Friday, August 8, 2014

Flushing Toilets

There is an interesting phenomenon of bathroom etiquette in Japan that was so foreign to me that after several months I finally had to google it to confirm my inkling.  At least in women's restrooms, women cover the sound of urination by flushing the toilet.  Apparently this was such a waste of water that in the 1980's Japan created an electronic sound device to play the sound of flushing water.  But in some toilets, there isn't one, so people still flush.

I'm not sure if this is done as a courtesy or a comfort.  It's not a practice that I've felt inclined to adopt and I hope that I'm not offending anyone by that choice.  But today I realized that this small little practice is another cultural boundary.  Generally speaking, it is something that Japanese women do, not something that western women do.  I don't feel beholden to the practice; but today I realized that against all rationale and reason, against my western feelings about bathroom etiquette, against my ideals of equality and openness, against my principals of care for the environment, I could understand how it might seem a little brash if a Japanese woman didn't do it.  My time in Japan had constructed a box in my mind about behavior, about expectation.  After two years of an established routine, of noticing that often (though not always) women flush the toilet while urinating if another person is present, I have come to expect it.  It has become a definition, a characteristic, an aspect of identity to which I can relate.  How many other little things are there that I expect as a part of general behavior?  Does my expectation influence the continuation of this and all the other practices that go unidentified?

Would it be possible to live in a world without expectation, where everyone was free to act as they wished?  It would seem that there are certain practices that do help us live with one another: not stealing what isn't ours, following rules for safety, avoiding violence against one another.  (Oddly enough, some of the basics of this group courtesy seemed to be transgressed by people daily or governments in general.)  But at some point there may be a line where common practice is not rational or reasonable, where people act out of habit and have become expected to do so.  Is there any harm in this?  Do we have control of this inertia?  Is it the world that constrains us or ourselves?

I'm complicit in these constraints, but I hope that by realizing my expectations I can be open to relinquishing them.  Perhaps it is a Sisyphean effort, but I think the practice is worthy.  In Japan, where cultural differences are present but often unspoken, there is a unique opportunity to explore expectation, otherness, and assumption.  I think these qualities are present between any two people or groups of people, no matter how close they are, but it can be so easy to allow practice to continue unchecked and unquestioned.  How much closer can we become to one another if we assume less?  How much more can we discover in ourselves and others?

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