on my door, proudly made from our recycled paper. In reality, though, I’ve met people who are not too careful about sorting their garbage. So I wasn’t that much surprised to see Japan’s recycle rate is not among the top in the world (only 19-20% compared to 65% at #1). But the culture of avoiding waste generation (‘don’t waste’) and selling unused items to secondhand shops may have a role in generating less recyclable garbage in the first place.

While garbage management seems like a hassle, ‘the back business’ is good business. The ‘Japanese toilets’, or washlet, deserve an applause. They are equipped with control panels of buttons, each crafted for your utmost bladder bliss: at least one button to clean your bottom, one to clean your lady part, and one to play a ‘flushing sound’. Yes, you can ask the toilet to cover the sounds of your pooing. You can also blow-dry your bottom and deodorize the toilet to cover your tracks. Shower water pressure and flushing water volume are adjustable for comfort and energy efficiency. When winter comes, there’s no better way to love this blessing of a technology, than to sit on its heated seat. You’ll wish you can spend more time!

There are plenty more features that you can find and there are highly-equipped toilets with more buttons than usual. Whenever I come across ones with twenty buttons, I still need time to select the one that provides an Apple Breeze rather than Serene Spring perfume (gotcha! No toilets have perfume options. Add that to your $10,000 toilets, TOTO – you’re welcome). Another thing about toilets in Japan is that wherever you go, you’ll find clean public toilets. Well, I haven’t been to all corners where the sun rises. But all toilets that I’ve found at train stations and even the parks are clean.

People’s habits and the systems that work up a stainless society is admirable. I know this is definitely going to be one of the objects of your adoration if you come to visit. For me, getting used to this kind of luxury is one of the “dangerous” parts of living in Japan. Good thing I sometimes get to be in more “human” places where there are some loopholes in the loos. Starting a clean slate somewhere less mysophobic, when the time comes, shouldn’t be too much of a problem. But I’ll miss those heated seats!

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