Global Toilets I Have Known: A Memoir

This toilet no longer scares me.  I would use this in a heartbeat.

There are few things we take for granted more than personal waste elimination.  The assumptions many Americans share about bathroom habits may include things like: public toilets are a right, privacy (being in “the privy”) is an expectation, we flush pretty much all things – even when cautioned not to do so, we require at least a square or a ply – probably more, and so forth.  As an American who has traveled throughout Europe and lived in Asia for 2 1/2 years, my toilet assumptions have been examined, re-examined, and in some cases flushed away.  I have become multi-toilet-lingual, able to find comfort, nay relief, in a variety of toilet situations.

Flush or Trash

When I was a teenager we visited my sister’s house in Northern California.  She had posted a sign over the toilet that said “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.”  This was sort of a conservationist attempt, but also symptomatic of faulty plumbing.  The trash can was not pleasant as all paper went in it to keep the toilet from clogging.  Likewise, in Asia, I found that there were some countries where the plumbing was not up to scratch, so it all had to be placed in trash cans in the cubicle.  My father-in-law had a similar experience as a missionary in Mexico, where they threw the used paper directly on the floor, like peanut shells in a Texas Barbecue, only more revolting.

Another expectation that had to go was consistent access to paper.  My entire time in Asia, I carried travel tissues with me at all times because you never knew when you would need them.  Some countries were reliably well-stocked.  Others would surprise you.  Some countries had an attendant who would sell you paper along with access to the toilets, even when the toilets were seemingly in violation of the Geneva accords.

What’s In a Name?

This would have been a helpful sign about two years ago.

Americans are notoriously oblique about what to call the room of requirement.  We like euphemistic names such as “the restroom” or even the mysterious “powder room” where I might go to “powder my nose” (or perhaps where powder kegs are stored?).  When I asked my British friends if I could use their bathroom, they were initially startled because the “bathroom” is where the bathtub is and is often separate from the water closet where the toilet is.  Most Brits simply say “toilet,” which sounds too direct and crass to delicate Americans, as if someone might figure out what we intend to do in there.

Asians are generally more direct in referring to the “toilet.”  This was one of the key Mandarin phrases we took with us to China:  “Cesuo zai nar” or “Toilet is where?”  Unfortunately, our pronunciation wasn’t great (Mandarin is a tonal language; unlike Romance languages that use tone to convey interrogation or emphasis of the sentence, words have different tones that change the meaning of the word). Fortunately, our guide figured out what we were saying before we were forced to act it out.

In Vietnamese, people are even more direct.  The phrase “mah quah” literally means “I have to pee or poop.” [1]  This is how people ask where the toilets are.

Paper or Water

Will do.

In Singapore, all toilet cubicles (whether squatters or western style) include a sprayer attached to a hose.  When I first saw this I thought it must be for the janitors.  However, I was informed that it is the preferred personal cleansing method for Muslims, and most Malaysians are Muslim.  That explained why the floor and toilet seat were often wet when I entered.  In Bali, the Hindu part of Indonesia, bathrooms include a water basin with a scoop for personal cleansing.  Unfortunately, many of the basins I saw near tourist attractions had dead flies floating in the water which really didn’t seem hygienic.  I was also a little baffled by the scoop, although eventually my imagination worked it out.  Having been in Europe, I had seen and used bidets before, and obviously they have some advantage over paper in terms of actual cleaning ability, although not so much in drying ability.  Perhaps Singapore with both together has the best approach.  As they say at Burger King, have it your way.

Some of the bathrooms in Singapore had a communal toilet paper dispenser, super-sized, out near the sinks.  You needed to stock up before entering your private chamber.  This required both forethought and powers of prophecy on some level, and I noticed that there was some social pressure to save trees.

At the Big Buddha statue in Phuket, Thailand, I encountered the most unusual paper of all:  actual sheets of paper!  I was concerned about the paper cut potential, so I used my trusty personal supply of tissue instead.

Touchless or Seated

This exact sign was in our toilet cubicle at work. And it still occasionally went unheeded.

The other thing that westerners notice in Asia when using western style toilets is that there are often signs posted warning people not to “squat” on the toilet seats as they may slip and injure themselves, to say nothing of the mess made.  Still, on many occasions I found shoe prints and more unspeakable forensic evidence on entering a western style toilet cubicle.  Habits die hard for Asians just as they do for us.

