BlogTV Japan: The Social Life of Public Toilets

BlogTV is back on the air after a lengthy hiatus, while I upgraded the video delivery system. I am pleased to bring to you another strange video from FujiTV News in Japan (8min 50sec in Japanese with Japanese subtitles only) that explores the enigma of Japanese toilets.

Perhaps nothing in Japan inspires more curiousity than toilets. Everyone knows that Japanese toilets are somehow different, but there are a few misconceptions about the subject. Many people have the strange idea that Japan is a land of high-tech toilets, but that is a misconception. According to Japanese census data, it was only within the last decade that over 50% of all toilets were Western-style toilets. Until very recently, Japanese toilets were predominantly the Japanese-style squat toilets, which are not much more than a trench in the ground. Census data still shows that as many as 35% of all toilets in Japan are not hooked up to sanitary sewers, they are merely hooked up to holding tanks that must be emptied by a “honey wagon,” a tanker truck that comes around periodically to siphon off the sewage. Much to the chagrin of hapless foreigners, it is quite common to find oneself in a position where no familiar Western toilet is available, only a squat toilet. However, for the Japanese, it is also possible for someone who has never used anything but a squat toilet to find only Western toilets and not know how to use them. Even when both styles of toilets are available, many people prefer the Japanese style, since that is what they used since they were a child.

And this is where our video begins. A classroom full of kindergartners is assembled on their first day of school for an important lesson: how to use the school’s new Western toilets. Some of these children grew up in traditional homes and have never seen such a thing. The teacher explains to the giggling children how to use the new toilets, and takes the children on a tour of the newly remodeled facilities. The children love the new toilets, declaring them beautiful, and in fact, they are practically palaces of porcelain compared to typical school toilets. One student says the old toilets were stinky and he never liked to use them.

And here is the crux of our video. We switch scenes and enter the Ministry of Science and Education, where a spokesman declares that the poor quality of toilets in schools is becoming an obstacle to the education and socialization of children. Japan must not allow itself to fall behind in public toilet facilities, so the Ministry is announcing an expensive new program to upgrade toilets in all schools throughout Japan.

Let us tour some of these new facilities, starting with an elementary school in Kanazawa prefecture in north central Japan. The cameraman lingers on a crude copy of Rodin’s famous sculpture “The Thinker,” but his squatting merely foreshadows the sights we will view inside the school. We approach the newly upgraded facilities, painted a bright blue, and the announcer directs our attention to the distinctive “tokonoma,” a typically Japanese architectural feature of an inset shelf where an artistic display can be set, in this case a vase of flowers. But perhaps the announcer is attempting to divert our attention from one strange feature, a large mirror on the boys’ bathroom that allows us to see all the way into the room. There is no such mirror on the girls’ side. Inside the room, we see the ceiling mural of blue sky and white clouds, to evoke a peaceful, restful setting. A group of girls assembles and one says, “It doesn’t seem like a school bathroom!”

Let’s visit another school in Gunma Prefecture. This school has a different color scheme, but the design is even more modern. A high-tech washlet is available, as well as self-flushing urinals. But not all toilets in the school have been modernized. We see another bathroom that is more typical of the old style, with rusting steel sinks and grungy tile walls and floors. Students again express their disgust for the decaying old bathrooms.

But the Ministry of Science and Education’s toilet initiative is not designed just for convenience, it must enhance social interaction. So the new toilets are designed with benches out front, where the students can lounge around between classes. We watch through a telephoto lens from a far distance, and we see a gaggle of girls headed to the head together. They don’t enter to use the toilets, they sit out front and chat with each other. Even the teachers get into the act, chatting with small groups of boys and girls. The bathrooms have become a center of social activity within the school.

The toilets even have a unique educational component. We watch as a group of students learn how to help the disabled use the “barrier-free” bathroom. The students take turns roleplaying, learning to lift each other on and off the toilet. Perhaps some good will come from these able-bodied students learning how difficult it can be for the disabled to perform some of the most basic bodily functions, they may learn to empathize with others who are less fortunate than themselves.

