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The Unbearable Poopness of Bookstores

It’s called the Mariko Aoki phenomenon and it means the sudden urge some people feel to empty their bowels when in a bookstore. We are not kidding.

Imagine you have been walking the aisles of your favourite bookstore for an hour, letting your gaze gaily hop from one spine to the next. You smell the ink and the paper. You hear the dulcet tones of a piano over the PA system.

And then it hits you, like a cannonball dropping in your lower abdomen.

The acute, undeniable urge to evacuate your bowels.

As you make a run for the nearest public washroom, you think to yourself, “Not again!”

The scenario above will divide our readers. Some will be left scratching their head, wondering why I cooked up such a strange story. Others will be blushing. They will feel seen.

Indeed, this peculiar confluence of events—feeling an overwhelming urge to go #2 while visiting a bookstore—has been reported time and time again, mostly in Japanese media, and it even has a name: Mariko Aoki phenomenon, after the young woman who inadvertently wrote it down in the annals of history.

Sure, there had been mentions in literary work as early as the 1950s, and the occasional discussion on radio and television, but it was the February 1985 issue of Japan’s Hon no Zasshi (which translates to Book Magazine) that blew the lid on the phenomenon. The magazine printed a short letter from a woman named Mariko Aoki, who had realized that wandering inside a bookstore triggered this urge to relieve herself. Following publication, the magazine received several reports from readers who regularly experienced the same. Their next issue had a 14-page feature article on this unsolved mystery. The horse was out of the barn: the Mariko Aoki phenomenon was apparently, according to Book Magazine’s sensationalistic headline, “shaking the bookstore industry.”

Taking a crack at finding the cause

The Mariko Aoki phenomenon is a case study in how easy it is to generate hypotheses to explain something strange that makes little sense at face value. After all, what could possibly explain the intense—some have even said apocalyptic—urge to drop the kids off at the pool, but only specifically when inside a bookstore? Well, the brain abhors a vacuum, and when it starts speculating, it can be hard to stop.

One leading theory points the finger at smells. Bookstores are full of books. Paper and ink carry a specific scent. Maybe tickling the old olfactory nerves in this specific way has pressing consequences down below? A few experiments have apparently been carried out in the Japanese media, such as on the television show The Real Side of Un’nan and by philosopher Kenji Tsuchiya, but the results, according to Wikipedia, have been negative.

I use Wikipedia as a reference not without trepidation, but because the English-language academic literature seems mum on the topic of the Mariko Aoki phenomenon. Speculations abound in the printed Japanese media, and highlights have been made available in English on Wikipedia. It is thus difficult to access primary sources here.

Another hypothesis takes us back to Pavlov. A Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov trained a hungry dog to salivate at the sound of a buzzer or metronome. He helped show that a response can become predictable in a certain environment by using reinforcement. If you are used to reading on the toilet, the thinking goes, maybe you start to associate books with defecation. Walking into a large bookstore would act like a buzzer to Pavlov’s dogs. Instead of salivating, the reflex would come from your bowels.

Then there’s the conflicting theory of stress and relaxation. Some have posited that because life is stressful, walking into a bookstore—a calm oasis of intellectual rewards—acts as a release. On the other hand, the stress of having to pick the right book might actually speed up intestinal transit. Add to that any anticipatory anxiety over the possibility of having to go to the washroom and not being able to find one in time, and you end up creating the very problem you are trying to avoid.

But hypotheses do not end here.

Is it the vertical reading of spines, with the eyes moving up and down over and over, that triggers the urge? Is it the posture of squatting down to look at books, which facilitates defecation by straightening the rectum? Is it the exercise one gets from walking around a bookstore when they might otherwise be quite sedentary and afflicted with constipation? Is it the cup of coffee, known to speed things up down there, that is served at the bookstore or that is drunk before going book shopping? The list of hypotheses is as long and bendy as the large intestine itself, and it ends in utter flights of fancy such as the influence of a book’s psychic energy on the intestinal transit system.

The pooping delusion

Some don’t bite and ascribe the Mariko Aoki phenomenon to a simple frequency illusion. You may have heard of the 11:11 phenomenon. Some people believe the time 11:11 holds spiritual meaning. Once they notice 11:11 on a clock, they start to notice it regularly. It’s not that 11:11 suddenly comes up more often, or that they are drawn to the clock at 11:11 by some spiritual entity crudely attempting communication. It’s simply that these people notice the times when the clock says 11:11 and don’t pay attention when it doesn’t. Similarly, if you start to make a connection between being in a bookstore and experiencing this dramatic need to relieve yourself, you may notice it the next time it happens, but not necessarily when it happens at the cinema or when it doesn’t happen the next time you visit the bookstore.

Bulking up this theory is the fact that for some, bookstores don’t do it. It’s the arts and crafts store. It’s Best Buy. It’s Target. In fact, websites like Reddit are full of comments from people who identify with the Mariko Aoki phenomenon, but for whom the trigger is a different type of store, usually a big box store where one might spend a lot of time.

Some will push back against this and bear down on the accusation that these are just normal bowel movements that are noticed because they are triggered in public places. These are no ordinary craps, they say. The pressure is abrupt and forceful. It might be characterized the way comedian Robin Williams talked about the end of his colonoscopy in 2002: “FIRE IN THE HOLE!”

A recent visit I paid to a medical specialist proved unintentionally enlightening toward the Mariko Aoki phenomenon. The doctor told me that, when it comes to complicated, chronic conditions, patients often look for a single trigger, one cause to explain it all. But often, the triggers are many. One person’s symptoms can be caused by many triggers, but the same symptom in many people can have different causes too. We shouldn’t rule out complexity. It’s possible that all of the theories surrounding the Mariko Aoki phenomenon are true, and that each applies to a subset of the people afflicted with it.

For some, it may be the coffee. For others, the state of relaxation that browsing brings about helps with their mild constipation. For others, choice paralysis might stress the colon out. And for some, it’s just a question of making a connection where there really is none. All of these hypotheses might be correct.

Except for psychic energy. That’s a crappy explanation.

Take-home message:
-The Mariko Aoki phenomenon is the name given to the overwhelming urge some people apparently feel to defecate whenever they find themselves in a bookstore
-It was named after Mariko Aoki, whose short letter describing this bizarre association was published by a Japanese magazine in 1985
-Many hypotheses have been put forward to explain the phenomenon, including the smell of books, stress, relaxation, and simply the illusion of an association, with no clear answer to this puzzling condition


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