While westerners complain that it requires great thigh muscles to use the squatter-style pans that are common across Asia (I also found high heels mostly unworkable), Asians complain that sitting with your bare skin on a seat where the bare skin of others has been is not hygienic.  This is one reason a contactless experience is preferred.  They have a point.  Many western style cubicles in Singapore include sanitizer that can be applied to the seat before using it to prevent the spread of germs or perhaps just to provide peace of mind.

We even encountered some unusual touchless toilets in Europe:  a brand new chrome squatter in Croatia that looked like a big shiny shower stall, and a very odd bowl of water on the floor in a Venetian sandwich shop that reminded me of a birdbath basin.  Well, I hope that second one was a toilet anyway.

Free or Pay

There are some pay toilets in the US, but there sure aren’t many.  As Americans, we are used to having free access to clean well-stocked bathrooms; where the bathrooms are found wanting, we have the right to complain; there is often a sign posted asking us to inform management if the restroom is not clean.  In every restaurant or store, there is a restroom available.  Not so in Asia where most restrooms are shared between multiple businesses and restaurants.  Even large chain restaurants like Chili’s, Outback, and Applebees do not have their own toilets in Singapore.

Likewise, there are many toilets that require payment to use, usually to a matron or attendant.  In India, almost every toilet required payment which included some paper; however, many of the toilets were in disrepair (to say the least) despite paying to use them.

Our favorite pay toilet experience was on a secluded beach in Bali.  We had to hike about a half hour through the jungle to get there from a remote road, so we were surprised to find a shack on the beach selling nasi goreng, mee goreng and french fries.  There was also a hand-painted sign advertising a “toilet” (basically a hole dug in the beach but with some privacy):  “Small pipi 20,000 rupayah.  Big pipi 40,000 rupayah” (roughly 20 cents and 40 cents).  As soon as our daughter saw the sign she wanted 40,000 rupayah just for the dubious bragging rights.  As I pointed out, we were at the beach, so small pipi is free in the fish toilet (ocean).  But she did come back and do victory laps around the table after her beach toilet adventure.

Private or Communal

Men’s communal style toilets in China. That’s a urinal ditch, making the view from the squatters . . . obstructed.

While Americans expect, nay, demand privacy in our public restrooms, we aren’t actually the most private ones out there.  Toilet cubicles in Spain generally have doors that go all the way to the floor and well above head height.  Likewise in Singapore.  You can’t check to see whose shoes are in the next stall or share a square between stalls in those countries.

Many Asian countries are quite public, though.  Not only is privacy not expected, but it’s not even desired.  Going to the toilet in rural Cambodia is a social activity.  People go in the field, and if they see you squatting, they will come join you to share gossip, swap stories and recipes, or just make small talk.  It’s a toilet-going based alternative to Pinterest (there’s no internet in these rural villages, so you take it where you can get it).

In the hutongs of Beijing (old neighborhoods with no indoor plumbing and shared courtyards), there is a community toilet building shared by the entire block.  Most people who live in the hutongs never want to leave because they are so close to their neighbors, in part because of this shared experience.  Inside the toilets, there are usually 4-6 squatter pan toilets and 1 western style (at least in the women’s).  Each is “separated” by an incredibly low wall about 1-3 feet high.  There are no doors, and no paper.  I used one, and the door to enter also didn’t close, so I was literally making eye contact with pedestrians passing by on the street as I used the facility.  A woman came in to use one of the squatters just after I entered, and we had a brief conversation in my very limited Mandarin (not much beyond than “Ni hao ma”). She was quite chatty.

From Korea

While these community toilets sound utterly foreign to us, the Apostle Paul would have used something very similar in Ephesus (modern day Turkey).  We saw a set of public “dunnies” there – approximately 12 toilet seats on a bench that were close enough together that physical contact with your neighbor seems likely.  If you don’t like making eye contact at the urinal, imagine your thigh actually touching someone else’s!

On the downside, several countries posted signs that warned about male on female voyeurism in the toilets.  In Thailand, a clever or simply disturbing sign showed a stick man with a camera taking a picture of a woman seated on the toilet, and the woman being surprised and dismayed.  Other signs showed men peeking through holes at women.

In China, I was briefly alarmed when I walked in to the bathroom and saw a sign on one of the cubicles that said “Disabled Man Cubicle” (handicapped stall – often, there was one western style toilet for the disabled in nicer restaurants and airports).  I walked back out to double check, and it was the women’s restroom.  They must have just had one pre-made sign for the handicapped stalls, all written in the masculine gender.

The Lap of Luxury

Strikingly similar to the “Jarvis Toilet,” an invention a mission friend of mine and his companion made up when their landlord refused to fix their plumbing problem.

At times we longed for our American toilets:  the smell of bleach, the abundant paper towels, the sensor-operated air freshener that exhales fragrantly when you walk by, the inevitable loud cell phone conversation in the next stall over (OK, maybe not that one).  But I can honestly say that our American toilets are not the best in the world.  The French and Spanish have bidets, which are superior [2].  Even in Indochina (urban areas of Vietnam and Cambodia) they have built in bidets in many of the toilets thanks to French influence.  And to be honest, the squatters aren’t bad once you get used to them.

But the best toilets in the world, hands down, belong to Japan.  These beauties truly merit the term “throne.”  The Japanese may even be a little toilet-obsessed [3].  Not only do many toilets there have a built in bidet with multiple settings, but many also have heated seats, and some even play relaxing music when you sit down.  The majority of toilets I saw in businesses and hotels had more controls than the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.  Several of the controls looked like something I might have to confess to a bishop.

Toilet assumptions are just one of the things I learned to let go in my travels.  I’ll leave you with a final quote:

You want to do what to my what?

“In awe, I watched the waxing moon ride across the zenith of the heavens like an ambered chariot towards the ebony void of infinite space wherein the tethered belts of Jupiter and Mars hang, for ever festooned in their orbital majesty.  And as I looked at all this I thought . . . I must put a roof on this toilet.”  Les Dawson

What’s the most unusual toilet you’ve encountered?  Did it change your assumptions or were you relieved (no pun intended) to be back in familiar toilet territory afterward?


[1] Said with a slightly different tone it means “Too expensive!”  So if you are in a store and need to poop, you might also wind up negotiating a lower price.  Double win!

[2] I even made popcorn in one of the Spanish ones on my mission by lighting a stick of deodorant.  It was excellent for containing fire, and the cleanup was a breeze.

[3] See the toilet restaurant if you doubt this claim.


  1. That’s a fabulous closing quote.

  2. I have often pondered on this subject, really, and decided if I ever get sent on a mission to a third world country, I’ll sell my house and pay Charmin to send me a case of toilet paper every month. I just couldn’t do what you have done, just couldn’t get used to it. I’ve been married 32 years and my husband and I have never used the toilet in each other’s presence. When I took Russian in college, my professor, a Russian woman, said that if we went to Russia and asked for directions to the restroom, they 1. wouldn’t know what we were talking about and 2. when they realized what we were talking about, would mock us. I think I will never leave America.

    My most unusual toilet experience wasn’t mine. My family was dirt poor when I was a child and we often only had outdoor toilets. Which I hated. But one time my little sister got stuck in the hole and she screamed her head off and my mom had to yank her out. We laughed. She cried. Oh! I wish I had a copy of this, but a dear friend wrote the best poem about her experience. She called it “Shitty Kitties”—she, too, was poor and they had an outhouse. Once, someone threw a bunch of kittens in their outhouse. She and another sister held their little sister, Darlene’s, heels firmly and lowered her into the muck to rescue those kittens. I have to get that poem and put it out because it’s pretty funny.

    Honestly, honestly, I worry about toilet facilities whenever I daydream about traveling the world. I’ve crossed off a few places just reading today.

  3. Great post! I, too, have experienced much of what you discussed here. I can only recall one bathroom that I have refused to use in a time of true need. It was under a bridge near the Charles Helou bus station in Beirut. Otherwise, well, when you gotta go…you know. I have made a point of teaching my kids bathroom survival skills, namely 1. not being bathroom snobs, 2. how to take care of your business while squatting, and 3. always carry tissues, but know how to deal if you forget.

    It’s always been interesting to me that Americans (and the Japanese, as you mentioned) treat the bathroom as an experience, while in other cultures it’s more of an afterthought. The facilities tend to reflect that attitude.

