Grant Jun Otsuki
To cite this article: Grant Jun Otsuki (2020) Shit’s Getting Real: A Cultural Analysis of Toilet Paper, Anthropology Now, 12:3, 15-23, DOI: 10.1080/19428200.2020.1884487
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/19428200.2020.1884487
Since its first detection in China in December 2019, COVID-19 has spread with alarming speed and lethality, thoroughly transforming daily life around the world in ways that few could have foreseen. As of late 2020, millions have been infected and hundreds of thousands have been killed. There is little doubt that this decade will be defined by the pandemic. But while COVID has caused much confusion, anxiety and uncertainty, it has inspired little bemusement. Except for what it did to toilet paper.
Soon after the disease began breaching international borders, the internet was inundated with photos and videos of store shelves emptied of toilet paper by harried customers. The shelves were empty not just in the places where COVID had become established but also in places such as New Zealand, where I am based and where the disease had yet to materially impact the day-to-day lives of most people.
Almost overnight, there was an explosion of memes ridiculing the irrationality of toilet paper hoarders and of blog posts and news stories addressing the strangeness of the phenomenon. To be sure, toilet paper was not the only item in short supply. Surgical mask and alcohol-based hand sanitizers were also difficult to find. But a run on those items was understandable. For toilet paper, it was less so.
What was the meaning, then, behind this flurry of attention, talk, memeing, writing and photographing focused on toilet paper? Much of the early academic commentary came from psychologists, who suggested that the run on toilet paper was a combined consequence of herd behavior and people’s need for psychological security during deeply un- certain times. But little of it addressed the basic question, Why toilet paper?
It turns out that toilet paper has many layers. Some have to do with the symbolic meanings that modern societies (or at least their Western versions) have assigned to it. Others have to do with the particular political and psychological security that toilet paper gives people. And of course, toilet paper is very useful. These layers considered together begin to reveal why toilet paper should become what the anthropologist Sherry Ortner once called a “key symbol” during troubled times.1
A History of Hoarding
To understand why toilet paper has become so central during a moment of profound uncertainty requires first looking to its history. This is not the first time that people have panicked over toilet paper. Because COVID-19 originated in China, it should not be surprising to learn that the recent toilet paper panic also first erupted in East Asia.
As the Figure 1 graph shows, Google searches for “toilet paper” (衛生紙) in Chinese registered a slight bump at the beginning of February, followed by a spike in Japanese searches (forトイレットペーパー) at the end of the month. A jump in English searches occurred a week or so after that, as shown in Figure 2. The panic seems to have begun in Hong Kong. On Feb. 17, the BBC reported toilet paper hoarding there, and even an armed robbery of US $130 worth of stock, triggered by social media rumors that imports from China were about to collapse.2 The phenomenon then spread to Japan at the end of February, where on Feb. 28, Hirofumi Hayashi—the head of the Japan Tis- sue Association—attempted to calm the fears of Japanese consumers in a press conference at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, pointing out that toilet paper supplies in Japan were not threatened by the coronavirus situation in China.3 Hayashi blamed social media for spreading misinformation that toilet paper and surgical masks were made of the same materials, which had fanned fears of shortages in Japan despite the fact that the country imports only a miniscule amount of paper from China. From there, the panic spread to Australia and other parts of the English-speaking world.
There are good historical reasons for the toilet paper shock to have taken its initial hold in Asia. In her book Waste: Consuming Post- war Japan, historian Eiko Maruko Siniawer discusses an infamous incident that took place in Japan in the early 1970s.4 During the Oil Shock in October 1973, rumors began to spread around homes in Osaka that toilet paper was about to shoot up in price. The story was taken up by the mass media, and by Nov. 1, lines of hundreds of women had formed outside of supermarkets in the area. A few days later, the panic hit the Tokyo area. In nearby Yokohama, 1,000 women waited two hours before one shop opened. They bought up 500 packages within 15 minutes.
