The Bowel-Loosening Properties of, Uh, Bookstores

Bookstores and their bathrooms.

One of the most delightful aspects of writing these weekly newsletters is the tips we receive from readers and other members of the uBiome team.

Sometimes they take us to the most unexpected places, but today’s tip must surely rank at the very top of unexpected place-ness.

One of our team – we’ll call her Alison because, well, that’s her name – asked whether we’d ever written about the phenomenon of people feeling an urge to poop when they visit bookstores.

Wait, what?

In more than five years of exploring the world of bacteria and often, let’s face it, bottoms, we thought we’d heard it all.

But Alison proved otherwise.

Let’s begin with her own story.

Describing herself as a lifelong “sufferer,” she explained that it all began in her childhood. “Ask my mom,” she says. “Minutes after arriving at a bookstore, I’d start to panic. I was overtaken by the need to find the bathroom. Quickly. And as a result, I now know every Manhattan bookstore with a clean bathroom.”

Alison’s experiences prompted her to find out if anyone else had ever had similar urges and, boy, had they ever.

The overall story starts in Tokyo in 1985, when a relatively unheard of 29-year-old woman named Mariko Aoki wrote a short letter to a magazine called Han no Zasshi (“Book Magazine”).

In her letter, Mariko wrote: “I’m not sure why, but since about two or three years ago, whenever I go to a bookstore, I am struck by an urge to move my bowels.”

Mariko’s letter amused the magazine’s editor, who decided to print it, not for one moment anticipating the outcome.

Nobody, it seems, was more surprised than the editor, when the magazine received a deluge of responses from other readers who confessed that they, too, were troubled by this same response to bookstores, resulting in the magazine naming it the “Mariko Aoki Phenomenon,” which they defined as “an urge to defecate that is suddenly felt after entering bookstores.”

Capitalising on its discovery, the magazine ran a follow-up article, sensationally headlined “The Phenomenon Currently Shaking The Bookstore Industry!”

Now, personally, we wouldn’t quite put it up there with, say, the events around new Harry Potter movies, or a Gwyneth Paltrow book signing, but believe us, this Mariko Aoki Phenomenon began to take off big-time in Japan.

One measure of its significance is its 6,200 word Wikipedia article, mainly translated from Japanese.

Just for context, 6,200 words is around the same length as the entire Wikipedia article about a substantially better-known condition, irritable bowel syndrome.

So a thing that makes people want to poop in bookstores has a Wikipedia article that’s the same length as a medical condition affecting an estimated 10-15% of the world’s population. It’s a strange world.

Clearly, though, the Mariko Aoki Phenomenon seems to be an experience that many, uh, experience.

But perhaps, like us, you’re wondering why?

What on earth could cause people to feel the need to poop on entering bookstore?

Well, although there are many theories, none are actually proven, causing Japanese social psychologist Shozo Shibuya to say that “the specific causes that trigger a defecation urge in bookstores are not yet clearly understood.”

Some suggest that the smell of paper or ink might have a laxative effect.

Others wonder whether it could be caused by customers being relaxed in bookstores.

But if relaxation was the cause, we can think of all kinds of other places that ought to inspire bathroom visits, but seemingly don’t.

With the exception of our own Alison, we’ve so far largely confined ourselves to pigeonholing this phenomenon as Japanese, but research shows that it’s a) also big in America, and b) not only confined to bookstores.

Americans have reported that they experience the Mariko Aoki phenomenon in libraries, record stores (remember those?), craft stores – such as Michaels, World Market, Marshalls, and – rather precisely – the fabric section at Walmart.

Taking specificity to a whole new level, one online post refers to a gentleman who feels the urge to purge while in the housewares department of his local supermarket, in the Value Village men’s clothing department, and in the public library.

Gosh, it must make shopping expeditions pretty challenging.

A commentary on this whole strange business appears on the excellent Dear Scientist website, pointing out that many of these activities involve browsing of some kind, and succinctly wonders: “Is there something relaxing about the process of roaming through large spaces while searching for non-specific items of marginal necessity that activates the parasympathetic nervous system and its associated urges?”

Sir, or Ma’am, we really couldn’t have put it better ourselves.

People take this thing really seriously: there’s even a closed Facebook group called “The Mariko Aoki Phenomenon Research Group.”

For the last word, however, we allowed Google to suggest activities or places that someone says “makes me poop.”

Topping the list?

“TJ Maxx makes me poop.”

“Target makes me poop.”

And, more generally, “Shopping makes me poop.”

Of course, there’s a trend towards people buying their books online. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are disappearing, unfortunately.

So it’s great to know that other types of stores could step in to help those who might depend on this decidedly unusual flavor of retail therapy to, uh, get things moving.