  4. You’re right about the Japanese toilets, and the apparent obsession the Japanese have with them. What’s odd is that 40 years ago they were far behind us Americans. Western-style toilets were rare, and non-flush toilets were not unusual–even in new construction. I remember a new house being built next to the church in Okayama in late 1973. Once day a truck with a large auger came, drilled a 15-foot-deep hole at the side of the foundation. The stainless steel tube of the toilet was then installed. Which leads to the worst toilet story–the day when the guys came around the neighborhood to pump out the toilets. The smell was worse than you could imagine.

    The upshot–the Japanese toilets with music, heated seats, built-in bidets, built-in dryers (to finish the task when the bidet has finished its work), automatic opening (and closing) lids and seats (beats me how the toilet can figure out if you’re planning to sit or stand), etc., etc,. are all recent developments. If they could do it, so can we. Gives me hope for our backward country.

    Of course, you don’t have to wait. Take your credit card and Google Toto Washlet. Not cheap, but think of all the money you’ll save on toilet paper.

  5. Maybe it is because the most exotic toilets I have ever seen or used are called “outhouses.” Or, maybe it is because I am not a member of the close fraternity that appears to exist on this blog–so I have no personal connection to the writer of this post. But, you might want to think about Facebook as an outlet of such ruminations. IMHO

  6. On my mission in Sicily, most of our apartments, of course, had bidets. The American missionaries, in more than one town I lived in, used the bidet as a goldfish bowl – they had no idea what the fixture was for. (Heck, when I first saw one, I had no clue.) This upset the native Italian elders to no end. You can imagine the discussions around the table: “I have to do somersaults to get to the sink to properly cleanse myself.” “Why do you need to do that? We don’t.” “You Americans are not clean people.” “Oh, yeah? Well, even with dirty a**h***s, we’re the strongest nation on Earth, . . .” and so on. Only a Utah-born 19-year-old elder could connect the absence of a bidet to the divinely-ordained fall of the Axis in WWII.

    I recall once we took the fish out, turned on the hot water to clean out the bidet/fishbowl, and someone left the hot water on a trickle afterwards. It kind of half-baked the fish. He recovered, but he wasn’t the same afterwards. Kind of lethargic.

    Italian train stations mostly had holes in the floor with squat plates, and urinals. Older women would come right into the men’s room to mop up without knocking or worrying about whether you were in there or busy or not, which I found strange in a Catholic country. Granted, it’s not a prudish country, but they’re pretty private about toilet habits.

  7. New Iconoclast already discussed the the ‘ole “squat and bomb” toilets in Sicilian train stations. That was the first thing I thought of while reading the post. I heard about elders keeping fish, mostly our bidets were used as a “magazine rack” of sorts and were usually filled with Ensigns and La Stella. I know one companionship that had a turtle.

    While visiting my in-laws in Jamaica I had the (mis)fortune of using a gas station bathroom. Let’s just say it was urgent and we had a long drive ahead of us on bumpy roads. I’ve blocked much of it from memory. I do recall thinking I would need to burn my shoes given the condition of the floor. The icing on the cake was the empty bleach container sitting in the sink (“mud” streaks all over it) that one needed to fill with water from the sink in order to flush the toilet (which was missing the tank and seat).

  8. I love the western style toilets in Japan – my in-laws have a toto washlet. Don’t like the Squat toilets though, so uncomfortable trying to stay upright whilst keeping clothing out of the way.

    The American reticence in using the word puzzles me though, especially as toilet once upon a time referred to washing/cleansing (as in toilet water), and a reticence surely only leads to a never ending chase through a long line of altered meanings. The most oblique reference I heard was someone asking to avail themselves of the facilities.

    My worst nightmares always involve toilets with problems…

  9. The Other Clark says:

    Mexico has a soiled-paper-in-the-can tradition, which was really gross, but I guess the plumbing wasn’t up to it. It was better than the two-holer outhouses that were not uncommon in rural Mexico, even in the 1990s. Which is, in turn, better than the one-holer my companion had to use when Montezuma’s revenge caught up to him at an appointment. He threw back the blanket door of the outhouse and was horrified to find it in use by the family’s teenage daughter. By this point, the need was extremely urgent so the best he could do was a nearby big cactus for privacy. He returned to the house with only one sock.