Like the 2020 panic, there was actually no impending shortage of toilet paper, though shops struggled to keep the item on their shelves. Siniawer points out that the panic-buying customers were generally women from firmly middle-class homes who had the time to wait in line and the space to store their stockpiles. They were emblematic, she argues, of a culture in which “the ability to consume, and the desire for cleanliness, comfort and convenience, had taken root.”5 The potential disappearance of toilet paper was a fundamental threat to the newly emergent consumer class in Japan. Whereas the 1973 incident was localized to Japan, the more rapid and transnational movement of information in 2020 seems to have turned toilet paper hoarding into a global phenomenon. Images of empty store shelves, long lines of customers and homes overflowing with absurd quantities of toilet paper made for readily shareable and cross-linguistically legible packets of information that propelled news of both an impending challenge and an at-hand solution across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, WhatsApp and their other international ilk.
The 2020 incident also shows that perhaps at least some of the culture of cleanliness, convenience, comfort and consumption that made toilet paper so important to the middle-class households of 1970s Japan is something shared by people in many countries around the world. Toilets are the familiar endpoints of massive urban infrastructures and public health and hygiene systems that very much define modernity. They have therefore been a focus of major initiatives to improve health and well-being around the world.
China, for instance, has been undergoing a “toilet revolution” since 2015, when President Xi Jinping launched a massive nationwide campaign to improve the quality of toilets in rural China and satisfy “the public’s desire for a decent life.”6 Similarly, in 2012 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sponsored a global challenge to “Reinvent the Toilet”7 to transform both the technologies and economics around human waste disposal. The successful proposals decoupled toilets from conventional waste infrastructures by using bioreactors, dry combustion or electrochemical processes to process human waste. Interestingly, nearly all of the future toilets still presuppose the use of toilet paper. Even when people emerge from advanced toilets into the bright sunshine of the future, a stray streamer of toilet paper may still be stuck to their shoes, such is its importance to how people think about life. However, this historical and cultural explanation is only one layer of the puzzle of toilet paper. To understand more requires examining paper’s utility in the household.
The Hierarchy of Paper
The household use of paper began early in China, as early as the 2nd century BCE. The sinologist Tsien Tsuen-Hsuin suggests that paper was quickly put to many uses, first as a wrapping and subsequently as a substrate for writing, a construction material and an object of art and design. Personal sanitation was also one of paper’s early applications. By the 5th or 6th century CE, paper had come into common use for cleaning oneself after defecating. Tsien quotes family instructions written by the scholar Yen Chih-Tsui during the 500s, prohibiting paper on which sacred names or words had been written to be used for toilet purposes.8
In today’s homes of the West, paper is put to as many versatile uses, and it is subject to similar rules. Many homes are likely to have at least a book or two, and perhaps many more. Some may be highly valued and protected, like religious texts. There may also be secret diaries, children’s drawings and old letters from friends and lovers. These kinds of papers are at the top of the hierarchy of paper in the home. They are generally valued for their semiotic content, the writing or images inscribed on them, which is often unique (at least within one home.) The paper will also tend to be of heavier weight and come in some kind of packaging, such as book covers, picture frames or envelopes to protect what is inside and heighten the tactile and visual contrast of the paper from its surroundings.
Below this sacred domain is the level of paper that derives part of its value from its inscriptions but that can also become as valued for its material properties. In this category are things such as pulp fiction novels, newspaper or old magazines, which derive their initial value from their inscriptions but can easily transform into scrap paper, kindling or lining of a hamster cage.
Going further down the ladder, we find fancy dinner napkins, disposable plates and cups, coffee filters, paper towels, facial tissues and, at the bottom of the bottom, toilet paper. These papers are created to be soiled. They may enter the home spotless, but this is only a temporary state. Eventually, they will all be marked by a kiss that confirms their fate as waste. And among them, only toilet paper has the dubious honor of dealing with our shit.
Toilet paper’s position at the very bottom of this hierarchy tells us about one layer of its centrality. Because toilet paper derives practically none of its value from inscriptions, its most common and economical form is the blankest of blank slates. It can thus serve a very useful cleaning function, but it can also perform many of the functions of the other types of paper up the chain. It can be used to wipe kitchen surfaces and children’s noses, start fires (with caution) and carry scribbled reminders. Its material versatility and position at the bottom of the hierarchy of household paper make it an important foundation of a normative home life. The loss of that foundation can therefore present certain practical challenges. In a pinch, I can scribble a note on toilet paper, but leaves from a notebook substituting for toilet paper would only result in a big mess.
