This sign is real… And it’s really not as uncommon as you’d believe, amusing as it is! The Japanese electronic “Washlet” is renowned, of course, a marvel of engineering that is famous around the world and often the first thing foreigners take a picture of upon arrival in Japan. You may have seen them on The Simpsons, or indeed your friends’ travelogues. (They don’t sing and spray gaudy colours about though. Usually.)
Less well known is the old style “squat toilet”, which was the norm here throughout most of the 20th century, and indeed still can be found at most public toilets, and particularly in countryside homes. Which is also remarkable to the foreign eye, but in a more terrifying than wondrous way at first sight.
In case you’re getting nervous, please don’t worry. This isn’t another article about Japanese toilet habits. But signs like the one above do serve a purpose, even if using a “regular” toilet appears to be self-evident. Folk from the remotest parts of the countryside, or very old people may not know exactly how to use one. This picture was taken on Awaji Island, which is near enough to some remote regions while also drawing enough tourists – thanks to its excellent sushi! – to possibly make a sign like this worthwhile.
Come on though, it’s 2014, right? True enough, but this here is Japan. And if there’s one thing that is done spectacularly well here, it’s stating the obvious. Although it’s usually used as a political term, the phrase “nanny state” definitely applies to how people are treated here and not only by the government or governmental organisations.
Waiters and waitresses here will constantly tell you the best way to eat what you’ve just ordered. (“Please dip your bread in the olive oil” and “Please pour the sauce on your okonomiyaki” being two of the most egregious ones I’ve heard so far.) At any shop, restaurant or supermarket, the cashier will count out your notes for you as if handing them to a small child who’s been asked to pick up something for dinner by their mother.
Ambulances have a loud siren, of course, but also emit an electronic voice when passing telling you that it is indeed an ambulance and would you mind please getting out of the way. My elevator has told me so many times that the doors are closing that I’m pretty sure that my last day in that building will be spent taking a screwdriver to the damn thing. And quite possibly an axe too.
Even something as elementary as crossing the road is strictly controlled and observed. Crossing when there’s a pedestrian red light – even when there’s no traffic – will certainly lead to a barrage of stink-eye from most people nearby. In the afternoons, extremely bored looking volunteers with yellow flags direct people across the road too, in order to stop such loutish behaviour. Furthermore, near my workplace, there is a den of iniquity devoted to gambling on kyotei or “Boat Race”.
This establishment hires semi-official crossing guards whose primary function is to ensure that the drunken men who fall out of the place in the afternoons cross the surrounding streets safely. However, there seems to be at most about three of these unfortunates per day, meaning that most of the guards’ time is spent adjusting their natty white gloves or staring off into middle-distance. (At night, when there are even more drunks the guards are nowhere to be found, which makes little sense but there you go.)
There are a colossal number of menial jobs in existence in Japan, from smiling greeters attempting to entice you into their restaurants to old-fashioned elevator attendants in the larger department stores. There are building sites with seemingly more useless security staff shooing people along with red batons than actual builders working away. Restaurants and bars, to Western eyes, seem impossibly overstaffed.
What is the end result of all this extra care, of all of these attentive people and plentiful signage, ready to serve? It depends on you. It can sound a little trite to say it but for many Japanese, it’s reassuring to know that there’s always someone to maintain order and that there are rules in place. For foreigners though, the effect can be more than a little cloying. Being excessively mothered and mithered by the effective nanny state here can leave one feeling rather irritated from time to time.
It’s certainly not all bad though. For tourists, it’s a godsend, with signs always pointing the way and friendly faces who will gamely attempt to give you a helping hand, English ability notwithstanding. The constant CCTV surveillance that has become a feature of Western cities such as London is mercifully lighter here too, or at least less conspicuous.
Of course too, there are exceptions, but not many. Fireworks are widely and terrifyingly available. Coming from a country where they aren’t at all, having a friend rush up to me recently brandishing a lit one took years off my life. (No fingers from anyone’s hand though, thankfully.) Policemen stood not fifty metres away as my friends fired off a good few more in a public park.
Similarly, the summer matsuri (festivals) in my area feature brawny men carrying portable shrines that can weigh up to two or three tonnes… And then they crash them into each other with shuddering force! Inevitably there are many injuries every year and there have even been a couple of deaths, all completely sanctioned by the powers that be.
Still, the overwhelming sense here is of a country where you’re not told what to do exactly… but you are strongly advised.
Perhaps the crossing system is breaking down, thanks to the introduction of smartphones:
In case you are actually disappointed that this wasn’t an article about toilets in Japan: