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Do bookstores make you poop? The Japanese have a theory

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Outside the men’s bathroom at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe in Asheville, North Carolina
Outside the men’s bathroom at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe in Asheville, North Carolina
Photo: Jacob Biba for The Washington Post (Getty Images)

We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 6,125,173-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Mariko Aoki phenomenon

What it’s about: You know that thing where as soon as you wander into a bookstore, you have to poop? Probably not! But a Japanese woman who wrote a letter to Book Magazine did, and once the February 1985 issue observing the phenomenon went whatever the 1980s equivalent of viral was, the poor woman’s name has been forever associated with bookstore pooping. That somewhat simple turn of events has led to a 7,500-word Wikipedia page that touches on everything from Japanese literature to neurogastroenterology. Why this seemingly simple, relatively obscure topic led to a nearly book-length… oh, hang on, speaking of books, we have to run to the bathroom. Be right back.


Biggest controversy: Mariko Aoki isn’t the first person to describe the Mariko Aoki phenomenon. Wikipedia points out other Japanese writing that describes “a relationship between bookstores and the defecation urge,” including books like 1957’s Amidst The Hustle And Bustle, 1972’s The Emperor And The Lieutenant, and 1981’s Words, Too, Can Sweat—Literally, as well as a 1984 magazine article in Common Man Weekly, and radio show Young Paradise, which began its run in 1983 and “had a corner for sharing bowel movement related episodes.”

But closest to home is a letter from an unnamed man from Ikoma in Nara prefecture in a December 1984 issue of Book Magazine… the same magazine that would publish Aoki’s fateful missive only a few months later. Why her letter struck a nerve that the man from Ikoma’s didn’t is just part of the mystery surrounding the Aoki phenomena.


Strangest fact: The phenomenon only grew over time as it spread to other media. Other magazines discussed the phenomenon in the wake of Aoki’s article, and she herself was interviewed by numerous outlets (she’s on record as saying she doesn’t mind her name being associated with bookstore pooping), and Book did a follow-up article on “The Phenomenon Currently Shaking The Bookstore Industry!” A decade later, Aoki was not only still being talked about, her phenomenon had leapt from print to TV, as Lifestyle Refresh Morning did a segment in 1995. A 1998 episode of The Real Side Of Un’nan assembled a panel of people who had experienced the phenomenon and experts “carried out extensive tests,” the nature of which we probably don’t need to know. The public’s response was big enough that Un’nan did multiple follow-up segments.

From there, the internet picked up the ball and ran with it, as there were several Mariko Aoki-related websites by the early 2000s, and booksellers reported a stream of college students looking to interview them about the phenomenon. (As recently as 2012, Book’s publisher was still receiving inquiries from TV shows or other magazines looking to discuss the phenomenon)

Thing we were happiest to learn: The scientific community has weighed in on Mariko Aoki. Studies have been done what the Japanese have termed “book bowel” tendency (an elevated likelihood of experiencing Mariko Aoki phenomenon). Their conclusions? The phenomenon is distributed evenly throughout every region of Japan. It’s between two and four times more prevalent in women than men, and uncommon in “sporty males,” which is apparently a term researchers use. Between 10 and 20% of the population suffers from Aoki, with one survey reaching over 25%, and it seems to largely be an adult-onset condition, although it does exist in children.

Wikipedia suggests that authors and people working in publishing are more likely to be affected, although we’d suggest that those people are simply more likely to spend time in bookstores. Bookstore employees, on the other hand, seem to have built up a tolerance and are not affected. Wikipedia quotes plastic surgeon Kiyoshi Matsuo—clearly the most relevant medical expert on hand—as saying, “it can occur to anyone.”


Thing we were unhappiest to learn: While there’s a lot of wonderfully odd stuff in this overly long Wikipedia page, a lot of it is pretty tedious. A section called “Contributing Factors” devotes a long paragraph to breaking down situations that can trigger Aoki, and it covers bookstores, libraries, used bookstores, a magazine publisher’s archive room, browsing books, perusing the spines, checking out new releases, walking into the bookstore, spending a long time in the bookstore… after a while it seems less like an argument that bookstores trigger a certain urge and more like a realization that, given enough time, people will eventually have to poop regardless of location.

Also noteworthy: There are plenty of attempts to explain the Mariko Aoki phenomenon. One theory says a chemical present in either paper or ink triggers the sensation. There’s even a conspiracy theory suggesting that this is done deliberately by paper manufacturers to sell more toilet paper (there’s no reason to believe pooping in a bookstore makes one poop more overall, although apart from that, the theory is airtight). Other explanations include stress, relaxation, childhood trauma, conditioning (someone aware of Mariko Aoki is subconsciously expecting to experience the phenomenon, and that expectation becomes self-fulfilling), the body “subconsciously seeking escape from an excess of information,” posture (both standing up straight at a bookshelf, and bending over to reach a book on a low shelf, the former listed under the heading “Oppressiveness of bookshelves”), and a complicated psychological theory called “denial of happiness,” by which the body attempts to stop us from enjoying a leisurely browse through the bookstore by sending us rushing to the toilet.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: A surprising number of the links are medical in nature, and one of the only bathroom-related links is bathroom reading, a far more universal phenomenon than Mariko Aoki, which dates back to the days before toilet paper, when outhouses were usually stocked with absorbent newsprint or other printed materials. Cheaply printed pulp magazines were also well-suited to wiping—a fact referenced, in a roundabout way, by John Travolta reading a pulp novel on the toilet in several scenes of Pulp Fiction. Freud even mentioned bathroom reading in Civilization And Its Discontents, and Leopold Bloom reads a magazine on the can and then wipes himself with it in Ulysses.

Further Down the Wormhole: It’s not clear whether Mariko Aoki is a purely Japanese phenomenon, or that it plagues Americans who simply don’t have a person to name it after. (Please don’t use my name.) But one universal bookstore phenomenon is the ISBN, or International Standard Book Number, a 13-digit number that helps bookstores keep track of every book every published in every country on earth. ISBN is just one of many standards set by the International Organization For Standardization, which appropriately enough, keeps track of each of its various numbering systems with a numbering system. ISBN is known by the ISO as ISO-2018. ISO-8601 is a system for “Data elements and interchange formats—information interchange—representation of dates and times.” In short, it standardizes how computers tell time. This was of particular interest 21 years ago, when the world nervously anticipated the Y2K Problem, in which computers that used a two-digit date (with an implied 19 to indicate the century) would simultaneously malfunction at the stroke of midnight. We’ll take a look at what passed for global catastrophe 20 years ago to kick off The A.V. Club’s exploration of the year 2000 next week.