May 22, 2024


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Commentary: COVID-19 forces Japan to rethink its view of toilet paper

Japan has responded to the COVID-19 news by stripping shops bare of toilet paper. This episode reveals interesting insights into the country, says the Financial Times’ Leo Lewis.

People wearing masks queue to buy masks at a drugstore in Tokyo, Japan

People wearing masks queue to buy masks at a drugstore in Tokyo, Japan on Feb 28, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Issei Kato)

TOKYO: In happier times a fortnight ago, the hand-scrawled notices taped to public toilet doors, urging economy with loo paper and politely urging customers not to steal were just a disturbing curio of life in Tokyo.

By last weekend, with shops across Japan sold out of the precious tissue and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe preaching against panic, TV news shows collated more ominous signage from around the country — some snarling that in-lavatory larceny would bring a police response, others closing their restrooms altogether, defeated by the crime spree.

But it was the images that appeared on Monday, of toilet paper rolls bound to their dispensers with bicycle locks, that finally told a nation that Japan had descended into Lord of the Flies-style depravity.

“Bicycle locks on a ¥50 (US$0.50) toilet roll?” writhed social media. In a country where even bicycles sometimes don’t need locks? Are we humans or beasts? What will they think of us when (or if) the world arrives in July for the Olympics?


Japan, of course, is far from alone in responding to alarming coronavirus news by stripping shops bare of toilet paper. The sense of urgency spiked after Mr Abe recommended telework for the few who were able and abruptly called for schools to close, forcing households to stock up for an unusual stint of extended time at home.

READ: Commentary: Why Japan’s move to close schools during COVID-19 outbreak upset many – and not just parents

READ: Commentary: Japan shows how not to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak

It doesn’t matter where you are, what the crisis or how reassuring the authorities sound when they say supplies are plentiful (as they are in Japan). The least imaginative among us can envisage the cost of running out of toilet paper, and are overcome with primal fear.

“On this matter, we cannot trust Abe. He says Japan is self-sufficient in toilet paper, but anyone can see the shops are empty,” said one woman standing ninth in a queue for a Tokyo pharmacy that would not open for another hour.

Japan pupils wearing surgical masks

Pupils of the Ariake-nishi Gakuen elementary school wear face masks during an event, Feb 25, 2020. (Photo: AFP/Charly Triballeau)

But for Japan, those same demons mount an extra, pernicious challenge. The paper panic, however flimsy it turns out to be, reveals as unconquerable something Japan dearly wants to believe it has conquered.

Worse, it comes at a time when the country had hoped to put its toilet triumphalism on the global stage. The summer Olympics were to have showcased Japan’s WC supremacy: The three biggest toilet makers — Toto, Lixil and Panasonic — have collectively spent more than US$200 million to be prominent sponsors of the 2020 games.


For decades now, Japan’s sophisticated toilets have seemed — to foreign commentators — to be an Enigma machine for decoding the nation that produces them.

The auto-warming seats, the complex bank of adjustable bidet sprays, the anti-bacterial “pre-mist” self-cleaning feature, the euphemistic pictograms: What could be more Japanese?

READ: Commentary: Outbreaks of diseases make us exaggerate or under-estimate risks. The COVID-19 shows that

READ: Commentary: In Hong Kong, the COVID-19 outbreak sent shockwaves but could reinvigorate protests

But these marvels are just the front-of-house stuff. Were it not currently closed because of the coronavirus, Tokyo’s “Rainbow” Sewerage Museum would offer a fuller grasp of Japan’s relationship with this issue.

This facility explains in glorious civil engineering detail how the world’s most populous city went about mastering its waste. It does this with the nonchalant primacy of King Kong’s captors boasting how the terrifying beast was subdued.

It is a powerful reminder of Japan’s guiding credo that the most forbidding forces of nature can and must be tamed by ingenuity, effort and economic might.

Toilets across the ages are put on display at the Toto Museum in Kitakyushu

Toilets across the ages are put on display at the Toto Museum in Kitakyushu, Japan, Feb 6, 2020. (Photo: Reuters/Sakura Murakami)

In the case of sewage and toilets, Japan’s success in this endeavour is undoubtedly — world-beatingly — impressive. So much so that a substance globally synonymous with vileness and disease is comfortably celebrated at a cutesy “poop museum” that opened in Tokyo last year.


And yet, Japan has learnt in the past few days that some monsters are only ever superficially tamed.

For all of its extraordinary and pioneering technology, Japan’s largest toilet maker, Toto, confirmed this week that the company has never claimed that its machines provide an alternative to toilet paper.

You can wow museum visitors with interactive models of the world’s most advanced sewerage systems, make bathroom hygiene your Olympic calling card and sell millions of top-of-the range NeoRest toilets, but when human fear takes over, the gulf between civilisation and bathroom bicycle locks is bridgeable only with a thin tissue.

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