  10. My only experience with Japanese public toilets was at Narita airport near Tokyo where we made connections to and from Manila. Suffice it to say that all the electronic flourishes and settings were fascinating, all accompanied with the ubiquitous symbols meant to transcend language differences.

  11. annegb: my mother grew up during the depression in rural Illinois, and they did not have indoor plumbing some of that time. She told me they used to use the Sears & Roebuck catalog for paper, and even worse, a dried out corn cob tied on a string. When people say they wish they had lived in pioneer times, I always think of that corn cob. No thanks.

    fbitsi: noted.

  12. Angela C, don’t listen, this is my favorite BCC post of all time. But it brings up so many questions for a naive toilet user. Is there an open Reddit thread or something where I can ask all my specific “how does that logistically work” questions? Because the magic wand on the Toto Washlet is both fascinating and a little frightening to me, depending on where it plans on going.

  13. In the course of a Civil War reenactment, I have used a corncob. While not pleasant, it isn’t as bad as you might think, if you go with the grain. :)

  14. stargazer says:

    We were on a family trip and came across a remote historic outhouse/dunny… After having tried to convince our several children to pee behind some rocks with no success, my sister commandeered the outhouse and let the four little kids pee…

  15. Squat toilets are seriously underrated. Once you’ve cleaned one you’ll never want to go back to a nasty western-style toilet. A decent outhouse with a real floor and a squat toilet is the very best of all. We had both the decent outhouse and a western toilet at one house, but I could never convince the rest of the family to switch to the outhouse.

  16. melodynew says:

    I don’t even know what to say, except, I’m not worthy. I bow to your toilet prowess. Maybe I should add that my girly-girl daughter served her mission in Fiji. Prior to that time she was a total priss. Afterwards, she could kill chickens with her bare hands, kick obnoxious dogs like a pro, and pee or poop anywhere, anytime. The world is a wonderful place. Thanks for this lively and informative memoir.

  17. In Cairo, my friend and I got on a bus leaving the city into the countryside just to see where it would go. We stopped at a rest stop a couple hours later. The restroom was like a closet with no window and no light and a hole in the floor. After shutting the door, I had to just guess as to where the hole was and it was hard to squat -my feet kept sliding on something slick on the floor. About that time, we decided it would be best to just get on the return bus back.

  18. Geoff - A says:

    The water level on toilets in the US is too high (can dip your hand in it accidentally) much lower most other places. European public toilets have a brush and so are usually cleaner (who would steal a used toilet brush anyway)
    I have seen but not used a rounded brick in a bucket of water (lasts longer than paper) in Zimbabwe.
    The most exciting toilet experience I’ve had was a Heathrow Airport. I left my wife in the queue for the ladies and was standing at the urinals in the mens when 4 model like French girls came in, a couple used the toilet cubicles while the others stood at the hand basins and fixed their appearance in the mirrors behind me. It was not a problem for them so I coped.

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    I want you to know you motivated me to google how to actually use a bidet, as I’ve never had the foggiest idea.

  20. Sally: Your story reminded me of something that happened when we were in Tunisia. We were stopped at Bursa Hill overlooking Carthage for a restroom and photo taking stop. It was during Ramadan, so the snack bars weren’t even open (a blessing in retrospect, although I would have gladly overpaid for a diet coke), and it was getting toward the end of the day. My husband noticed that the men’s room had loose electric wires hanging down from the ceiling and the floor was wet with presumably a mix of water and urine. We decided to wait to go to the bathroom. The tour guide on the next tour bus after ours was killed, electrocuted in that same men’s room because a live wire fell down into the wet floor he was standing on at the urinal.

  21. Amen to moviesandmangoes. This is a great post! Thanks for sharing all your experiences and observations, Angela C. Fascinating stuff!

    I don’t recall the source, but I read that squat toilets are supposed to be better for you because they make it easier to go, and so you’re less likely to get constipated and/or strain muscles.

  22. Ha, who would have thought that there was so much to say about toilets? I recently complained about squatter toilets on my blog, and you’re right: I talked about the muscle-flexing (while relaxing and while grabbing paper and keeping my pants from touching the floor). I was greatly amused that some toilets in Japan have a button for a flushing sound to cover up your own sounds. Ha ha ha.

  23. Twenty-two comments and only one was anal. Well done!

  24. Antonio Parr says:

    BCC meets NPR.

    Really fascinating post.

