TP or not TP
Is it rude to be “polite”?
By: Mark Jacobson | Mar 24, 2011 | Issue: 887 | 11 Comments | 4,507 views

Phil Couzens

TP or not TP
Mark Jacobson is a retired optometrist who now works as a corporate trainer and college instructor

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.



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  • outlawhorse

    This is the Last Word you publish the week you actually have time to prepare and commission articles to respond to the quake, tsunami and nuclear incident?


  • outlawhorse

    That’s not to have a go at the content of the article itself, btw. I thought it was pretty good, but it’s a weird editorial decision.

  • kevcham

    This was a good one. Observant and humorous at the same time. I would like to hear from a Japanese person as to why many Japanese are too shy? to save a stranger from embarrassment. I do it all the time – even if it makes me a bit uncomfortable.

  • yyta

    I’m a Japanese woman.Let me share my opinion.
    I know what you mean and feel sorry for you in this event.
    I admit Japanese are shy.As the proverb goes,a lot of people think somethings are better left unsaid.
    In addition to our national character,there are 2 vital points why she didn’t say anything to you.

    1.You are a foreigner.
    →Japan is a small island.Indeed,compared with before ,there are more foreigners.But we are still nervous to talk with them.

    2.You are a man.
    →People tend to be hesitate to talk to strangers of the opposite sex.

    I’m sure if you were a Japanese woman,she would whisper to you,”Watch your butt”.

  • jamiek

    Let me see if I understand this correctly… some dumbass walks out of a bathroom with toilet paper stuck to him (forgetting to, as they say, check himself before he wrecks himself) and then blames the girl in the elevator?? Then, not satisfied with that, he decides to blame ALL Japanese people??

    Perhaps the woman didn’t notice. Perhaps she did. It doesn’t make a difference. I don’t know what sort of bubble Mr. Jacobson had been living in that he has never had this happen to him back in the US, but this is a common, HUMAN phenomenon that everyone has experienced. Countless unzipped flies, spinach forever being stuck to teeth, tags always sticking out–should we say something or not? Which way is more polite? This is a question that troubles all societies, not just the Japanese.

    That being said, there are those brave souls who do point out my errors, both here and abroad. Here, in Japan, I have twice been stopped by strangers who informed me that there was a run in my stocking. Though there is really nothing I could do at that particular time, I appreciated the gesture. I know I wouldn’t have taken the time to point it out.

    All and all, I think this article illustrates a bigger problem that I find among the foreign community in Japan. That is, latent racism against Japanese. I hear it all the time – ‘Japanese people are this way, Japanese people are that way’, and it is invariable negative. Which leads me to wonder, why do you continue to live, of your own volition, in a society where you apparently dislike the people?

    Quit blaming your stupidity on the people around you.

  • magicman2099

    Uh…….The last time I checked, there were MIRRORS in the bathrooms. how in the world didnt he see this? He didnt feel it either?

  • jacketi

    Agree strongly with jamiek. I work at a well-known Eikaiwa and recently a friend of mine came in to work on a Saturday morning with his comb-over sticking out in all different directions, and in the staff room packed with Americans, Canadians and Brits (about 20 or so people) no-one said anything to him, a fellow member of staff whom they all know and like. I pointed it out to him, and he thanked me. See, the essence of kindness, that’s what I am.

    Now then, what was the problem?

  • harrietpercherkoff

    I feel really sorry for you, Jamick and freind. You obviously have no sense of humor nor do you have the ability to recogniz one. I think this article is brilliantly written and hilarious. If you can’t see this,I am sad for you. Lighten up! It was obviously meant in fun. Mr. Jacobson has a Japanese wife. Do you think she is a racist too?
    I think the the only problem with article was the timing of when it was published. It was obviously written way before the earth quake and related disasters. Perhaps metrpolis should have thought better about the timing of the publication.

  • quaker

    My friends and I loved reading this article. It was a nice break from the radiation scares and aftershocks and very relatable. In general, embarrassing stories are alway horrifying while occurring, but a week or so later they usually make very humorous tales. That’s why the retelling of embarrassing situations has always been a favorite activity in my English classes. Thank goodness Jamiek set me straight by pointing out this article was actually a racist diatribe against the Japanese people and their repulsive politeness. Oh my gracious, how can I have been so naive. There were two incidences discussed in the article. A Japanese woman and a foreign man both felt humiliated by different singular experiences and were surprised that no one pointed anything out. Jamiek claims the foreign man is a racist, who blames all Japanese for his stupidity and should probably voluntarily export himself (does anyone else find this a bit of a stretch?). I guess his humiliated Japanese wife is spared from attack because she has a Japanese passport-even though she had exactly the same feelings? All I know is that if I am trapped in an elevator during the next quake, please let it be with the TP man and not the humorless Janiek.

  • pastaface

    Yyta – thank you for explaining in your honest and articulate letter the possible reasons behind the elevator incident. Unfortunately, I’m sorry to say that Ms. Jamiek has deemed this type of thinking to be racist and you should probably consider living in another society. I realize you are Japanese so I am terribly sorry for the inconvenience.

  • minddoctor

    I think Jamiek should read the article next time before launching into an insane diatribe instead of only looking at the pictures. She states” I don’t know what sort of bubble Mr. Jacobson had been living in that he has never had this happen to him back in the US”. According to the story it did happen to him in NYC with the pigeon attack and he was very appreciative that it was pointed out and in turn thinks it polite to point out situations to others. Contrast this to jamiek who appreciated strangers pointing out the run in her stockings but says she never would take the time to point this out to them. Psychologists have terms for this kind of thinking that she may want to explore in therapy.