Let us now travel off to another school in Mie Prefecture. This school’s bathrooms have not yet been upgraded, so we will be able to observe this most typically Japanese process of planning a public project. First, an initial site survey is performed by members of an iinkai, a committee delegated to investigate the issue. A teacher watches as the students point out their problems with the facilities. They complain about privacy, badly placed mirrors allow unobstructed views into the urinal area, the doors on the stalls do not go all the way to the ceiling so people can hop up and look over the doors. But this is merely the first step in the planning process. The full membership of the iinkai meets to prioritize the changes they would like to make.

Let’s leave the Gunma school’s preliminary iinkai and visit another school in Shiga Prefecture, to see how their upgrade process went. Eight years have gone into this plan, and with such elaborate preparations, every detail has been examined, this school’s bathrooms are the very model of a modern major upgrade. But a bathroom is mere tile and porcelain, the school principal declares that the biggest changes have come in how students think about bathrooms. And now we see the reason why, an iinkai conducted a survey of all students, to examine how they felt about the old bathrooms and what an ideal bathroom would look like. The remodeling reflects the students’ wishes, so students now feel like the bathrooms were created just for them. And in any public school, the bathrooms’ maintenance and cleaning is the responsibility of the students, so if the students don’t care about their toilets, they will not be responsible citizens and take proper measures to insure their cleanliness. We see how the students fastidiously clean the facilities, even leaving signs taped to the wall to admonish everyone to keep the place neat and tidy. Anyone who would dare to defile these porcelain halls would be wagamama, a selfish person who does not obey the social norms that are expected of every citizen. A teenage girl says it is the responsibility of the senior students to teach their juniors the proper attitudes towards the toilets, and the school’s principal proudly declares that the students will always treasure their memories of their time spent in the school’s toilets.

And as we close, the announcer repeats the central lesson of the Ministry of Science and Education’s toilet initiative. A change in the toilets also changes the attitudes of the students that use them. A remodeling of the facilities has given the students new opportunities for socialization, both through the iinkai process of development, and through the new social space created in accordance with everyone’s desires.

BlogTV: Men Are From Mars, Maharishi Is From Uranus

Threats of libel lawsuits are once again running across the blog world. An Irish blogger, Gavin, has been threatened with a cease-and-desist letter from the lawyer of John Gray, author of the pop psychology book “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.”

“Dr.” John Gray seems to have taken offense when Gavin described him as a “fraud” after reading his educational credentials. None of Gray’s degrees come from accredited universities. His PhD comes from a defunct school that had a reputation as a diploma mill. Even more interesting are his alleged B.A. and M.A. degrees, from Maharishi European Research University.

Now here we are entering my home turf. In the 1970s, Maharishi’s unaccredited schools in Europe were closed and a new campus, Maharishi International University, was established at Fairfield, Iowa, about 25 miles from my home. It took a few years, but somehow the tiny college managed to get accreditation recognized by the US Department of Education. But it is possible to get a degree from an accredited college and still be a fraud.

The Maharishi’s Trancendental Meditation cultists are well known in the local community as crackpots and lunatics. Recently they have become notorious for razing historic old buildings on their campus (the former site of Parson’s College) because they did not conform to precepts of Vedic architecture, for example, the toilets did not face north (no, I am not kidding). But Maharishi University’s notoriety comes largely from the course they consider their highest teaching, levitation. The largest building on campus is known as the “Golden Dome,” normal people would describe it as a gymnasium, except this building’s sole function is to provide a place for practicing levitation. Here is a short video that appeared on the local news show from KCRG-TV, showing Maharishi University students demonstrating levitation inside the Golden Dome.

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Now any rational person would not recognize this as “yogic flying” or “levitation,” they’d call it “hopping up and down on your butt.” There is nothing yogic about this whatsoever except that you sit in the Lotus Position. But the Maharishi cultists claim it is physically impossible to hop while seated in the Lotus Position, any upward motion comes from supernatural forces. Balderdash.