  25. In Germany, I used a self-cleaning public bathroom. The entire room–walls, floor, toilet, sink–was sprayed with a very strong disinfectant after each user. This is great for cleanliness, but the timers and sensors required to run everything didn’t work quite right on this particular bathroom. The door would unlock, lock, unlock, then I would hear the spraying begin when the timer on the door clearly indicated it was not supposed to. I was in desperate need, so when the door finally remained unlocked long enough to slip in, I ignored the multiple glitches and did my business, praying the disinfectant cycle wouldn’t begin until I was done and out the door. I still think that was one of my luckiest moments.

  26. Ha, so interesting!! Thanks!

    I lived in west Africa for a while and the toilets were pretty normal, although it was BYOTP. I did pick up a few things. First, imagine you’re faced with a flush toilet but there’s no running water. Unless you have an army of brooms, don’t pour buckets of water into the tank!! Just dump a couple gallons straight into the toilet bowl until the water clears. Trust me, it takes less water and is much more effective. For some reason, it took me ages to figure this out. Second, squatting is pretty great. At home I don’t squat very often, but in Africa (where most of the toilets are grimy and don’t have seats) I’d squat all of the time. I never slipped and it seemed a lot more hygienic. I also found that squatting seems to help with certain types of “difficult elimination.”

  27. I live in Tokyo and use the starship-grade washlet toilets everyday (home and work)…an unconfessed guilty pleasure that sparks Freudian musings about myself and my adopted culture every time.

  28. Meldrum the Less says:

    A unforgettable toilet story circulated in my mission in Japan. About 30 years later I ran across an account of it (on the Internet on one of those sites we are admonished to avoid) written by a fellow missionary gone a bit sour. This discussion led me to discover that it is still there. I do not want to tamper with the literary quality too much but I have taken the liberty of cleaning up the foul language, a little.

    Sitters, Squatters and Ploppers – Celestial Sewers in Japan

    11/22/2001 – from Wadding through 10 years of missionary sh–.

    Three types of toilets were in use in Japan when I served my mission in the mid 1970’s know affectionately as SITTERS, SQUATTERS, AND PLOPPERS. The missionaries in Japan used the word “benny” to refer to the bathroom as it resembled the proper Japanese word “o-ben-jo,” which translated literally means “honorable convient place.”

    Sitters were basic American style toilets and I only got to use a sitter twice, the first and last time of the entire mission, because they had one at the mission home. I heard that they also had them in Tokyo and Okinawa, but there was something about the Japanese ideal of cleanliness that precluded putting your bare a– on the same surface as someone else had put their bare a–.

    Squatters were most common and were used 95% of the time. They consisted of a white porcelain trench below the surface of the floor about 30 inches long, 12 inches wide and 8 inches deep. A lip on one end prevented back-splash from the drain hole going down. The water trickled out a hole in the other end. To use it you had to put on the special benny room slippers with slick soles when entering the room, straddle the trench first, pull your pants around your ankles, and get your garments open before you could squat and let it fly. The dangers of the squatter were multitude. First you were tempted to sit on the lip which was strictly forbidden because if you didn’t get yourself sat down exactly right you’d find that you had shat on the floor. You could stumble or loose your balance and fall in at any point, especially if you dropped your pants first and then tried to straddle it. Most embarassing was that you could quite easily sh–in your own pants around your ankles if your aim wasn’t very good.

    In order to avoid all these problems I just ignored the benny slippers, took my pants off completely and then my old one piece garments which meant I had to take off my shirt and tie. It was such a hassle that I trained my bowels and didn’t eat any more than absolutely necessary so I only had to go to the benny about once or twice a week.

    This one companion would lay these 18 inch long logs down that were about 5 inches in diameter and the water couldn’t even come close to washing them away. So he just let them start to stack up. When I mentioned that the room was really starting to stink and was he planning to build a bonfire with them or what, he took the pancake flipper and just nudged them on their way. I believe that he truely washed that flipper but I have never eaten another pancake since then.

    The ploppers were only used in very old buildings and I had the priviledge of one for about 2 months. They were basically about the same as the squatters and used in exactly the same way. But they were just a hole in the floor that went directly into a large septic tank below with no pipe to get clogged.

