When I arrived in Okinawa in 1992, which was to be my final duty station in the Navy, I attended "Island Indoc" - a week-long series of lectures about the island that was to be my home for the next three years. I was instructed about the geography and history of the island, learning curious facts like the occupation of Okinawa by the U.S. military until 1972. Overnight, I was told, traffic was redirected to the left side of the road and all the road signs in English were swapped out with ones in Japanese.
Of the many peculiarly Japanese customs of which I was informed, one of them caught me by surprise. Despite Okinawa - like the rest of Japan - being one of the most resplendently modern places in the whole of Asia, urinating in public is still tolerated. This practice has all but died out in Europe and the U.S. Doing so nowadays - and getting caught - would get you ticketed for indecent exposure anywhere north of the Alps and east or west of the Mississippi.(1) The only people who continue to do it are either outdoorsmen or the homeless, for whom the whole wide world is their potential toilet. But in Japan, as long as he isn't waving his John Thomas at passing traffic, a man can piss just about anywhere he pleases.(2)
In the twenty-two years since then, I have learned that the same - publicly urinating - goes for the rest of Asia. In the Philippines, the practice is so ubiquitous that it's inescapable. You cannot drive down a highway or walk along a street anywhere - or look out of your kitchen window - without seeing some Pinoy up against a tree or a wall taking a leak. I have attended parties where the men will walk around the closest corner and pee whilst carrying on a conversation with me.
But however many times I have seen it (and if I had an American dollar for every time I have I could buy a return plane ticket home), I can never - will never - get used to it or do it myself. When I was in the Army conducting a "field problem" in the middle of nowhere, I would have no choice but to urinate and defecate behind some shrubs. But such extraordinary circumstances in my life are over, thank god. I have lived in four different houses since I came to live in the Philippine provinces, and every one of them have had - as one precondition for my living there - a functioning indoor toilet. But, just when I thought I'd seen everything in this outlandish place, I will look out of one of my windows and see things like a grown man who also has an indoor toilet walk out of his front door and piss on his outside wall. Or watch his little boys pull out their willies and piss directly on the ground where they play. It takes my breath away, especially when the stench of the sun-dried piss wafts through my windows and hits my nostrils. If dogs can do it, why can't men?
There have been quite token attempts in Manila to construct public urinals and to persuade men to use them. Having found myself occasionally in the wrong place at the wrong time, I can attest to the fact that such public toilets are a nightmare. I have also noticed some "pay" toilets that charge two pesos for their use - which makes them that much more of a hollow gesture.
Why does it seem like such a compulsion for these men to stop whatever they're doing in a public place and piss on something - a mango tree or a highway guard rail - that isn't supposed to be peed on? I'm certain that Freud addressed this curious phenomenon somewhere in his voluminous writings on human psychology. It must be the manifestation of some male sexual fetish - exposing his shortcomings and leaving his pheromone-rich waste wherever he happens to find himself. Since no apparent effort is made to conceal the act, there must also be some male-bonding element to it. I give Filipinos the benefit of the doubt by assuming that it's an unthinking, practically unconscious act - which makes it seem - to me - that much more unconscionable. Just because one CAN do something does not always mean that one SHOULD do it. And just because something is not illegal does not mean that it's right.
(1) A friend who has lived in Rome tells me that Italians are still as relaxed as ever about pissing in public.
(2) Unless she has developed the talent of pissing without dropping her shorts, a woman in Asia isn't free to do the same as men. Although I have seen, despite all attempts to UNSEE it, an old woman defecating on a street in Okinawa.
Postscript 2 December 2014. I should, I suppose, count myself lucky. When reading V.S. Naipaul's impressions of India, he writes that “They defecate on the hills; they defecate on the riverbanks; they defecate on the streets.”