Monday 30 November 2020

Japan's Obsession with Poop (Part 2): Lucky Golden Poos, Unko Kanji Drill books, and Toilet Humour

The last post on Japan's obsession with poop generated a lot of attention and not a little feedback from Brits surprised that the Japanese think nothing of talking about poop and related bodily issues which would be considered embarrassing in British culture. That prompted me to write more on the subject - starting off with something that both cultures share: kids' fascination with toilet humour.

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Few kids like to study and Japanese kids have their work cut out for them: in elementary school alone students have to memorise 1006 kanji (Chinese characters), most of which have multiple readings. This of course is much easier if learning is fun, so enter the Unko (poop) Kanji Drill Books, a six-book series (one for each grade) that features Unko-sensei that has sold millions. Each kanji has three separate example sentences - each containing the word poop! For example, one of the sentences for the kanji for take (取) reads, "A foreign news agency came to interview me (取材) about my poop." Great fun to read aloud (see here for some screenshots)! The concept has been so successful that there are now books for learning maths, craft, time, katakana/hiragana, and even English!

Golden poop crane game
But it's not just for the kids. There are mountains of unko themed goods including unko cushions, toys, soap, and even toilet-shaped curry bowls. The most popular though is golden poop (kin no unko =金のうんこ)which is supposed to bring you luck. The reason for this is because the "un" in unko is pronounced the same as un (運) which means fortune or luck. Bracelets, key rings, and charms for mobile phones have apparently sold millions in recent years and gave birth to the ubiquitous smiling poop emoji(💩). Indeed, it is quite common to send the swirly multi-tiered poop emoji to a friend to wish them good luck. This is also possible face to face wish using various rather ingenious poop hand symbols (shown here)! The most famous - and biggest - golden poop of all though is the giant Flamme d'Or on top of the Asahi Super Dry Hall building in Asakusa on the East bank of the Sumida River (pictured). Designed by French artist Philippe Strack, Asahi maintains it is a symbol of the company's "burning passion" to advance forward but Tokyoites know better and fondly refer to it as ōgon no unko (the Golden turd) while the beer hall itself is called the "poo building" (unko/unchi biru). There are even rumours that it was originally intended to stand vertical but that the company changed its mind after realising how it would look!
The "Flamme d'Or", better known as the "Golden Turd" (Skytree in the background)
For those familiar with the elegance of the tea-ceremony (sadō) or traditional dance (buyō), the prevalance of toilet humour in Japan may come as something of a shock. But all complex societies are full of such cultural contradictions: they are just easier to see in a culture that is not one's own. So Brits may be taken aback by the film Ohayo by legendary director Yasujiro Ozu - whose Tokyo Story was voted by his peers as the greatest film of all time -  which opens and closes with a farting competition that ends rather unfortunately. But alongside the Queen, politeness, queuing, and afternoon tea there is a whole literary and historical culture of cynical and ironic scatological humour - poo jokes - from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Swift. "There's a cheerful pride," writes the New Stateman, "with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture." Perhaps Japanese and British are not so different after all?

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