    The stench was over-powering. The zoology was equally facinating. Large swarms of flies would rush out of the hole at the first plop and hundreds would swish against your bare a–. Nine inch long sh—eating cockroaches danced the floor. Spiders the size of a softball lurked in the corners above the mountains of dung. Various beetles and wasps could been seen. And the ocassional big black sewer rat might be splashing around below. Could they jump up and take a nip out of a missionary’s —-? Who knows.

    My companion and district leader in that place with the plopper was the typical hard-core, goal obsessed, numbers crazy, ambitious, brown-nosing pompous self-righteous a–hole of a missionary. One day he was squatting over the plopper when his precious appointment book fell out of his back pocket, and down down down onto the peak of poop. That book contained irreplaceable information like the names, addresses, phone numbers, and appointment times of about twenty golden investigators, along with crucial financial information and branch statistics. This was a spiritual emergency. We had to recover that book.

    We tried everything; coat hangers, broom handles, etc., but it was too far down. We noticed that the tank extended out beyond the wall of the building into an alley where it was accessed by a small man-hole cover. We easily pried it off.

    Honorable District Leader determined that Elder Lund, the other Junior companion would have to go in for it. His companion, Elder Fatso (I’ve forgotten his name) and I had to wrestle him to the ground and literally force him into the hole. At the last second we thought, what if its say, thirty feet deep and he drowns in there? So we found a rope and tied it around his waist and then pushed him down into the septic tank. I helped because I knew that if he failed I was next. Elder Fatso didn’t fit and my companion would never do it as long as he could get someone else to do it.

    The muck was only about 4 to 5 feet deep so Elder Lund didn’t need the rope, but he was completely submerged in it initially. He soon got to the sacred appointment book and tried to throw it up through the hole a few times before he finally got it through. He hit my companion on the side of the leg with it. My companion swore at him. “Don’t get that sh– on me you filthy bas—d!”

    My companion began the translation process immediately, from sh– covered English into clean English. Elder Fatso and I tried to hoist Elder Lund out of the septic tank and we couldn’t do it. The flimsy rope snapped. Elder Lund began to crack up, he had been crying all along. But he started to scream hysterically and he hit Elder Fatso in the side of the head with a handfull of sh–.

    A small audience of neighbors began to gather. Generally the Japanese ignore us as much as possible. Sh– was flying up out of the man hole and all over the surrounding buildings amid hellish screams and wails. My companion stuck his head out the window and suggested that we take this opportunity to teach the gathering multitude the gospel. So Elder Fatso began with the usual worn out line, that we represent the …… and have come all the way from America to deliver an important message to you about…About that moment another handfull of sh– sailed past. This was more than even the patient Japanese could ignore.

    A ninety year old Granny (oba-san) stepped forward and demanded that we explain. She couldn’t have been much over 4 feet tall and 70 lbs. She hobbled back to the loosened manhole cover and the hole and she was very surprized to see Elder Lund down there gone completely crazy. She took command and ordered a couple of young guys off in two directions. Soon sirens were heard and the Fire Department arrived. They ran up the alley. Where is the fire? The last thing Elder Lund needed was another 6 inches of water in there. Then the benny wagon arrived. This was a small truck with a tank and a pump and several big black hoses. The truck was lime green and played music like the ice cream trucks in America.

    The first two benny guys in rubber hip boots couldn’t figure out how to get Elder Lund out. So they called in a papa benny guy. He quickly evaluated the scene and disappeared. He came back with a 16 foot long thick pipe with thick bolts in it, like a one legged ladder. We put it down the hole and Elder Lund was able to climb out. Then the fire department hosed him down. The pressure was a little high and it knocked him to the ground but they turned it down. Then Granny made them cut his cloths off and put them in a big plastic bag and she personally disposed of it. “My garments, my garments,…” he shouted in vain.

    Then Granny deceided all three of us needed more hosing down along with the rest of the alley. After that a blanket appeared for Elder Lund. Finally, Granny marched the three of us to the bath house with the help of six neighborhood junior sumo wrasslers. We went in, stripped, (all nine of us) and she stood there, not more than two feet away and made sure that we really scrubbed thoroughly. All this time she was lecturing to us and I couldn’t understand most of it except that she said over and over that Japan was a clean country and I learned the word in Japanese for sh–.