But deluded people come from around the world, and pay tens of thousands of dollars to be trained in this balderdash. It is part of the Trancendental Meditation Sidhi Course, which is supposed to confer supernatural powers, such as levitation, omniscience, invisibility, superhuman strength, teleportation, etc. And the primary reason Maharishi University was created was to teach the Sidhi Course. In order to gain accreditation, they must also teach other courses in math, science, etc., but those courses are always described as Vedic Science, Vedic Math, etc. and are all merely preparatory studies for the Sidhi Course. Somehow I doubt these courses are as worthwhile as regular science and math courses at conventional universities.

But let us return to the issue of John Gray and his fraudulent educational credentials. It must be obvious to anyone who watches the “levitation” video that John Gray’s B.A. and M.A. degrees from Maharishi Research University of Europe are worthless. I have suggested to Gavin that he issue a retraction of his statement asserting Gray is a fraud, if Gray will publicly demonstrate levitation to him, in person. Alternately, Gray could demonstrate any Sidhi Power, such as invisibility or teleportation. That way we all can assess whether Gray passed his Sidhi Course at Maharishi University and accept his degree as legitimate. Unless Mr. Gray can produce a convincing demonstration of the Sidhi Powers he learned at Maharishi University, we will all know he is a fraud.

BlogTV: The Black Phone

BlogTV presents another fascinating look at a Japan in a time of technological change. This story (5min44sec, Japanese subtitles only) comes from FujiTV, and the video is of fairly good quality.

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Our video starts with an intriguing question from little Satomi, age 11. She writes to FujiTV inquiring, “what’s a kurodenwa, a black telephone?” So a reporter is dispatched to investigate the question. Japan is a land of rapid technological development, perhaps nothing has evolved as quickly as the telephone. In the past, telephones were only available from the national phone company NTT. Phone functions were easily distinquished by their color, for example, green phones were pay phones, and even today most pay phones are green. But what was a kurodenwa?

We start by investigating Satomi’s home, where we see her family’s phone is a huge modern multifunction phone/answering machine/FAX device with a big radio antenna, presumably it also has several wireless extension phones. The reporter starts her search for a kurodenwa at a local electronics shop. We see dozens of variations on modern desk telephones, some of the phones are colored black, but the salesman admits that he does not have any kurodenwa. Obviously it isn’t the color that makes a phone a black phone.

Let’s go straight to the top. Our reporter interviews a corporate executive at NTT who says that kurodenwa were discontinued 18 years ago, long before little Satomi was even born. An executive at NEC brings out the modern equivalent of the kurodenwa, an ugly reddish-beige phone with a touch-tone dial. Even the NEC executive admits this isn’t what we’re looking for.

Our reporter, as usual, sets out for some man-in-the-street interviews searching for a kurodenwa owner. She searches from morning until night before finding an owner, and long after the sun has set, we follow him back to his restaurant in search of the phone. He climbs up and rummages around a storage cubbyhole, and pulls out a plastic bag containing a dirty, discarded kurodenwa. And now we see the distinguising feature, what makes it a kurodenwa, it has a rotary dial. The reporter fondles it and seems to recoil at the dirty, greasy surface of the ancient artifact. But this phone isn’t in active use today, we see the restaurant’s phone, it’s just like any other modern phone.

Let’s search a little harder and try to find a kurodenwa in active use. Our reporter shrieks in delight as she discovers another kurodenwa at another old restaurant, this one is hooked up. We hear the feeble ring tone of the ancient relic, yes, this phone actually works! The owner asserts the old style of phone resists the grease that inevitably clogs up machinery in any restaurant. We see the cash register, completely wrapped in plastic to keep the grease out, they just don’t make machines like they used to. Some middle-aged restaurant patrons express their love for the old kurodenwa, it makes them nostalgic for the old days when everyone had one. But as the cook scrambles to answer the phone for an order, we can see we are intruding into their busy work schedule, so we take our leave of this establishment, and set off to find another kurodenwa.