This material versatility comes paired with a semiotic versatility—its capacity to carry meaningful signs—that can allow toilet pa- per to move into other categories in the hierarchy of paper. Toilet paper can even rise to the realm of the sacred. In a pivotal scene in the 2005 film V for Vendetta,9 Natalie Port- man’s character, Evey, has been thrown into a cell, out of which she is taken only to be tortured. Seemingly imprisoned by a totalitarian regime, she has lost everything that made her who she was. Lying on the cold floor, she discovers some toilet paper jammed into the wall and finds a letter written by the previous occupant of the cell. Reading this letter makes Evey aware of the very foundation of her own humanity that cannot be taken from her, and she is reborn without any fear of the regime. From this point, Evey becomes the person she needs to be in order to start a revolution. In effect, toilet paper was the founding document for a new society. It can do this because, if it can take our shit, then it can do almost anything.
The same does not quite hold true for paper from the top of the hierarchy. Like Yen’s sacred papers, a person cannot take a Bible and use it to clean themselves in order to make it toilet paper. It remains a Bible, but one that has been defiled. This means that toilet paper may have a foundational function to modern society that goes beyond even a written constitution. While we may use fancy paper and pens to write the basic laws of a nation, in some way those words have no meaning unless they could also be written on toilet paper and potentially carry the same force. Without the possibility of a constitution written on Charmin, modern democracy would be unthinkable.
Interestingly, while putting poop on a Bible does not transform it into toilet paper, it is possible to turn it into crap by contaminating it with the wrong words. Hence the endless debates over Biblical translation and interpretation. The appearance of a bad or mistranslated word threatens the integrity of the whole, creating, among other things, sectarian division. A contemporary example of this phenomenon appears in the 1990s block-buster action movie Demolition Man.10
Sylvester Stallone (portraying a plays-by-his-own-rules L.A. cop named John Spartan) wakes from a long cryosleep in a strangely clean and orderly future version of Los Angeles, called “San Angeles.” He has been reactivated by the future police to capture Wesley Snipes, acting as Simon Phoenix. Phoenix is a criminal mastermind from Spartan’s own time who has somehow escaped from cryo-prison and gone on a rampage in a city that has little experience with violence, having pushed its criminals, or rather its poor, far underground.
A running joke in this film has to do with the “three seashells.” After waking and still early in his adjustment to the future, Spartan is taken to the police station to receive a briefing on Phoenix. At one point, Spartan returns from the restroom and tells his new colleagues that they’re out of toilet paper, which meets with giggles from Rob Schneider’s desk cop: “He doesn’t know how to use the three seashells!” The whole time, their discussion has been monitored by a device on the wall that listens for vulgar language and issues an immediate fine and a ticket to the offending speaker. Spartan smoothly walks over to the wall and starts spouting a series of obscenities, collecting each ticket as it comes out. After having accumulated a bundle of paper, he returns to the toilet to finish his business. Spartan’s dirty language generates paper that is supposed to be backed by the power of the state, but which quickly becomes toilet paper.
It would be an exaggeration to say that the people hoarding toilet paper in 2020 were doing so to safeguard democracy. But it is less of a stretch to say that the sudden disappearance of toilet paper from stores shakes their sense of security. As I’ve discussed, there are certain practical difficulties that arise from the absence of toilet paper that are more urgent than for other forms of paper. Moreover, paper’s material versatility has its complement in a significant semiotic versatility. If toilet paper can carry poop away from me, then it can carry practically any other message I could possibly imagine.
Symbols and Rites of Passage
Another layer of toilet paper relates more specifically to its symbolism. No anthropologist can look at poop without thinking of Mary Douglas. This is not a comment on Douglas herself but on the influence of her work on symbols, particularly those pertaining to ideas of purity and pollution. She wrote, famously, that dirt is “matter out of place” and that “where there is dirt, there is system.”11 What she means is this: Dirt and pollution are perceived as such only in relation to cultural systems of classification. People have cultural knowledge that sorts the things in the world into different categories. This is how people understand them and their relationships with one another. When people fail to fit something into a category, they can perceive it as out of place and experience its out-of-placeness as dirtiness. This leads people to a number of possible responses to deal with that dirt and try to maintain the stability of their categories. This is linked to one of Douglas’ most important insights: The beliefs that people hold about dirtiness and, more broadly, pollution can express “general views of the social order.”12 This fits what has been discussed so far about the relationship of toilet paper to security.
