The Last Taboo

By on Sep 24, 2010 in Essays

Toilet bowl

We have been conditioned not to talk about it. We have had women’s liberation, sex revolution, workers’ revolution; we can talk about everything now — the toilet is the last taboo which must be broken.

— Jack Sim, founder of the World Toilet Organisation

In his In Praise of Shadows, Junichirō Tanizaki expounds upon the idea of a Japanese aesthetic sentiment grounded in the nimble shade, the gentle cool corner of the room, the buoyant play of faint shadows: the lightness of light. He laments the development and effect of rude electric lighting and considers phenomena such as the soup bowl, sushi — “a cuisine to be looked at rather than eaten” (26), jade, women, gold Buddhas, paper, architecture, Nō theatre, and so on.

One of many things to say about this exploration and celebration of the “vague” would concern the early meditation upon that “place of spiritual repose” (9) — the Japanese toilet. The Japanese toilet, at least around the 1930s, is “a physiological delight” (9), a place “to enjoy any of those poignant moments that mark the change of the season” (10), a place where “haiku poets over the ages have come by a great many of their ideas” (10). A poetic idea may even originate in the very journey to the toilet. Basho here (further exemplifying the enigmatic play of light and dark):

On the way to the outhouse —
the white of the moonflower
by torchlight

The toilet is the “most aesthetic” exemplar of Japanese architecture: “the Japanese toilet is perfection” (10). It stands in contrast to the “unpleasant” Western-style toilet, where “every nook and corner is pure white” (11). The broad reason for this difference, Tanizaki suggests, is that the Eastern disposition is one of contentedness. The West, however, wants progress: even if it comes in the brilliant white of the ceramic tile.

This drawing of such a contrast and idea that a national characteristic and ideology, existential attitude and aesthetic sensibility, can be discerned from the study of a toilet might strike us as bold. Nevertheless, why not get carried away with this endeavour, even if tongue is somewhat in cheek? Slavoj Žižek, the controversial Slovenian philosopher, Lacanian psychoanalyst, Leninist, and “Elvis of cultural theory,” has most recently attempted such “toiletology.” He begins an article for the London Review of Books by commenting on the scene from Buñuel’s Phantom of Liberty where the roles of eating and excreting are inverted: “people sit at toilets around a table, chatting pleasantly, and when they want to eat, sneak away to a small room.” He goes on to suggest that Hegel was the first to see in the geographical triad of Germany, France and England an expression of three different existential attitudes: reflective thoroughness (German), revolutionary hastiness (French), and utilitarian pragmatism (English). Žižek then suggests that these attitudes can be discerned from, and are reflected in, the specific nation’s toilet.

In a traditional German toilet, the hole into which excrement disappears after we flush is right at the front, with a platform at the back “so that excrement is first laid out for us to sniff and inspect for traces of illness.” (Erica Jong mockingly claims that “German toilets are really the key to the horrors of the Third Reich. People who can build toilets like this are capable of anything.”) This is “reflective thoroughness.” In the typical French toilet, on the contrary, the hole is at the back, i.e. excrement “is supposed to disappear as quickly as possible.” This is “revolutionary hastiness.” Finally, the American (Anglo-Saxon) toilet presents a synthesis, a mediation between these opposites: “the toilet basin is full of water, so that the excrement floats in it, visible, but not to be inspected.” This is “utilitarian pragmatism.” In political terms, Žižek claims, this triad can be read as German conservatism, French revolutionary radicalism and English liberalism. In terms of the predominance of one sphere of social life, it is German metaphysics and poetry versus French politics and English economics.

Žižek’s claim is that “none of these versions [of toilet] can be accounted for in purely utilitarian terms: each involves a certain ideological perception of how the subject should relate to excrement. The point about toilets is that they enable us not only to discern this [geo-political] triad in the most intimate domain, but also to identify its underlying mechanism in the three different attitudes towards excremental excess: an ambiguous contemplative fascination [German]; a wish to get rid of it as fast as possible [French]; a pragmatic decision to treat it as ordinary and dispose of it in an appropriate way [Anglo-Saxon]… It is easy for an academic at a round table to claim that we live in a post-ideological universe, but the moment he visits the lavatory after the heated discussion, he is again knee-deep in ideology.”

All are some distance from Japanese aesthetics. Indeed the ultra-modern Japanese toilet is also some distance from the toilet of Tanizaki. What would he have made of the contemporary Japanese toilet? The most advanced toilet in the world is found today in Japan with features such as an integrated bidet (with adjustable water jet temperature; adjustable angle; option for adding soap to the jet; adjustable pressure, where it is possible to put the jet on a high-pressure setting for an enema — anecdotal evidence suggests that this high-pressure setting is being “abused” as a sexual stimulant); an after-care blow dryer (adjustable from 40°C to 60°C); seat heating (adjustable from 30°C to 40°C); seat massage options; proximity sensor for automatic lid opening and  automatic flushing after use; an ozone deodorant system to quickly eliminate the smell of waste; the playing of music to relax the user (Op. 62 Nr. 6 Frühlingslied by Felix Mendelssohn being a favorite); the ability to play white noise to drown out the sound that can accompany toilet use; adjustable arm rests; germ-resistant surfaces; customization of the toilet based upon collected usage data; a glow-in-the-dark facility; wireless control panels; heating and air conditioning for the room; the recent option of medical sensors which can measure the blood sugar based on the urine, and also measure the pulse, blood pressure, and body fat content of the user (this data may automatically be sent to a doctor through a built-in Internet-capable cellular telephone); and lately, talking toilets have appeared: a voice-operated toilet that understands verbal commands is under development.

Is this what is meant by progress?



Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (1933) In Praise of Shadows. Trans. Edward Seidensticker and Thomas Harper. Leete’s Island Books, 1977.

Slavoj Žižek (2004) Knee-Deep: Review of Free World: Why a Crisis of the West Reveals the Opportunity of Our Time by Timothy Garton Ash. London Review of Books, Vol. 26, No. 17.

Heat Wave Contents


Jon Baldwin lives on the east coast of England with his wife and young daughter. He teaches at the London Metropolitan University and has published scholarly articles on Alain Badiou, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, art, culture, and political economy. His poetry has been published in a number of journals such as Heron's Nest, Acorn, and Eucalypt, and he is General Secretary of the British Haiku Society.