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Gaijin Mama - Potty Problems

There are many cultural challenges awaiting newcomers to Japan-the food, the language, the customs...and the toilets! Yes, I’m talking about those Japanese-style squat toilets. Perhaps it isn’t a big deal for most men, but when a foreign woman successfully masters the Japanese toilet, it is almost as if she has been initiated into a secret sisterhood. No more crossing your legs as you desperately search for a Western-style toilet!

After getting over the initial shock, it wasn’t long before I began to prefer the Japanese version, especially in public restrooms, since no part of one’s anatomy has to come into contact with the toilet. Although few men would appreciate this fact, I think it is an advantage for us women.

Then I became a Mama and I found myself right back at the bottom of the learning curve again. For one thing, trying to get a stroller into a stall in a Japanese public restroom is virtually impossible. When my son was an infant, I was forever prevailing on kind strangers to watch him when I had to go. A friend confided that she found it was easier to ‘wear’ the baby in a front pack or sling while she used the facilities, but I never managed to master that!

When my son was about 18 months old, I took him into the restroom at a department store. He didn’t want to sit outside the stall in his stroller, so I took him in with me. There was a small flat ledge on the top of the cistern, where the water comes out of that little spout when you flush, so I sat him up there for the duration. Then, without thinking, I flushed...whoops! One soggy, surprised toddler. Our next stop was the children’s clothing department.

You’ve probably noticed that many public restrooms now have what the Japanese call ‘baby keeps’-those little fold-down seats in the corner of the toilet stall. They are so handy for keeping a baby or toddler out of harm’s way when Mama has to go! A great example of innovation!

When it came to pottying my child in public, I never had much trouble with my son-Japanese or Western-style, it was all the same to him. But then I had two little girls. Teaching a toddler girl to use a Japanese-style toilet is a bit like teaching someone to ride a bicycle: you can show her how to do it but you can’t do it for her! If she is wearing a skirt, you have to hold everything up while she squats. If she is wearing pants, you have to take everything off, including shoes, before she goes. Then you have to kind of dangle her over the toilet at just the right angle, desperately trying to ensure she doesn’t actually touch the thing...

If it’s any compensation, these days most little Japanese girls find it hard to use a squat toilet, too. At the explanatory meetings for incoming first-graders, the elementary schools always appeal to the parents to ensure their daughters are comfortable with a squat toilet, as many of the older schools don’t have Western-style facilities. Recently I accompanied my four-year-old daughter’s nursery school class on a field trip to the zoo. We stopped en route for a potty break and it was all Japanese-style toilets. I had to pitch in and help the teachers deal with the wails for help from all the desperate little girls. I found it rather ironic that my daughter was the only one who could use the toilet by herself!

My mother has never been able to get used to the squat toilets. When she first visited us in Japan eleven years ago, our outings seemed to revolve around finding Western-style facilities. She came to see us again last year, and she was pleasantly surprised at the improvement in public toilets. But that doesn’t mean she has it all sussed out yet: as I waited for my mother outside a restroom in a mall, I suddenly heard a loud siren. My mother rushed out, gasping, “There was this big red button on the wall and I thought it was to flush with!” Mum had pushed the emergency call button! Needless to say, two embarrassed gaijin ladies hightailed it out of there very smartly.

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Louise George Kittaka is from New Zealand and is a freelance editor, writer and teacher. She lives in Japan with her husband and three children.