Shortage, cultures, and the curious behaviour of human beings

In order to welcome tourists from all over the world, initiatives to replace Japanese squat toilets have been undertaken in the run-up to the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. This action is though dwarfed by that faced by preparations for Tōkyō 1964. As a matter of fact, before the past Games, only 20% of the Japanese capital had a sewerage system, pit toilets were widely spread and trucks circulated in neighbourhoods to collect human waste…

Hard to imagine, in today’s meticulous clean Tōkyō.

No dust bins around, yet any trash on the streets, in every restaurant or izakaya the famous oshibori is given with self-evidence, and public washrooms are not only omnipresent, but also remarkably neat. These hygiene standards emerged in the 1960’s, when the Land of the Rising Sun wished to become a leading country in the eyes of visitors and be an “advanced nation”, considering besides new infrastructure and a strong economy sanitation as crucial. Therefore, great effort was put into cleaning up Tōkyō ahead of the 1964 Games. 

In 2016, a government survey showed that about 40% of public restrooms hosted squat stalls and started a campaign to help municipalities (especially at popular travel destinations) fund conversion to sit-down toilets. According to statistics from the Japan Tourism Agency, a total of 332 restrooms were refurbished between fiscal 2017 and 2019. 

In the archipelago’s urban areas, toilets are nowadays highly modern and convenient: heated seats, lids that open and close automatically, air-fresheners, and bidet functions for both front and rear washing — features that have become standard not only in public facilities, but also in many private homes since TOTO sold its first buttock-cleansing WASHLET toilet seat in the early 1980’s. 

In the awake of COVID-19, besides face masks, hand sanitiser and tissues, toilet paper was soon short in supply. When the shortage started here some weeks ago, it did not only surprise, but also amuse me: hearing about toilet paper shortage in Japan… I could not help but smile, think of the bidet function and about the paradox between real need and human reaction, of discrepancy in mass reaction. Compared to many countries that I have lived in or that I have visited, I can hardly come up with any other place in the world, where bathrooms are as present and sanitary supply is provided so well. Therefore, toilet paper just wouldn’t appeal one of the most important articles to stock. 

Some said face masks, sold out quickly, are made from the same materials used to manufacture toilet paper, while others explained that there were difficulties in importing toilet paper from China. Though, officials noted that only 2.5% of the 1.06 million tons delivered to retailers in Japan came from China in 2019. 

The Japanese society is by far not the only to react alike. Panic buying in crises periods is a well-known and global phenomenon and the white rolls have recently become a rare article in many parts of the world. The process is simple: individuals who hear about (possible) shortage often buy twice as many given items, actually stimulating the shortage, and merchandise starts to disappear from shops. Then other individuals observe the happening and buy unproportional amounts of the same product… The spiral goes on… ending up in the rise of prices and possible informal niche business. 

Sociologists have widely explained humans’ seeking for articles economically easy affordable and linked to hygiene and comfort. Indeed, the hoarding of toilet paper is nowadays not based on any realistic need and may rather be influenced by people’s collective memory, notably marked by shortage of household goods following the “oil shock” that occurred after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. 

In November 1973, several news agencies reported a tissue shortage in Japan. Initially, the release went unnoticed and nobody seemed to draw much attention until Harold Vernon Froelich, a 41-year-old Republican congressman who chaired a heavily-forested district in Wisconsin and who had been receiving complaints about a reduced stream of pulp paper, released on November 16, 1973 his own press statement declaring that the Government Printing Office was facing a serious shortage of paper. A few weeks later, Froelich uncovered a document that indicated the government’s National Buying Centre had fallen short of providing toilet paper for its troops and bureaucrats. In the climate of oil scares and economic duress, Froelich’s claim was absorbed without any questioning, and the media picked up on it. When only about one month later, on December 19, comedian Johnny Carson told the audience in his Tonight Show that there was a shortage of toilet paper, it firstly met insecure laughter. Then media sensationalised the story and it was reported as a doomed truth. Millions of Americans swarmed grocery stores and bought all the toilet paper they could carry. For four long months, the white roll then was a rare and precious commodity. It was traded, and a black market emerged before the whole misery stopped in February 1974. Slowly but surely, the American public realised that there had never been a shortage to begin with, but that it had rather been artificially created. 

One morning, just about two weeks ago, I saw the long line in front of one of Tōkyō’s many drug stores, realising what people hoped to buy, and becoming conscious about the dimension the situation had taken. Although I knew that I would soon be short on stock too, I walked along, and thought of all these nice and multi-functional TOTO toilets…

Later the same day, I went to a café that I like to work from. When I then went to the washroom, I was astonished and moved by what presented itself to my eyes: about ten rolls of nice, fresh, untouched toilet paper. 

In many cities I have been before, and all ahead Paris, I witnessed that most public facilities lock toilet paper in boxes, in order to prevent stealing, and this in times without panic buying.

Since the shortage, I have observed the amount of the white treasure in various places across Tōkyō metropolis, and can say that in every facility, there was at least one (unlocked) and untouched roll in stock. 

Frequently, I oppose the picture of the waiting line in front of the drug store to the paper stock at public facilities in my head; it makes me strangely happy, and incredibly grateful.

Only for this, I will gladly stand in line.  

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