In another interview on the street, we find a kindly old lady, aged 79, who admits she still uses a kurodenwa. The reporter arranges for little Satomi to visit and experience the old woman’s phone firsthand. She says you have to take your time using the old dial phones, so you don’t make any mistakes, this isn’t a phone for people in a hurry. When Satomi is brought into the room to see the phone, she seems to be in shock, she can only mutter sugoi, sugoi! (it’s cool). Satomi tries to phone her mother at home, and on her first attempt, dials a wrong number. Oops! On the second try, she connects, and tells her mother honto ni, kakerareta, she really dialed the phone. Satomi says honto ni mawashitara kakerareta, it really rotates when it dials, and also expresses her surprise that it has a real bell when it rings. The kindly old lady laughs in amusement that her plain old telephone is such a curiosity to the modern generation of kids. The young girl, the old woman, and the reporter all give a short bow towards the phone, expressing their respect for this antique kurodenwa that has given faithful service for decades.

My Appearance on CNN’s Crossfire

I just appeared on CNN’s Crossfire. If you don’t believe me, you can see my sign clearly in this video, even if you can’t see me clearly.

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The moment I heard Crossfire was coming to Iowa City, I knew I had to attend, and make an attempt to jam the show with my own cryptic sort of message. I have been incensed at Tucker Carlson for a week or so, ever since the “Argyle Incident.” Tucker devoted an opening segment on Crossfire to General Wesley Clark wearing an argyle sweater at a campaign appearance in New Hampshire. Tucker tried to make political points from Clark’s wardrobe change from a suit to a sweater, he claimed it was an attempt to soften Clark’s image and appeal to women voters. Just a week before Tucker’s analysis of Clark’s wardrobe, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman published rules for serious journalistic coverage of the upcoming election:

Don’t talk about clothes. Al Gore’s endorsement of Howard Dean was a momentous event: the man who won the popular vote in 2000 threw his support to a candidate who accuses the president of wrongfully taking the nation to war. So what did some prominent commentators write about? Why, the fact that both men wore blue suits.

This was not, alas, unusual. I don’t know why some journalists seem so concerned about politicians’ clothes as opposed to, say, their policy proposals. But unless you’re a fashion reporter, obsessing about clothes is an insult to your readers’ intelligence.

And of course, Tucker ignored this sage advice and decided to insult our intelligence by writing about Clark’s clothes. Suddenly Clark’s argyle sweater was the subject of intense scrutiny from other so-called journalists. Clark finally had to respond to these ridiculous criticisms by declaring it was cold so he borrowed a sweater from his brother-in-law. So much for analyzing his wardrobe for political significance.

But once Tucker gushed forth, the dam broke and political reporters are back to their usual stupid reporting of irrelevancies. So I produced a huge sign just for Tucker:

Report Issues Not Argyle Sweaters

Of course, none of the college students had any idea what the sign meant, so I had to repeatedly explain about the Argyle Incident. I managed to catch Paul Begala’s eye as he was standing around getting ready for the show. He saw the sign, pointed to me and laughed, then I turned it around to the other side and he really laughed and gave me a thumbs-up. Tucker was hiding in the bus, but when he came out, I caught his eye too. He was squinting and trying to read the sign, he had a puzzled look like he was trying to figure out what it meant. So I turned it around to show him the other side:

Tucker Wears Army Boots

Tucker’s eyes opened wide, and he stuck out his tongue at me. And it’s true, yesterday Tucker appeared on camera wearing tan Army-issue combat boots that he got during his brief tour of Iraq. But today he was wearing black dress shoes so I guess he didn’t get it. Nothing could demonstrate more clearly that Republicans have no sense of humor.

About 10 minutes before the show was scheduled to go live, I noticed the second camera was taping “sweep shots” of the crowd. As the show started, I could see on the monitor that they replayed a crowd shot from tape. So in case you thought the crowd shots in these “live” shows were actually live, you thought wrong. I guess they wanted to insure that nothing live actually happened on camera, they picked the shot they wanted and replayed it from tape. So if you want to appear in a crowd on Crossfire outdoor taping, you better get there early.

As the show was wrapping up, I noticed a CNN producer lining up a group of people with signs in an area that was roped off. The producer picked only young blonde women, I guess she only wanted “camera-friendly” crowd shots. So I decided to get into that shot. The CNN producer snarled at me in a thick British accent, “get OUT of this shot! You were already in our sweep shot!” I was astonished that CNN’s US election news was being stage-managed by a foreigner. I yelled back at her, “this sign isn’t for the camera, it’s for YOU, Miss CNN Producer, why can’t you report the ISSUES instead of the candidate’s CLOTHING?” She snarled back “we’ll talk about it after the show,” and walked away. Yeah right.

