When Will This Foolishness Cease?
“I often ask myself, when am I gonna learn? … If you carry on like me you’ll never make it.” -Maxïmo Park, ‘Now I’m All Over the Shop’
DISCLAIMER: This blog entry contains descriptions of public bathrooms and while not graphic in the least, it may be more than you wanted to know. But if you’re anything like me, now that you have been made aware of this fact, there’s no way you’re going to close that web browser.
Living in Japan 101: Do not press the orange button.
One afternoon, after spending a few empty blocks studying with my classmates in the Global Lounge on campus, I decide that I need to go to the bathroom. Impatiently I waited for the Western-style toilet to be free in the cramped, tiled room, completely unwilling, no matter how badly I had to go, to use the Japanese-style hole in the ground. Now, if anyone knows Westernized Japanese toilets, he or she knows that they are complex inventions that perform functions beyond the wildest imaginations of Americans. You can’t call yourself civilized until you’ve used a Japanese toilet. Also, you can’t call yourself sane after you’ve attempted to find out what each of the many, many buttons on the side of the toilet do. And this is where I found myself.
So I use the bathroom like normal: slightly uncomfortable on the heated toilet seat, frustrated by the automatic flushing sound played by the speakers (yes, speakers), and startled by the sensitivity of the auto-flush feature. So I get up, and as I’m looking for the button to flush the toilet (since the auto-flush was seemingly whacked on this particular model), I think to myself, like any reasonable American would, “Ah, an orange button. I can’t read what it says, but hey, it’s large and neon colored, so it must do what I want it to.” Right? Wrong. Should have paid more attention in Kanji class.
I sensed that something was wrong the moment that I felt the button stick in the wall. It wasn’t a button. It was a switch.
The next part is a bit of a blur. Lights started flashing, a ridiculously loud alarm started blaring, and all I could think to do was scurry out of the stall, wash my hands as quickly as sanitarily possible, and get out. “Go! Just go! Now!” I rasped to my classmates through clenched teeth, pushing them through the swinging door. Ignoring their attempts at asking me what was wrong, I muttered the appropriate profanities and bolted straight for the staircase, looking as unsuspicious as possible (and not doing a very good job). It only took the words, “Wait, is that the fire alarm?” to send me bolting down the stairs at light speed.
Once a safe distance away from the bathroom (but still within earshot of the siren), I hastily explained the situation to my colleagues, who proceeded to devolve into fits of laughter against the hallway walls.
“That was the emergency button!”
“Yeah, I figured that much out! Shh, wait!” I whisper. The sound of footsteps from the hallway perpendicular to ours fills the building, and I motion to continue walking as if nothing has happened. The footsteps break into a run, and we turn to see a woman sprinting at full speed, first aid kit in hand, and muttering incoherent Japanese over a walkie-talkie. …Oops. Not a minute later we see another woman running from the opposite direction fitting a similar description, and we decide it’s probably best if we all just exit the building. Stupid foreigner indeed.
A week or so later, this led to the discussion of why there are emergency buttons in every stall of every public Japanese restroom. I asked my classmates this, completely dumbfounded as to what situation would lead to the rise of the apparently mandated installation of emergency buttons in every restroom. “Maybe if you’re on crutches and you fall?” There are handles on the walls! And it isn’t as if Japanese bathrooms don’t have handicap stalls. “Internal bleeding?” Go to a doctor! “A bidet gone wrong?” … Yep, that’s it.
Yet another mystery of Japanese culture that will perhaps never be solved or understood by my American mind.