Dispatches from the Potomac#36 | Nature Calls

This is a translation of an article originally written in February 2021 for publication in the April 2021 edition of the Marubeni Group Magazine, M-SPIRIT.

Washington D.C. Office General Manager, Marubeni America Corporation    Yoichi Mineo

Just like the expression “yo wo tasu* in Japanese, Americans also have many different euphemistic words and expressions for the bathroom itself and what one does there. When I was a kid, my dad taught me the English expression “nature calls” — “This is what you say in America when you have to go to the bathroom,” he explained. Almost 30 years after that day, I came to live in America, where I first encountered a certain usage of the word “necessary”; this is an old-fashioned expression meaning “toilet”, and you can even see a replica of a “necessary” at Mt. Vernon near Washington D.C. (Mt. Vernon was home to George Washington, the First President of the United States).

However, Japanese who live in America are less concerned with the subtleties of word usage, and much more concerned with the general lack of public toilets, especially in train stations. In more rural areas, there aren’t even many train stations to begin with and one must often settle for a gas station bathroom. But in public transportation centers located in large cities where people tend to congregate, the lack of available public restrooms becomes a real problem.

For instance, where I live in Washington D.C., there are no bathrooms to be found in subway stations. While there are toilets available for station staff, and they are obligated to allow people to use those bathrooms if asked, there are no signs to indicate that those bathrooms even exist. In New York, of the 472 stations that make up the subway system, only 51 have public restrooms. In the 8 years I lived in NYC, I never once thought to use a subway station bathroom. As it turns out, most Americans don’t expect to be able to use the bathroom when they go to a station either.

Going to the bathroom is a basic human need, and obviously Americans are no exception. As a result, when going out for the day, Americans have to get creative for when nature inevitably calls. Such survival tactics include going into hotels, department stores, restaurants (where one often has to buy something to be allowed to use the restroom) —even random stores on the street or the port-o-potties at construction sites are viable options in an emergency.

However, there are people, like homeless people for example, who are not able to buy food to gain access to restaurant bathrooms, or for whom taking advantage of hotel or department stores bathrooms is not a possibility. A few years ago, a person was even arrested at a Starbucks after the police were called by the staff when the person attempted to use the coffee shop’s bathroom without first making a purchase. In the end, Starbucks ended up issuing an apology, and changed its policy so that anyone can use their restrooms without having to purchase something from the store.

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, many retail stores that had toilets available for public use have been forced to close. Those impacted the most by this new impediment are people like truckers and Uber drivers. On the other hand, employees of stores whose bathrooms are still open for public use, who need to use those bathrooms, themselves have voiced their fear over being infected with the coronavirus due to these toilets being publicly available.

Now, there are several reasons I can think of for why there are so few public restrooms in America. One argument I often hear is that there is a safety issue, with the concern being that those places, if open to the public, will be used for drugs or other illicit activities. There is also the possibility that the abolition of paid public restrooms has played a role; due to the influence of protest groups, like the high schooler-led Committee to End Pay Toilets in America (CEPTIA), the roughly 50,000 pay toilets that existed across America in the 1970s dwindled into near extinction over the course of the 80s.

Perhaps the problem lies in the cost of installing and maintaining public restrooms. Los Angeles’ self-cleaning toilets cost USD182,000 per unit. The same kind of toilets in the Washington D.C. subway costs USD400,000. The Portland Loo, a type of bathroom created by the City of Portland, is relatively inexpensive at USD90,000 per unit, but while the design has been praised for features like a fully enclosed stall as a crime prevention measure, and a sink installed outside of the restroom to improve turnover rate, no more than 60 Portland Loos have actually been installed to date.

Moreover, it seems that the American government has little to no interest in seriously attacking the public toilet problem in this country. Outside of major cities, there is not much use for public toilets, so from a purely political standpoint, this issue isn’t worth pursuing. At present, 17 states have adopted the Restroom Access Act. However, while this law means that people with certain medical conditions cannot be denied use of store restrooms, in does not extend to the establishment and installation of new public facilities. Even the Biden Administration, which has been very vocal on anti-coronavirus measures and human rights issues, has shown little interest in this problem. Perhaps, for such a diverse culture that so values personal freedom, the thought process is that nature’s call should be answered by the individual, not society.

Yo wo tasu is a non-vulgar Japanese euphemism used to announce that one has to use the bathroom.