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.
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.