A samurai in a latrine; outside, his three attendants hold their noses. Coloured woodcut by Hokusai, 1834, via Wellcome Collection.

At some time during the Tokugawa period in Japan, the magistrates in the coastal city of Osaka received an air quality complaint. Residents who lived near the port objected to the foul smell that emanated from some of the docking ships. A thriving urban sprawl, Osaka welcomed a number of merchant boats, domestic and foreign, that delivered tea, rice, silk, fish, and other goods. But along with these boats came other vessels that ferried much less agreeable cargo — namely, human waste. These boats cleared the city of its daily shimogoe, as the Japanese called their sewage.

Brought to the wharves by the shimogoe collectors, the waste was loaded into the boats’ bellies. But instead of being dumped into the sea or onto a remote island, where the Japanese sent some of their other, less useful garbage, it was shipped to local farmers. The valuable shimogoe went on to nourish food for the people who produced it. Fittingly, the word shimogoe literally meant “fertilizer from the bottom of a person,” and is roughly translated into English as “night soil,” explains Kayo Tajima, professor at the Rikkyo University in Tokyo, whose research focuses on environmental economics and urban studies. As the city grew, so did the amount of night soil it generated. More boats had to come to take away the mammoth loads. Eventually, the daily hauls generated such a stink that people protested.

The magistrates considered the problem. On one hand, the complaint had merit. On the other, banning the sewage ships from the port would cause not one, but two major problems. First, it would cripple the city’s waste disposal system. Second, it would leave farmers without fertilizer and urbanites without food, both of which would result in an uproar. After much deliberation, the magistrates ruled that “it was unavoidable for the manure boats to come into the wharves used by the tea and other ships.” In the end, the sewage haulers retained their rights to dock alongside other vessels.

To us, this decision may seem unhygienic at best. But the Japanese maintained a very different view of human excreta. Unlike European countries, Japan was not blessed with an abundance of natural resources and large swaths of fertile land. As a little country spread over a few small islands where mountain ranges occupied three-quarters of the landmass, Japan had to make do with what it had. A large portion of its harsh, rocky terrain couldn’t be used for agriculture at all. It didn’t have the abundant grassy landscapes so common in Europe, which limited how many cattle it could sustain. Its soil, sandy and nutrient-poor, would bear very meager crops without fertilizer.

Japanese farmers didn’t have a lot of domestic animals due to their lack of pastureland, so the primary fertilizer they counted on was the one they collected from themselves. “Japanese peasants didn’t keep big animals, they had very few horses and cows, so they didn’t have animal manure,” Tajima explains. “So they had to use what humans produced — shimogoe.”

German botanist and traveler Philipp Franz von Siebold wrote about how impressed he was with the Japanese ability to convert their barren, infertile soil into flourishing fields. “The soil is naturally sterile, but the labour bestowed upon it, aided by judicious irrigation, and all the manure that can in any way be collected, conquers its natural defects, and is repaid by abundant harvests.”

So it’s not surprising that for Japanese farmers, excrement was a prized resource on which they placed a high economic value. It was certainly worth the stink. The collectors, who went from door to door to gather the riches, paid a pretty penny for it. The haughty Osaka urbanites offended by the smell could not win against the treasured waste. That humanure was needed to feed humanity.

And humanity was rapidly growing. Even before the Tokugawa period, which started in the seventeenth century, Japan was undergoing a massive urban boom. The little fishing villages that dotted the country’s shores began to grow into towns, and towns swelled into cities. By the early eighteenth century, Edo, which was later renamed Tokyo, was larger than any European city at the time: London’s population was estimated at about 575,000, and Edo’s at about a million. All of Edo’s urban dwellers relied on the surrounding farms to supply them with rice and vegetables. And the farmers relied on the cities’ waste to grow their produce year after year.

Farms that were relatively close to the city’s outskirts could collect shimogoe without the expensive boat transport. They would mount two buckets, called koe-oke, on the ends of a pole and carry it to the farm on their backs or with a pushcart. That load was called one ka. A horse could carry four koe-oke or two ka. Some farmers came to town to collect the fertilizer themselves. Those who could hire help sent day laborers. Peasants who lived farther away and couldn’t afford to buy a boat had to rely on rich farmers’ willingness to sell them some shimogoe. And those able to buy a boat could start a lucrative shimogoe shipping business.

In some cases, farmers established annual contracts with urban families. Called tsuke-tsubo, these agreements stipulated that a farmer could collect all of the household’s night soil for a year in exchange for a certain amount of rice as a down payment. So the residents would save their shimogoe for their particular farmer. Some upper-class farmers had established relationships with daimyo — Japan’s feudal lords who governed the country’s provinces and owned large estates with many servants. The farmers supplied the estates with firewood and young plants for vegetable gardens, in exchange for the privilege of emptying the estates’ toilets. The access to such riches was a boon, not only in quantity, but also in quality, Tajima explains. The nobility and their servants ate well, so they produced nutrient-rich shimogoe.

Deemed an import business, shimogoe transactions were handled in a very businesslike manner — through regulations, contracts, and records. “Edo/Tokyo’s highly commercialized system for managing night soil was to a large extent unique,” Tajima writes in her paper titled “The Marketing of Urban Human Waste in the Early Modern Edo/Tokyo Metropolitan Area,” which describes the sophistication and structure of city-farm night soil relationships. There was also a process for resolving the conflicts that periodically arose over waste. The clashes weren’t about whose unpleasant duty it was to remove the muck, but rather about who would be lucky enough to lay their hands on it.

