Mariko Aoki is a figure I’ve thought a lot of in recent months after randomly coming across an article about her peculiar story. I don’t know her, don’t even know if she’s living or dead, know virtually nothing about her, but over the past few months I’ve become transfixed by her and the theories that surround her and her, now legendary, syndrome or phenomenon, as it’s more commonly called.  

At first, I thought it was a joke or some wacky internet conspiracy theory. However, as I looked into it more, it became evident that it was a real life phenomenon which centered around the titular character of Mariko Aoki who once wrote an essay for a Japanese magazine in the mid-1980s about how she and, perhaps others, had an unexplained urge to defecate while in bookstores. I’m not making this up. It’s genuinely true and I, for one, found it absolutely fascinating. 

So, in the name of good journalism, I took a leisurely Sunday stroll (or as my late mother called it a constitutional) into Ikebukuro, one day in late November, to wander around the wonderful nine-floor behemoth that is Junkudo bookstore. It’s not often in life that I have said this, but the real reason for my adventure was to really see if I felt like taking a dump while in a bookshop. After confessing this to myself, I really wondered where my life had gone wrong and how I had succumbed to this scatological-themed burning shame. 

Before I let you in on my personal findings, however, let me give you some background on Aoki and her superb phenomenon. 

The Beginnings of the Phenomenon

Aoki, in 1985, contributed an essay to Hon no Zasshi describing her experiences of sauntering around bookstores with a very corporeal feeling of wanting to defecate. Apparently, other readers then wrote in to the magazine with similar stories and the phenomenon that is now the Mariko Aoki phenomenon was born. The debate, however, continues to rage to this very day with doctors, psychologists and amateur sleuths (I now consider myself one of this particular group) hypothesizing on the reasons for this quirky and, quite frankly, bizarre sensation. 

Now, I have previously written about shitting myself. Not a pretty story, but if you’re interested, then check out my essay from April of this year. This whole Aoki debacle, on the other hand, really piqued my interest. There are numerous and continually evolving theories on why, according to Science Times, at least one in 10 Japanese people have experienced the Mariko Aoki phenomenon. One such theory is the connection between bookshops and coffee with many stores in Japan having café areas or adjoining cafés. With coffee holding a very well-known laxative effect, many have conjectured that after a coffee or two and then a quick stroll around looking at books produces the effect of wanting to nip to the toilet. 

Various Other Theories

Another source of speculation is to do with posture. Apparently, as many of us bibliophiles bend and crouch when searching for books, this makes you want to empty your precious bowels. If you have ever crouched while skimming a title on the lower shelves of a store or a library, then this may well hold some traction. To be honest, I’m not totally sold on this one. 

The next, totally unproven, of course, theory is that the smell of ink used in books and magazines has a kind of laxative effect. However, as Science Times proposes, it may well be more connected to the psychology of linking books with shitting. “Another suggestion is that the smell of ink and old paper triggers defecation,” writes Conelisa Hubilla for Science Times. “Unlike the effect of onions in making a person cry, it is not the smell of books that is correlated with bodily function. Instead, it is due to the tendency of the brain to link the smell of books to behaviors such as pooping.”

And the idea for me which might carry the most weight is the supposition that humans feel the need to visit the bathroom when confronted with an inordinate amount of information. Thus, visits to locations such as museums, convenience stores and department stores often result in people feeling anxious due to sensory overload. This may lead to a trip to the toilet. 

Trying Too Hard

Now, about my own experience. I took the elevator to the ninth floor of Junkudo and explored the English-language section, which has a very comprehensive selection of magazines, newspapers, fiction and nonfiction. I perused the new Paul Auster and Yiyun Li books, as well as browsing some foreign fashion magazines, willing myself to take a truly gruesome dump. No luck in that department, however.

I then took the elevator down to the first floor, which holds quite a stupendous selection of magazines. I skimmed through my favorites, Popeye, Brutus, CLUÉL homme and Men’s Fudge. Nothing. Disappointed and with my head lowered in some existential angst, I walked towards Seibu department store to check out the men’s fashion floor, which has some very nice boutiques that host a paradise of domestic and international brands. Not a hint of a bathroom visit. Perhaps I was trying too hard? Willing yourself to go isn’t particularly natural, I’ll admit that. And the fact I was conscious of doing this experiment for a magazine article perhaps put me off a bit. 

But spare a thought for Mariko Aoki, whoever she is or was. Having a bona fide syndrome named after you is impressive, but a syndrome connected to scatological issues isn’t perhaps the legacy anyone would want to leave. I can imagine my daughter asking me one day in the future, “Papa, what are you famous for?” Well, darling, I’m famous for not being able to take a dump in a bookstore. 

If this article made you think of toilets, you can read about Tokyo’s designer toilets here.