More reading

Irritable bowel syndrome statistics

Mariko Aoki

Mariko Aoki phenomenon

The Mariko Aoki Phenomenon – Research Group

There’s A Phenomenon That Explains Why You Poop At Bookstores

Why Certain Locales Trigger Bowel Movements

Why Do I Have to Poop When Browsing, Redux

21 thoughts on “The Bowel-Loosening Properties of, Uh, Bookstores

  1. Maria Rose

    I don’t know about the need for using the bathroom while shopping anywhere as being specific to bookstores but I do think that we in today’s pressured fast paced view of life, have forgotten to focus/ recognize basic bodily functions.
    Our bodies have functions which occur without any direct mental effort of thought ( walking, chewing, digesting and eliminating). Some people consider these functions as an interruption to activity they do and don’t react unless in a relaxed state of mind–hence while shopping.
    If people would remember that key advice made by parents all over when going on an outing from home and make a potty stop check . If you are aware of how your body functions, you won’t have the need for a potty stop while shopping unless you are on a day long shopping spree.

  2. It never ceases to amaze me how you manage to blog about about an awkward, Scientific, kind of icky topic with a combination humorous word play, serious research, and thoroughness. Inspired writing and much appreciated!

  3. Que Estavia

    For many many years now my wife suddenly has an urgent need to defecate when we are about to leave the house. warning her ahead of time does not help. This happens pretty much every time, too. Something about leaving, whether we are just going a few blocks to the store or going on an international vacation.

  4. Susan Magiera

    Could it be, not the experience itself, but the anticipation that initiates the urge? Seeing as it occurs at the beginning of the expedition instead of later.

  5. The reason why you’ll come up short of explanations or find explanations that later prove to be shortsighted is that your searches mainly limit themselves to the Newtonian universe (100+years old), and don’t stick a foot into Einsteins universe (50+ years old) much less the quantum physics universe (20+ years old).

    In the universe as we understand it today (TBD) everything is energy – rocks are hard (and they’re energy) water is wet (and it’s energy) and everything first and foremost exists in an energy field and obeys the laws of physics with regard to energy.

    Library and book stores have an energy field.

    People are energy fields.

    When one inhabits the same space with the other there’s an interaction that we mostly don’t yet understand.

    However, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle definitively gives us some guidance. Namely, whatever we expect to see and believe we will see, will manifest in an energy field. Whenever there is an existing body of knowledge or data about something, that something behaves according to the data that mostly describes how it will be expected to behave.

    Now in the energy universe, a field that is overflowing with data seeks an evacuation. Simple concept and much more fruitful in the energy universe than it was in Newton’s universe.

    Hee hee

  6. Kathleen Lane

    I have had this experience for years and years and years and I really believe that it’s because when we are shopping no matter where we are no matter what store it is we are relaxed a whole lot more than when we’re out in the world trying to figure things out I still to this day I have to go to the bathroom five minutes after I walk into any store so it’s nice to see other people have the same experience. My friends also hv same!

  7. Pingback: Forgive Me For Asking, But Do Bookstores Make You Poop? - Daily News Place

  8. Helen

    Many people don’t walk much so perhaps those people get the urge after a short walk to the store. Perhaps the time of day is similar. Also we are creatures of habit and associations can trigger all sorts of reactions, as proven in NIP and hypnosis.

  9. Eric

    Why doesn’t ubiome have a phone number where I can ask questions about how this all works, how much you’re billing my insurance company, etc.? Having a support email is not enough.

    1. uBiome Team

      Hi Eric, we don’t have a phone line at the moment, but we hope to change that soon! We do however, have a live chat feature on our website, so you can still connect, in real-time, with a member of our customer support team!

  10. Pingback: Do You Feel A Sudden Urge To Poop When You're Shopping For Books? – GENIE NEWS

  11. Neil Kuchinsky

    What are the bowel-moving effects of being a book-store employee? Would more comfortable bathroom seating (perhaps with heated seats and automatic bidets) increase sales in bookstores? Are the bowel effects replicated in libraries? If so, does returning a late book and having to pay a small fine improve or inhibit peristalsis?
    Does reading the works of Ayn Rand make one more anally retentive, or do her readers just predisposed to that?
    So many questions in need of research!

  12. MPepper

    Haha, this used to happen to me all the time when looking at greeting cards. Not sure what triggered the urge to go, but it got to where I knew it would happen without fail. Now that I’m older maybe my heart has hardened or my bowels just aren’t as easily moved, but it doesn’t happen now. Whew, I’m really thankful because I really hate to have to go in public restrooms! Interesting that I have finally found out I’m not alone in this issue though! 😉

  13. Jo Dakin

    I have experienced this phenomenon on numerous occasions and at a variety of venues. So many of us lead sedentary lives, which can lead to problems with constipation. Perhaps walking around a department store is sadly the only tiime we get the exercise required to naturally stimulate our elimination systems. I have attributed my race to the restroom to while out running errands to this.

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