Dirtiness, however, is relative. In Douglas’ example, shoes are not inherently dirty, but it is dirty to place them on the dining table. So, ideas of dirtiness and cleanliness make up a complex system of relationships among objects or behaviors, the systems that used to categorize them and the situations in which they are encountered. Even feces is not always dirty: Anthropologist Gananath Obeysekere mentions in Medusa’s Hair that feces can be- come gold for some South Asian ascetics.13
Toilet paper is similarly variable in its cleanliness and dirtiness. In most cases, it comes to hand in a clean state and leaves in a dirty one. Its primary purpose, then, is to mediate between the clean and the dirty. It removes the dirtiest of dirts from the body so as to return it to order. Toilet paper is valued so highly because people sacrifice its cleanliness each day to ensure their own. Toilet paper is like a symbolic membrane across which waste is propelled so that people can maintain a purer sense of self. More generally, it is, in the anthropologist Victor Turner’s words “liminal” or “transitional.”14 Toilet paper can carry certain things across categorical boundaries so that the categories them- selves stay more or less pure. This is as true of toilet paper’s role in waste disposal as it is of its material and semiotic versatility, as I discussed earlier.
The connection to Victor Turner’s work suggests a further symbolic, or rather ritual, dimension to toilet paper. Across human societies, there are many kinds of rituals, but nearly all of them are socially conservative. In other words, they work on the people who participate in them in such a way so as to maintain and strengthen the social structures of which they are a part. One of the important functions of Sunday service at a church, for instance, is to reaffirm the relationships between the priest, the parishioners and God.
A trip to the toilet can be viewed as such a ritual. Rooms containing toilets are usually marked off from other spaces and hidden in some way. In public toilets, people are often further shielded from one another in smaller private compartments. To enter such a room, people will often leave certain things outside, particularly food or drink. These are types of social and physical boundaries that demarcate the spaces where rituals take place.
Many people will recoil at the thought of a dirty toilet and insist on clean facilities, but in actuality the entire room is usually experienced as both. Some parts are perceived as dirtier than others: The floor and the toilet itself fall at the “dirty” end of the spectrum, and the sinks, towels and air dryer buttons fall at the “clean” (or at least “cleaner”) end. This copresence of clean and dirty makes the whole space ambiguous, another common feature of ritual spaces.
Around toilets, people also momentarily suspend their ordinary social identities. Restroom conversations may be frequent, but many people will be put off if you use such places to try to make new friends. Only relatively secure social relationships are allowed to exist within them. For similar reasons, we may hesitate to answer the phone. If, as descendants of Descartes are said to do, people distinguish their minds from their matter, their social from their biological selves, and tend to display only their minds and social selves in public, then the bathroom, where some of the most unavoidably biological things happen, becomes a place where social relations can easily become threatened, and so they tend to be kept outside.
There are some relationships that may form inside restrooms, but they are usually momentary ones that are meant to persist only within that space. We may strike up a friendly conversation with a fellow restroom-goer, but this becomes a troublesome connection that must be carefully managed if that person comes back with us into the public. A good example of how this can go wrong comes from the classic American sitcom Seinfeld. In the 1994 episode “The Stall,”15 the character of Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) finds her- self in a public bathroom stall that has run out of toilet paper. She begs her stall neighbor to spare a few squares but is refused. The comedy comes from the realization that this selfish neighbor is another character’s girlfriend, who turns out to be a paper hoarder. Elaine becomes obsessed with taking revenge on the stall neighbor.
If things had initially proceeded as Elaine had hoped, some paper would have been passed over without any further comment, and both could have finished their business in peace. That the toilet paper hoarder not only refused but also turned out to be someone that Elaine would encounter again outside the restroom completes the setup for the rest of the joke.
Elaine’s request in the restroom points toward the sacred communion that often occurs in liminal spaces. Stripped of their usual social identities, temporary inhabitants of the toilet can encounter each other as bare selves. Thus, something that is exchanged as a commodity outside of the bath- room can be offered inside to another as a pure gift, without the encumbrances of social obligations or capitalist markets. When this gift is not forthcoming, the offense becomes more than one that violates ordinary social norms and niceties. Denying another person’s right to dispose of waste in comfort becomes an affront to their basic humanity. Thus, fights originating in bathrooms can become vicious, spilling outside the walls and threatening ordinary social life. In Elaine’s case, she has her revenge on the hoarder, ruining Jerry Seinfeld’s relationship in the process.