Japanologist Susan B. Hanley also notes that “the most important difference between waste disposal in Japan and in the West was that human excreta were not regarded as something that one paid to have removed, but rather as a product with a positive economic value.” In fact, the value of this waste wasn’t just positive — it rose as the cities grew and fluctuated with the seasons. Tajima cites historical sources that chronicled what farmers of the Tokugawa period were willing to pay Edo’s residents for their shimogoe. “Seven or eight years ago they used to exchange the urine for rice straw; in winter until the beginning of spring, they gave two small bundles of straw for one ka (two buckets) of urine. From the end of the second month to the third month in spring, they gave three to four bundles of straw for the same amount of urine, and in the beginning of summer, when a lot of fertilizer is needed, they gave six bundles of straw.”

Similar “waste inflation” was happening in eighteenth-century Osaka. Before then, Osaka’s residents simply exchanged their excrement for food. The incoming boats would bring in produce and fish, and the outgoing ones would carry excrement off to the countryside. But in the early eighteenth century, food demands grew. More rice paddies were built in the countryside around Osaka, and they all needed to be fertilized. Food prices jumped as well, and the urbanites, no longer able to afford bartering, started selling their excrement to the farmers. It wasn’t cheap. The price of the night soil produced by ten households in a year was about two to three bu of silver or over half a ryo of gold. To put that in perspective, one ryo could buy all the grain needed to feed one person for a year.

A system of regulations governed the night soil business, delving into minuscule details unfathomable by our standards. For example, if a family rented a house, who had the rights to the excrement — the tenants or the landlord? It may seem logical that the tenants, who produced it, should’ve been the proud owners of their poo, but that’s not how things worked in frugal, nourishment-poor Japan. The dwelling’s night soil belonged to the landlord, who sold it, by contract, to the night soil gatherers. What’s more, the price paid was factored into the rent: as Hanley writes, “Rent was adjusted on the basis of how many tenants there were and was raised if the number of occupants dropped.” American zoologist Edward Morse, who lived in Japan, wrote that he “was told in Hiroshima in the renting of the poorer tenement houses, if three persons occupied a room together the sewage paid the rent of one, and if five occupied the same room no rent was charged.” Human beings and their natural power to produce this sustainable and valuable resource were held in great esteem.

European travelers to Japan told stories of farmers bringing gifts to community members near Tokyo to thank them for their manurial donations. “Once a year, in fact, the terrace people were given what they called ‘dung cakes.’ A local farmer used regularly to bring along a cart and buy up all the night soil from the communal toilet; then, at the end of the year, he’d take them some of the special rice used for making rice cakes to thank them for the year’s supply of ‘dung’ . . . ‘you can see ‘business’ has been good this year — there are plenty of dung cakes,’ we’d joke to each other.”

Farmers fought over who got to collect excrement and where. In the summer of 1724, two groups of villages from the Yamazaki and Takatsuki areas erupted in “poop wars,” fighting over the rights to gather night soil from different parts of Osaka. So did farmers from other areas. The cities formed their own organizations charged with organizing and overseeing waste disposal, trading, and price negotiation. These city guilds argued with farmers’ associations over monopolies on night soil collection, areas, and fees. As the city guilds raised the price, the less fortunate farmers who could no longer afford to pay for their fertilizer were in trouble. That led to a crime unfathomable by Western standards: stealing shit. Incidents of such theft appear in the Japanese records more than once. By Japanese canons, it was a very serious offense. So serious, in fact, that the law enforcement authorities punished it by sending the felons to prison. And yet that didn’t stop the desperate farmers from committing their stinky crime. A sudden drop in excrement supply could completely devastate a family. When a fire burned down a large residential area in Edo that one farmer had relied on, he “suffered major crop losses.”

Urine, which actually contains more nitrogen than feces, was also in demand. In many cases, the two were collected and used as a mixture, but in some areas they were collected in separate pots and marketed separately. Urine, however, was more problematic to ship, in part because it was a liquid and in part because humans produce a much greater volume of it. Solid waste was more compact, harder to spill, and easier to transport over long distances. But the smart and frugal village folk didn’t let any accidental nourishment slip away. If a traveler passing through the village had to use the facilities, they were readily provided in the form of buckets left by the side of the road so that not a precious drop would go to waste. Some villagers even built privy vaults on the street-facing side of their homes for the convenience of passers-by — another feature that left a deep impression on European travelers. “Care is taken, that the filth of travellers be not lost, and there are in several places, near country people’s houses, or in their fields, houses of office built for them to do their needs,” German explorer Engelbert Kaempfer wrote in his book about his journeys in Japan. “Nor doth horses dung lie long upon the ground but it is soon taken up by poor country children and serves to manure the fields.”

The excrement producers understood how much power they carried within them. And they could be quite discerning about where to exercise that power — at their home or at somebody else’s. Some could be generous. They would take a dump at their in-laws’ house while visiting for dinner. Others could be tacky and miserly, and keep it all to themselves. That behavior could apparently earn you a bad reputation. The Japanese “told stories about stingy guests who would hurry home when they felt their sphincters tightening so as not to give away valuable fertilizer.” Going to the bathroom at a friend’s house was an act of generosity. It was like leaving a gift.

Adapted from The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth and Health by Lina Zeldovich, to be published by the University of Chicago Press on November 19, 2021. Copyright © 2021 by Lina Zeldovich.

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