from Wrong About Japan

I picked the above referenced book from the library more for its subject matter than for the author.  Indeed, the name of the author was somewhat obscured by the plethora of tags and IDs from the library.  What a pleasant surprise to find that it was by Peter Carey--an author whose work I had formulated a wish to take in.  Now, I know this will not be exemplary of his work; however, it provides an entrée to the prose--a sampling, as it were.

from Wrong About Japan
Peter Carey

"Come!" he called from the bathroom, "Come now. Quick!"

Whatever he had seen in the bathroom, I knew immediately, was very strange. He'd already seen weird Japanese stuff on the way here--the white-gloved taxi driver, the extraordinary neon-lit shop of pink and organe and blue flowers, a newsstand filled with countless manga with spines two inches thick.  But the strangeness he was now negotiating was of a different magnitude.

"Everybody with a taste for traditional architecture," Junichiro Tanizaki wrote in 1933, "must agree that the Japanese toilet is perfection." He then lamented the cost of traditional construction and described his own compromise between cost and custom. "I at least avoided tiles, and had the floor done in camphour wood. To that extent I tried to create a Japanese atmosphere, but was frustrated, finally, by the toilet fixtures themselves. As everyone knows, toilet fixtures are made of pure white porcelain and have handles of sparkling metal. Were I able to have things my own way, I would much prefer fixtures--both men's and women's --made of wood. Wood finished in glistening black lacquer is the very best; but even unfinished wood, as it darkens and the grain grows more subtle with the years, acquires  an inexplicable power to calm and soothe. The ultimate, of course, is a wooden 'morning glory' urinal filled with boughs of cedar; this is a delight to look at and makes not the slightest sound."

"Dad, come now! Look!"

God knows what Tanizaki would have thought, but I was certainly as startled as my son, for the toilet in our traditional hotel looked like a contraption designed for a science-ficton comedy. Its arrays of yellow, red, and blue buttons beside the seat might, as one could guess, lower or raise the device, convert the toilet to a bidet or--surely this must have been my misunderstanding--a shower. However, it was not immediately clear how one would flush it. Finally I pushed the blue button and the toilet indeed flushed, but then water started gushing from a faucet into a triangular basin in the corner of the room.

We burst out laughing.

It was at just his moment, before we had time to discover that the seat was electrically heated, that the telephone rang.

It is perhaps in the bathrooms of even the most closely allied cultures that we find ourselves most uncomfortable.  Why, exactly is the urinal shaped that way and what is the meaning of the curious flap that overs it over and makes it look something like half-an-egg sticking out of the wall.  What are those buttons supposed to do and if the water is automatic at what watching eye must I wave to get it to flow.  And if it is not automatic, where is the knob, button, switch, lever, or device that will cause it to flow.  So for me, this passage hit home with a pleasant sort of recognition.  And, of course, it is one of those things that you would never in a million years want to ask anyone about.  Can you see calling down to the front desk and asking for someone to come up and show you how the toilets and faucets work?

On my first trip to Dublin I stayed at a hotel where I finally had to ask the clerk downstairs how to keep the power on in the room.  There was this slot that I had discovered that if you ran your room key through it lit up the lights for about thirty seconds.  I figured that there was then some secret master switch I needed to find during that thirty seconds or so of light.

Ah no, I was just to leave my room key in the slot.  Once I knew the secret, I thought it elegant and simple.  How many times do I leave a room with the lights on so wastefully simply because turning them off and finding one's way back to the door could be so cumbersome.  So here, just as one enters or exits the room, a place to keep your key.  You'll always know where it is upon entering or exiting.  Very, very nice. 


  1. Steven - Carey's wonder at Japanese lavatories mirrors my own experience in Tokyo.

    The leading Japanese manufacturer of the "super high-tech" lavatories (Toto) now sell in Europe. I recently refurbished my guest cloakroom and I was sorely tempted to install one of these wonders but a higher authority prevailed.

    I shall be interested in your thoughts on Carey as I've never finished one of his books.

  2. Steven - the definitive Japan book is Will Ferguson's Hokkaido Highway Blues.

  3. Dear Anthony,

    Thank you--I shall look up the book you reference. My favorite about Japan is still The Road to Oku by Basho Matsuo, but then, I've read more in translation about Japan that I have by gaijin. I am most interested in the outsider/visitor's view of Japan, hence the Carey book.




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