    My companion hid in the house and was furious with us for leaving him alone, for loosing the garments, and for us being with a member of the opposite sex, naked. Even if she was ninety years old. Elder Lund was still in shock and probably should have been checked into the nut house. Elder Fatso gave him a blessing and was inspired to tell him that he had done something greater than giving his life for the Kingdom. Because of the exceptional service he had performed, his calling and election were made sure that day. No matter what sins he committed in the future, he would inherit the celestial glory in the next life. This made Elder Lund feel better.

    A couple days later my companion was feeling sort of bad that he didn’t have such an “easy” opportunity to have his calling and election made sure. Elders Fatso, Lund and I looked at each other and then out the window to the alley. And the possibility did cross our minds… But the benny wagon had sucked it all out while we were at the bath house. And we didn’t want to face Granny’s wrath again. Of course they sent us a huge bill we couldn’t possibly pay and so we had to explain it all to the mission president. And it reflected badly on my companion so that he never made zone leader because of it.

    In the end, I learned that, other than crazy Elder Lund, most missionaries don’t really know sh-.

  29. Funniest thing I’ve read in a long time. Thanks.
    (Ziff: On the subject of squatting advantages, google “Squatty Potty.”)

  30. Geoff - A says:

    On a more serious note are dual flush toilets in general use in US yet? From the internet I gather older US toilets use up to 7 gallons/ flush. New ones use 1.3 gallons/ flush.
    Dual flush toilets are required in Australia and use 1.2 gals. for a big flush and 0.8 galls for a small flush.
    When you realise that the water used for flushing toilets is treated to drinking standard, and even with dual flush toilets in use, 27% of the water used is flushed down the toilet, this is as big environmental issue.

  31. Another Japan missionary can attest to both the squatters and the wizardry that exists in the places that must not be named.

    I put on a little weight when I finally transferred from Sapporo (modern city with mostly sitters – and the first time I saw and used a bidet with multiple controls) to Nemuro (small village on the southeastern coast of Hokkaido – where I’m not sure there was a modern sitter in the entire town). Let’s just say my insides weren’t accustomed to being aligned as required to use a squatter. My body finally adjusted, but that was a difficult and painful week.

    My companion and I used the toilets in a large department store in Sapporo once and were shocked to enter the room and see that it was divided into male and female sides, with everyone entering through the same doorway. The stalls on both sides had walls that were high enough to provide privacy, but the urinals were exposed to the entire room – and, as uninitiated Mormon missionaries, we couldn’t bring ourselves to use the urinals. Ironically, that meant we had to stand in the common area and watch more females enter the room, which also was uncomfortable in our extreme naivete.

    On the bright side, that was the experience that allowed me to sample the wonders of the bidet I mentioned above, so, overall, it was a good experience at the time.

  32. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    Squatters are easier to clean…..hmmm, never seemed to cross my 20 year old missionary mind that cleaning them was necessary. One of the nice finds in homes of Japanese investigators was the convenience of a mens urinal built in in addition to a toilet. So convenient and puts an end to the ‘put the lid down’ arguments. Any Japan RM’s hear the mission lore about the cruel trainer giving the green companion money and telling him to chase the music-playing septic pump trumps to buy ice cream? (The truck’s music is similar to the American ice cream trucks that used to roam our streets). Fortunately, I never heard of any Elder actually playing this prank on a missionary during my mission time.

  33. Geoff-A: Newer toilets in the US are starting to come with dual flush options. I agree, much better for the environment. Now, if we could only get garbage disposals in the majority of households in Australia. If you don’t have one of those, you don’t know what you are missing!

  34. As any late-fall or wintertime deer hunter knows, the squatting position is healthier, opens up the bowels better to facilitate easier elimination, and the angle of the plumbing involved means you don’t usually fill your drawers. But there’s always that first moment of nervousness. I recommend the classic tome, “a href=””>How To S**t In The Woods, for those desiring further details.

  35. Oops. Someone feel free to edit my html on that last one.

  36. On some US submarines the toilets are, of course, western style albeit stainless steel. The trick is they don’t flush like regular toilets. You must operate a series of valves. Done incorrectly and you can easily end up spraying pressurized water …and other stuff…out of the bowl.

  37. Just this afternoon listened to this interesting program about toilets, and their design for the 21st century, especially for the developing world (

  38. Nobody Special says:

    Finally a subject worthy of serious consideration in this forum.

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