restricted access Chapter 7. Fecal Matters: Prolegomenon to a History of Shit in Japan
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137 7 Fecal Matters Prolegomenon to a History of Shit in Japan David L. Howell Poop is yucky. As a rule, yuckiness is socially constructed, but poop is different. Our dislike of the stuff is hardwired into us. Neuroscientists confirmed this in an experiment designed to locate regions of the brain involved in “the response to disgusting stimuli presented in the olfactory modality.”1 Poop’s yuckiness is an insistent plea for us to stay away; it protects us from the critters that live in it and could cause illness or even death if ingested. Yuckiness is good, at least with regard to poop. At the same time, poop is more than just yucky; it’s necessary, too, and not just in the usual sense of giving form to food the body cannot or will not digest. Babies are born with sterile guts. They must acquire intestinal microflora for their immune systems to develop properly. They pick up these vital bacteria from Mommy’s feces on the journey through the birth canal or, barring that, from unwittingly helpful caregivers and well-wishers in the maternity ward.2 Poop’s yuckiness presents a challenge to the aspiring historian of shit. In Tokugawa and Meiji Japan, people readily acknowledged the essential yuckiness of poop, but they also looked beyond it and indeed embraced shit as an object of utility. In the pages that follow, I will discuss a number of possible topics for a comprehensive history of shit in Japan. In every case, my emphasis will be on shit as something useful—a source of benefit for the individual and the nation. I will, moreover, meditate briefly on notions of the nature of excrement—the shittiness of shit—particularly from an agronomic perspective. Yet, at the end of the day, despite the rich variety of angles from which to look at it, it’s still shit we’re talking about—yucky poop, disgusting as ever in the olfactory modality. The Shittiness of Shit In his discussion of night soil (and fertilizer more generally), Miyazaki Yasusada , the author of the agricultural manual Nōgyō zensho (The agricultural David L. Howell 138 compendium), first published in 1697, cites what he calls an old proverb.3 Looking at the characters alone, the reader will want to read the proverb as “Jōnōfu wa kuso o oshimu koto, kogane o oshimu ga gotoshi”—something like, “The superior farmer values shit as he values gold.” Actually, however, Yasusada glosses the character 糞—normally read kuso or fun, “shit”—as koe, “fertilizer.” He does this, in fact, throughout his entire discussion of fertilizer.4 Now, the usual character for koe is 肥, the hi of hiryō 肥料, “fertilizer,” and himan 肥満, “obesity.” Yasusada uses this character as well, but he uses it to describe the beneficial results of the application of fertilizer. This suggests a slippage in meaning—“shit” 糞 is not waste but rather anything that nourishes and enriches the land and makes it literally “fat,” koechi 肥 地, be it excrement, compost, green fertilizer, or the mud of streambeds.5 Yasusada divides fertilizers into various categories depending on their source and use, but he eventually settles on a broad differentiation between “miscellaneous shit” (zōgoe 雑糞) and “superior shit” (jōgoe 上糞); in both cases, I’m using “shit” in his capacious sense. Night soil is “superior shit,” along with things such as oil cake (the dregs of cottonseed and sesame seed that have been pressed for oil), dried sardines, and the remains of whale meat and bones boiled and pressed.6 He makes no mention of night soil per se as a commodity, though the other items in the “superior shit” category were commercial fertilizers. In any case, he is certainly cognizant of agriculture as a commercial enterprise. He cautions against using “superior shit” on crops that won’t return a high price or in fields without the labor to make the most of its potent power. Don’t invest more in fertilizer, in other words, than the crop is worth.7 I should like to stress that even useful shit is still yucky; but its utility trumps its yuckiness. Hiraga Gennai made this point in his 1776 treatise, “On Farting” (“Hōhiron”). Here I quote William Sibley’s elegant translation: All things that lie between heaven and earth array themselves naturally into categories of high and low, lofty and base. Among them, surely the lowest of the low, the basest of the base, are urine and excrement. In China they have various...


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