After the show, Tucker immediately retreated to the CNN bus, but Paul stayed behind and talked to a few people from the crowd. He was beseiged by campaign workers trying to shove sheafs of papers into his hand. Miss CNN Producer tried to pull him away, it was my last shot so I said, “Paul, why didn’t you call Tucker out when he did that stupid report on Clark’s argyle sweater?” Paul said, “I did call him on it!” I replied, “Surely you read Krugman’s recent essay on political reporting, he said to cover the issues not the wardrobe. Since Tucker’s report, the news has been full of stories on argyle and earth tones. It’s your job to keep Tucker honest!” Paul laughed, and said, “I’ll do my best. By the way, that’s a great sign.” And then he ran off back to the bus. If nothing else, he showed he’s a masterful politician, he totally took the wind out of my sails by fully agreeing with me, and complimented me in the process. What a performance.

The crowd disbanded, I went back to my car, totally frozen from standing around in the cold for an hour, and drove home. Mission Accomplished.

BlogTV: The Japanese Tooth Fairy

BlogTV is back on the air with another fascinating tale of ancient Japanese customs adapted to the modern era. Our video (5min30sec, Japanese only) from FujiTV may not be suitable for all viewers. Warning: you may not want to watch this video if you are squeamish about seeing adults stick their appendages into their tiny childrens’ orifices, causing them to howl in pain.

Tech note: this video requires QuickTime 6, it is my first experiment in mp4 encoding, so if you have any problems watching the video, please contact me via Email.

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When a Japanese child loses a tooth, they are taught an ancient custom, “ue no ha wa en no shita e, shita no ha wa yabe no ue e nageru.” Literally translated, this means “throw your upper teeth under the floor, your lower teeth over the roof.” The idea is that the upper teeth will grow downwards towards the tooth on the ground, and the lower teeth will grow up towards the roof, and all the teeth will grow strong. This saying has some interesting linguistic and cultural aspects, the character en is the same character used for the word “karma.” En no shita also appears in other idioms that indicate something inconspicuous or unnoticed.

But of course, modern Japanese families live in different conditions than the ancient times when this custom started, which is the inspiration for today’s video. A desperate mother writes to FujiTV, she lives in a modern highrise apartment and has no way to deposit these lost teeth in the customary places. What should she do?

That annoying woman from Mesamashi Terebi is here to interview typcial modern mothers with the same predicament. How do they handle their childrens’ lost teeth? One mother brings out a small wooden box lined with cotton containing the lost teeth, plus one unidentifiable lump that presumably was removed from her child’s body. I don’t even want to speculate where this lump came from. She opens the box and proudly displays the small trophies, laid out in a line. Another mother shows her arrangements, she keeps these small parts in the glove compartment right next to the Owner’s Manual. Another mother shows how she keeps the lost teeth up on top of the refrigerator, next to her kitchen altar. We see her child bow her head in prayer for strong teeth.

Obviously these improvised disposal methods leave much to be desired, and modern times call for modern customs. Two women display wood boxes designed just for storing teeth. One box is in the shape of a tooth with a little blue cap. Another box is labeled “first teeth box,’ which contains a tooth chart with one hole to deposit each tooth, next to a spot where you must carefully write the date each tooth was lost.

It would appear that all these small rituals are more for the benefit of the mothers than the children. So let us digress and look at the problem from the child’s perspective. We watch as one family sits at the dinner table, the little girl’s front tooth is gura gura, it’s loose and can wiggle around. Dad reaches over to prod her tooth, and she howls in pain, ya da yo! It is almost time to pull the tooth, and indeed, we watch as Mom pulls the the tooth right out of the socket. The little girl proudly displays her tooth to the camera, with a big gap-toothed grin.

