Going abroad is full of new encounters, customs, and traditions. One unavoidable encounter with the unknown resides in the bathroom: the foreign toilet. Anyone who’s ever been to Japan, for example, will immediately understand how heeding the call of nature can turn into an adventure. There, the more upscale toilets are entirely automated, with the luxury models offering more features.
The simplest versions include a jet stream of water pointed towards your nether regions (strength and aim adjustable) and a drying function to finish off the job. In the more advanced models, you’ll find a button that imitates the sound of a toilet flushing, the solution to the excess of water wasted because the Japanese kept flushing to mask the sounds of bodily functions. The strangest of the Japanese electric toilets I encountered included a remote control. I’m still not entirely sure in what situation you would find it necessary to entrust the power to spray and blow dry your privates to another person standing metres away.
Slavoj Zizek finds his own examples of the cultural codes inherent within an object as banal and mundane as the porcelain throne:
In a traditional German toilet, the hole in which shit disappears after we flush water is way up front, so that shit is first laid out for us to sniff at and inspect for any illness; in the typical French toilet the hole is far to the back, so that shit may disappear as soon as possible; finally, the American toilet presents a kind of synthesis, a mediation between these two opposed poles – the toilet basin is full of water, so that the shit floats in it, visible, but not to be inspected. No wonder that, in the famous discussion of different European toilets at the beginning of her half-forgotten Fear of Flying, Erica Jong mockingly claims that ‘German toilets are really the key to the horrors of the Third Reich. People who can build toilets like this are capable of anything.’ It is clear that none of these versions can be accounted for in purely utilitarian terms: a certain ideological perception of how the subject should relate to the clearly unpleasant excrement that comes from within our body is clearly discernable in it.
Zizek, Slavoj. How to Read Lacan. London: Granta Books, 2006