Though I prefer using my own personal throne for the daily sacrifice to the porcelain gods, Nature occasionally calls at inconvenient times. Last summer it happened at a busy office facility. So, I covered the seat with my customary 2-3mm cushion of toilet paper protection and completed the transaction. In the elevator afterwards, I smiled at the female office worker standing at the back and then faced the door for the ten-floor ride. I smiled to her again as I left on my crowded lunchtime stroll to the station.
Halfway there, I felt something brush my swinging hand. I looked round—and was horrified. A meter-long toilet paper tail was following me, contrasting beautifully with my dark blue suit.
Two emotions overwhelmed me—embarrassment and, more surprisingly, anger, as I recalled my elevator partner, who must have been admiring my “extension.” There was no doubt she had seen it. Perhaps she hadn’t felt comfortable speaking out to a foreigner? No excuse, I countered to myself, recalling an incident in New York when a stranger tapped my shoulder and silently pointed to the mark of a pigeon’s white missile on me. Elevator Girl didn’t have to say in the Queen’s English “Excuse me sir, I believe you have tissue paper adhering to your trousers.” A simple cough and gesture would have sufficed. Maybe she was just really, really shy? I wasn’t convinced by that either—because I’m shy. And even my shyness didn’t stop me approaching a 300-pound foreigner at Akihabara Burger King hunched on a stool at the top of the stairs, greeting diners with three inches of butt-crack. I felt compelled to politely explain the situation, though it was far more embarrassing for me than for him. It was just the right thing to do. I’m sure he appreciated it—although I didn’t stay around to chat. Most of us have, at some point, silently pointed to the corner of our mouth to indicate a dried piece of squid or whatever stuck near someone’s cheek. Why? Nobody particularly likes humiliation, even strangers.
A few days later, with my bright red face faded to a tinge of pink, my curiosity with what I attributed to Japanese cultural behavior resurfaced. My Japanese wife had paid a visit to my son’s boss, whom she had met a few times previously, to present her with a thank-you gift. Before entering her home, my wife had dabbed her face to wipe off her perspiration. On the way home after a lovely 15-20 minute visit, she caught a glimpse of her face in a mirror. She counted no less than ten small but noticeable remnants of tissue. Like me, she felt foolish and rather ticked-off after realizing her host had had a face-to-face chat while choosing to totally ignore the clumps of Kleenex pasted on her face.
This annihilated my theory about shy, English-fearing Elevator Girl. My wife’s encounter was with a successful middle-aged Japanese businesswoman. Confronting a stranger in such a situation might be too much for some people to handle. But how can anyone sit with an acquaintance for a quarter-hour and say nothing about shredded pulp all over their face? The host had to realize that my wife would eventually look in the mirror, see the tissue and flash back to the meeting with humiliation. Why hadn’t the woman said anything?
After ten years here, I thought I was developing a small understanding of the Japanese psyche, but on this point I’m baffled. Some have suggested that Elevator Girl and the Tissue Ignorer were simply being polite and didn’t want to cause embarrassment by alluding to the situation. If so, I hereby permit everyone to be rude, in fact, downright obnoxious, the next time they see me with a TP streamer flailing from my pants. I can only wonder if these “polite” non-reactions would have been different had the thin, white paper been replaced with something more ominous, like a black widow spider.