Hi. My Name is Poo.

はじめまして、 僕の名前はベンです。

Whispers from the students, a few smiles…

Hajimemashite, Bokuno namaewa bendesu. Hi, My name is Ben.  That’s what the above says, and it’s how I introduced my self at my first school a bit over three years ago.   This last year, I had to do it all over at 8 schools (with 3-4 classes per school, plus teachers, city hall, the bank, etc.)  Why the giggles?

It’s not hajimemashite, that just means ‘nice to meet you.’

The reason the kids all started whispering is because one of the many ways to say ‘poo’ in Japanese is ben.

Here’s some others.

unko, haisetsu(mono/butsu), senbi, unchi

The thing is, if you walked into a class room in America and said, “Hi.  My name  is poop,” the kids would get embarrassed, laugh, and have 100 other reactions.  Why the minimal reaction in Japanese schools?

One issue that used to pop up when talking about Japan was how early Japanese kids were toilet-trained.  Psychologists and behaviorists examined the difference in timing between Western and Japanese kids.  Perhaps the more interesting difference is the way kids are motivated to learn.

The result of current methods in training is that kids feel its bad, embarrassing, or extremely private.  In Japan, kids are helped along and encouraged by familiarly shaped characters that teach and encourage.  Perhaps because less of a deal is made about the whole process, Japanese kids* have an easier time because they are more comfortable.  In Japanese schools, stores, etc, images like the character unko-chan I described last week in my Valentine’s Day post can be seen scrawled by students, or in helpful how-to messages.  Poo isn’t as taboo in Japan as it might be in Western countries.  Kids can talk about it freely without feeling embarrassed, so here its just not a big deal. (Admittedly, part of this may be ‘looking without seeing:’ the phenomena where community bathers can socialize without embarrassment, or sardine-can subway riders can maintain their indifference.)

In any case, the end result is that kids up through junior high in Japan are much more comfortable with the subject than kids I’ve observed back in America.  I’ll leave it to you to decide which is ‘better.’

More on Poo

I’ll admit it was kind of a shock to see just how often images of poo show up around Japan (to me this is just more evidence of differences in socialization).  The other interesting difference, was of course, the image itself. Why are kids drawing a swirling ice cream cone top?  What are those lines?  Oh.

Let’s take a look at Japanese history.  What comes to mind when you think of Japanese clothing?  Samurai armor?  Kimono?

What do they all have in common?  An open bottom.  The Japanese developed basic sanitation long ago.  As a people, they began bathing regularly well before the West.  One need only look into books like Things Japanese to see that westerners were surprised by the daily bathing in Japan during the Meiji era.

Cleanliness is one of the few original items of Japanese civilisation.  Almost all other Japanese institutions have their root in China, but not tubs…  But viewed generally, the cleanliness in which the Japanese excel the rest of mankind [is due to the fact that] They are clean for the personal satisfaction of being clean.**

So then cleanliness was at least common in polite society.  It’s no wonder they also developed sanitation in regards to waste.  In Japan, traditional toilets are in the floor.  You squat over them. Do your business, flush, and water takes care of the rest.  In the old days such connivances would have been simple to create, and very sanitary since you don’t actually make contact with any part of it!

I cannot say if Japanese fashion was influenced by the toilets of the time, or if the opposite was true, but the open-bottom dress surely made using traditional Japanese toilets convenient.  Most westerners find this uncomfortable and inconvenient, however, just think if you were in Samurai armor.

Would you want to take that all off every time you had to go?  Plus, in Asia, squatting is far more common, even while resting.  I even remember seeing a special on it that said it was better for your back (I have no idea when or where I saw that).  Japanese toilets have the useful design to be multi-gender.

In any case, traditional Japanese toilets, and the traditional use of them, have led to a very different image of poo in Japan.  This image is a convenient, well-recognized symbol, that for Japanese kids is comfortable and easy to understand, and without negative emotional content.  Perhaps that’s why it is used in other places as well.

I think the message here is “brush your teeth or a little purple demon will poo in your mouth.” (yes, definitely sarcasm)

Historical Poo

*Updated* I recently visited the Shikina Royal Gardens in Naha where I was able to get a look at very old Okinawan toilets in the Udun Palace.  Aside from the very entertaining ‘Do not use’ sign and plastic covering, the  double rooms are actually a very interesting look at how the modern Japanese toilet evolved.

In Okinawa, special pigs were bred to dispose of the waste.  Below the wood floor is a sloping rock trench that leads to pens for the pigs.  Without running water, the pigs were still able to process the waste and keep the palace relatively sanitary for the Royalty.  How’s this for a throne?

One More Thing

So, when I introduce myself now, I use a convenient aspect of Japanese to steer thoughts in the right direction.  As with English, where ‘pair’ and ‘pear’ have the same pronunciation but different meanings, so too does Japanese have many homophones.  Luckily, Japanese homophones are easily distinguished by their kanji, and since so many words sound the same, context and meaning is more important in Japanese and more readily recognized.  So now I’m 勉(study) instead of 便(excrement).

Perhaps the lack of taboo is why it was Japanese scientists who came up with this…

http://youtu.be/HDvSPQ7megQ (Youtube video)

*Note: I haven’t studied this.  These are my own ideas and though I think they are true, do not include every individual or experience (of course generalities by definition cannot apply to everyone).  For an academic perspective, please seek out an expert.

**From Things Japanese by Basil Hall Chamberlain pg. 64 (Stone Bridge Press)