I’ve had the pleasure and the honor of living in Japan on three separate occasions: Twice in high school for summer-vacation homestays in Hiroshima, and once in college for my junior year in an apartment in Kyoto. I kept extensive journals of my time over there, and I sent the majority of the content of those journals home to family and friends in the form of weekly e-mails. Most of what I wrote was less than riveting, but there are a few stories that stand out in my mind as worth telling again. Some of them, like the following story, have never been written down before. This is the Toilet Police Story.
During my second semester of my junior year abroad in Kyoto, I became friends with a ragtag group of Japanese kids. They were really cool—they weren’t like the Japanese kids who hung out at my school, poaching us Americans for free English practice. This kids were called furitaa; kids who had bucked the school system, eschewing higher education for lower-paying jobs and more time to have fun.
On this particular night in late February ’02, I was hanging out with this group of friends at one of their grandmother’s apartments. Why there? I have no idea. I guess it was a central location for all of them, and their grandmother was cool with us hanging out there. We were drinking and carrying on, and at one point I excused myself to go to the bathroom.
If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know about the marvel that is the Japanese toilet. There are buttons for everything—heated seats, bidets, dryers, and most importantly, the flush button. It’s not a lever, it’s a button. For some reason, in that apartment, the flush button—labeled “push”—was on the wall next to the toilet. So when I was done, I pushed the button and turned to wash my hands.
At that moment, I heard this siren go off outside of the bathroom. It took me a second to realize that it was related to the button I had just pushed, which I also realized had not actually flushed the toilet. So I pushed it again, and the alarm went off.
I was pretty sure I had done something wrong and that some special Japanese police unit I didn’t know about—the titular Toilet Police—were going to show up at the door in a few minutes. Much to my surprise, when I exited the bathroom, I found my Japanese friends looking at me in alarm and concern. They asked if I was okay.
I assured them I was fine.
So why, one of them asked, had I pressed the emergency button?
I think one of the others realized from my confused look that I didn’t know what was going on. They explained to me that because this was a special apartment building made for geriatrics, every bathroom had a panic button in case they needed help. So while they were playing drinking games in the next room over, their American friend (me) had set off the alarm. I wonder what they were thinking when the alarm went off. Surely they didn’t think that I had gotten into any toilet-related emergency.
I later apologized to the grandmother, who seemed unfazed by the whole thing, as if she had Americans getting stuck in her bathroom on a daily basis.
So the lesson here for all of you is if you ever end up in a geriatric apartment building in Japan, don’t push the “push” button on the wall. Just flush like everybody else.