A trip to the bathroom can therefore be viewed as a ritual in these terms: When people’s biological functions assert themselves (i.e., when “nature calls”), they enter an ambiguous space in which these functions can be exercised without threatening their ordinary social selves. Inside, biological needs are satisfied and bodies are cleansed before leaving the space, readying people to rejoin the social world.
Within this ritual, toilet paper becomes something of a magical object, like a talisman one holds for protection while crossing treacherous terrain. We find it already inside a space of ambiguity, and with it, we can safely find a way to return to the outside world. It allows us to momentarily acknowledge our own biology, but once acknowledged we release it like a handkerchief on the wind chasing a departing ship: We leave it behind so that we can finally go home.
The importance of toilet paper therefore runs deep into the soul of modern culture. It is perhaps because people somehow recognize this importance that the mere thought of the disappearance of toilet paper from the world spurs some to act so quickly and decisively to secure their own supplies.
Toilet paper embodies security. It has a past that places it right in the middle of modern consumer culture. It sustains homes: As long as toilet paper is at hand, the hierarchy of household paper can persist, and the many needs that it represents can continue to be fulfilled.
It also gives people a basic sense of political security. Toilet paper’s existence guarantees the possibility of written law. Finally, it embodies a Cartesian separation of mind from matter, and it is necessary for the symbolic and ritual work that ensures the stability of the social and natural orders. It is these layers together that give toilet paper the strength it has to stand at the center of society. Therefore, the COVID- triggered run on toilet paper should not be a surprise. In fact, such runs should be expected to occur any time the denizens of modern societies perceive an existential threat to their everyday routines. In these runs can be seen the flow of the history of the modern world.
- Sherry B. Ortner, “On Key Symbols,” American Anthropologist 75, no. 5 (1973): 1338–1346.
- “Coronavirus: Armed Robbers Steal Hundreds of Toilet Rolls in Hong Kong,” BBC News, February 17, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/ world-asia-china-51527043.
- Kei Tsuchiya, “Japan Toilet Paper Shortages Are Unconnected to Coronavirus, but That’s Not Encouraging,” The Mainichi, March 7, 2020, https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20200306/ p2a/00m/0na/028000c.
- Eiko Maruko Siniawer. Waste: Consuming Postwar Japan (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018).
- Siniawer, Waste, 110.
- Mimi Lau, “China’s Public Bathroom Blitz Goes Nationwide as Xi Jinping Rallies Forces in the ‘Toilet Revolution,’” South China Morning Post, November 27, 2017, https://www.scmp.com/ news/china/policies-politics/article/2121763/chi-nas-public-bathroom-blitz-goes-nationwide-xi-jinping.
- “Exhibitor Guide for the Reinvented Toilet Expo,” STeP Sanitation Technology Platform, November 2018, https://www.stepsforsanitation.org/ wp-content/uploads/2018/11/The-Reinvented- Toilet-Exhibitor-Guide-FINAL.pdf.
- Tsien Tsuen-Hsuin, Science and Civilisation in China. Vol 5. Chemistry and Chemical Technology. Part I: Paper and Printing, ed. Joseph Needham (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 109.
- V for Vendetta. Directed by James McTeigue. Warner Bros., 2005.
- Demolition Man. Directed by Marco Brambilla. Warner Bros., 1993.
- Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (New York: Routledge, 1984), 36.
- Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, 3.
- Gananath Obeyesekere, Medusa’s Hair: An Essay on Personal Symbols and Religious Experience (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 35.
- Victor W. Turner, The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967).
- Seinfeld. “The Stall.” Directed by Tom Cherones. Written by Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, and Larry Charles. NBC, January 6, 1994.
Grant Jun Otsuki is a lecturer in cultural anthropology at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. His current research is on the development of human-machine interfaces and the history of the information sciences in Japan. He also works on popular culture in Japan, and studies of science and technology in transnational context. His work is available at https://www.gjotsuki.net.