But this family is determined to observe the proper traditions. We set forth in a car, headed for Grandma’s house way out in the country. Grandma gushes about what a great thing it is to have lost her first tooth, she is growing up so fast. All the assembled relatives pull the child’s mouth open to inspect the empty socket, and determine that this tooth must go en no shita. And of course, Grandma’s house has a little opening in the cinder block foundation where she can toss the tooth. Everyone gathers around as she declaims, “yoi ha ni narimasu you da!” and tosses it through the gap. Everyone claps their hands in joyous celebration, another precious Japanese custom has escaped extinction and has been passed down to the next generation.

BlogTV: Deadly Accident

BlogTV presents a tale of tragedy, a freak accident on a playground that reveals a design of death. FujiTV News brings us the details (3 min, English and Japanese subtitles).

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Children are gathering at the playground, but nobody is having fun. They lay offerings at the site of the tragedy that has claimed the life of their playmate. They pray for their lost friend, and leave flowers and other trinkets, the sort of thing a 7 year old child might blow their pocket change on, juice and candy and cheap toys. The site is now taped off so nobody can play on the deadly equipment that nobody ever suspected was dangerous, buranko, the playground swings.

Computer graphics shows us the events in a detailed simulation, we see that little Ryunosuke slipped forward as he pushed on the swings, it came back and hit him in the chest, crushing him between the metal carriage and the ground.

I looked up buranko since it sounded like an imported word, but it is derived from burabura, a mimetic word meaning “to dangle” or “to swing back and forth.” We see a few different types of typical buranko in this video, thousands were built all across Japan. After this accident, the statistics are starting to add up. Obviously there is a design flaw, and a new design for the buranko is now available. The ingenious new circular design is intended to prevent children from being trapped under the carriage.

The camera team moves to a playground, and asks a young child what she thinks about the recent trend towards removing the swingsets, she replies with ya da yo ne which is such a flexible, idiomatic phrase that I’ll just translate it as “it sucks!” The kids love to swing, and they especially love playing on this new swingset with the cameraman in front.

But let’s get serious here. An engineer explains the virtues of the new circular design, and grovels underneath with his tape measure. He assures us that no child could get injured with this amount of ground clearance. In addition, they have produced a document explaining the correct usage of the swings. I don’t know what sort of government bureaucrat thought up that idea, but a set of instructions for a swingset has got to be one of the most unread and useless documents you could ever produce.

But still, the playground mothers express their concerns about the safety of the new buranko. One mother says that overcrowded swingsets are especially risky, and of course the FujiTV cameras have encouraged the kids to overcrowd the new swings, as they show off for the camera. We hear the same young girl again yelling ya da! as some of the larger children push the buranko higher and higher.

BlogTV: Art Stunt 2.0b Completed

My painting is finished, and this experiment in blogpainting is completed. I am now presenting all the painting sessions in one continuous animation, so you can see days of painting compressed into one minute.

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It surprises me to see my own work develop over time, I get a chance to see things I am normally not aware of. Painters get to bury their own mistakes under a thin layer of paint, and sometimes what may seem to be a mistake may lead the way to new ideas. Now I get to see the development of those ideas over time.

art stunt 2.0b final artwork

Here is a higher resolution image of the final work. Unfortunately, no photograph can capture the richness of the blacks, the subtle transparency of some layers, the changes in matte and glossy surfaces, and the overall detail of the image. These are key aspects of my work.

One of my favorite quotations about drawing (which equally applies to painting) says, “a drawing is a continuous record of thousands of decisions by the artist.” This is what art historians call “autobiographical painting.” It has nothing to do with the biography of the artist, it means the painting is its own biography, it tells the story of its own creation. I found that statement on a postcard from an exhibition, I kept it on my wall for many years. When I returned to art school, I was pleased to discover this artist, whose statement and artworks I admired so much, was teaching at my art school. I decided to take her drawing classes, and one day during a critique, I quoted her statement back to her. I was astonished at her response, “I never said that!”

BlogTV: Art Stunt 2.0b Session 4

I put together a short video of my latest painting sessions, just to let everyone know I’m still working and the project is still in progress.

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I’m making a few more radical moves, maybe I changed my mind about where this painting was going. Oh well, at least I’ve got a record of everything, I always say there’s about 5 or 10 good paintings underneath my final paintings.

© Copyright 2016 Charles Eicher