I knew something was up the moment the Sato, a manager at the Roppongi
Hills Club, gave me the envelope. He looked over his
shoulder--twice--and then slipped it into my hand before I could get a
good look at it. Alarm bells sounded instantly.
"You know what to do, right?" His eyes shifted around the bar.
"Hmmm... Nope," I said, peering at the envelope suspiciously. It was
large enough for a generous nickel-bag, made of surgery-blue plastic.
My name was printed on a label on the front, above the words
"Microguard Food Service Research" in Japanese. Curious, I started to
lift the flap.
"Ha-ha!" Sato laughed nervously. "You needn't open that here."
"Oh. Right," I said, feeling more mystified than ever. I hastily
shoved it into my pocket, embarassed for no discernible reason. "What
is it, again?"
"Ha-ha!" Sato laughed again. "Ask Teranaka--he'll explain," he said,
I asked Teranaka. Teranaka laughed, refused to meet my gaze and
engrossed himself in cleaning the coffee machine. Not really wanting
to know the answer, I repeated my question anyway. "Ask Kurihara," he
said, and scurrried around the corner of the bar. Kurihara had the day
I investigated that evening when I got home. Inside the envelope I
found what appeared to be... bubbles? A narrow bubble wand in a tube
of blue gel. I tried to blow bubbles through the wand but the gel just
flapped around listlessly. Apparently it wasn't bubbles. Well, no one
wanted to tell me what the damn thing was, and I didn't feel like
embarrassing myself by asking anymore, so I did the natural thing. I
threw it away and hoped no one would ever mention it again. An absurd
hope, of course. A different manager, Kobayashi, approached me a few
weeks later, just as I had forgotten about the sinister blue envelope
"Phirripu," he said. "Did you get it?"
"The kenben. Did you bring it?"
"Kenben?" I was blank.
"Ah, yes. Ha. You remember?"
"Oh. That. Yeah, I got it."
"Where is it?"
"Um, I threw it away."
"You threw it away?"
"Hahahaha. Yeah, kinda."
He pulled another out of his pocket and slid it across the counter
like it was full of very illegal drugs. Damn. Dude was prepared.
"Here. We need this back by Saturday."
"OK... Only, what is it?"
"Eh? It's for your, um," he started searching for the English word.
"It's for your store."
A horrible realization dawned on me.
"Ohhhh.... my... seriously?"
I couldn't imagine what they needed that for.
Thus began a monthly ritual that I'm still not particularly
comfortable with. Management is very serious about preventing an
outbreak of the gastrointestinal norovirus, a bug that causes diarrhea
and spreads easily if employees don't take extreme, quarantine-level
precautions like washing their hands with soap. Every month everyone
gets a surgery-blue stool sample envelope and forms shuffling, guilty
lines for the toilets.
Japanese toilets are more high-tech than the first space shuttle. No
service is beneath a Japanese toilet, whether it's the water spouts,
the heated seats, or the drier fans. Everything is adjustable by a
remote control set in the arm rest (yes, the arm rest). There's even a
remote-control flush button, in case the handle is just too much
trouble. I find these toilets hilarious because someone has to design
I imagine R&D rooms where Japanese engineers study diagrams of people
crapping, taking notes with studious expressions. Or the studies
scientists must conduct to determine the optimal position for a water
spout, and how much they must have to pay the participants in those
studies. (They probably just use convicts.) There are probably laws in
Toilet Seat Ergonomics Science governing things too scatological even
for British television. Koizumi's Ratio of Hair to Fan Power. Abe's
Laws of Seat Temperature Tolerance. Fukuda's Table of Shit Types.
I'm a bit surprised that there's no Stool Sample Collection feature in
Japanese toilets, but if the dreaded norovirus continues to decimate
the populations of Europe and Asia, no doubt this convenience will be
included soon enough. Instead, employees slink into the men's locker
room and drop the (hopefully carefully-sealed) envelope into a
cardboard box marked with a big yellow arrow, then run away. Everyone
carefully avoids the box at all other times.
The monthly ritual is discussed pretty openly among the staff. It
leads to scenarios like when one of the cuter waitresses asked me, in
a weirdly flirty tone of voice, if I remembered to bring my stool
sample today. During dinner. I'm not sure why she wanted to know; I
half-expected her to follow up with, "Can I see it?"
I have overheard discussions between managers about whether certain
waitresses are able to, uh, produce results on time. I, myself, have
been been the subject of such discussions in full earshot of
everybody. Unfortunately it was around the same time that I was also
discovering the inhibitive properties of a rice-heavy diet.
"Phirripu," said Masunaga, yet another manager, "here's your kenben.
Are you able to get one out today? Because it's due in two days."
"Um," I said, not knowing the appropriate Japanese. She switched to
English for the one waitress who couldn't understand it.
"If you can't poop today, you should tell me. I can have the deadline
extended for you."
"Um, OK. I can't poop today." (I'm still astonished I that even had
"OK, I'll tell them." She made a big "X" next to my name on a list
that was sitting out in the open on the bar. I noticed "X"s next to
other employees' names as well, but nothing would have persuaded me to
investigate who could deliver the goods and who couldn't. "Please poop
I said I'd try.