Imagine walking the aisles of your favorite bookstore for an hour, letting your gaze happily jump from spine to spine. You smell of ink and paper. You hear the sweet tones of a piano over the sound system.
And then it hits you, like a cannonball falling into your lower abdomen.
The acute and undeniable urge to evacuate your intestines.
As you run to the nearest public restroom, you think to yourself, “Not yet!
The above scenario will divide our readers. Some will scratch their heads, wondering why I concocted such a strange story. Others will blush. They will feel seen.
Indeed, this particular confluence of events – feeling an irresistible urge to go No. 2 while visiting a bookstore – has been reported many times, mostly in the Japanese media, and it even has a name: the Mariko Aoki phenomenon, named after the young woman who inadvertently wrote it down in the annals of history.
Sure, there had been mentions in literary works as early as the 1950s, and occasional discussion on radio and television, but this was the February 1985 issue of Japan’s Hon no Zasshi (which translates to Book Magazine) which blew the lid on the phenomenon. The magazine printed a short letter from a woman named Mariko Aoki, who had realized that wandering through a bookstore triggered this urge to relieve herself. After its publication, the magazine received several reports from readers who regularly experienced the same thing. Their next issue contained a 14-page feature article on this unsolved mystery. The horse had left the stable: the phenomenon Mariko Aoki was apparently, according to Book Magazinesensationalist headline, “shaking up the bookstore industry”.
Try to find the cause
The Mariko Aoki Phenomenon is a case study in how easily it is possible to generate hypotheses to explain something strange that makes little sense at first glance. After all, what could explain the intense – some have even said apocalyptic – urge to drop the kids off at the pool, but only specifically inside a bookstore? Well, the brain abhors a vacuum, and when it starts to speculate, it can be hard to stop.
A prominent theory points to odors. Bookstores are full of books. Paper and ink carry a specific scent. Maybe tickling old olfactory nerves in this specific way has pressing consequences down below? A few experiments have apparently been conducted in Japanese media, such as the TV show Un’nan’s True Side and by philosopher Kenji Tsuchiya, but the results, according to Wikipedia, were negative.
I use Wikipedia as a reference not without apprehension, but because English academic literature seems silent on the subject of the Mariko Aoki phenomenon. Speculation abounds in Japanese print media, and highlights have been made available in English on Wikipedia. It is therefore difficult to access the primary sources here.
Another hypothesis brings us back to Pavlov. Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov trained a hungry dog to salivate to the sound of a buzzer or a metronome. He helped show that a response can become predictable in a certain environment using reinforcement. If you’re used to reading on the toilet, you might think, you’re starting to associate books with defecation. Walking into a large bookstore would act as a buzzer for Pavlov’s dogs. Instead of salivating, the reflex would come from your intestines.
Then there is the contradictory theory of stress and relaxation. Some have postulated that because life is stressful, stepping into a bookstore – a quiet oasis of intellectual rewards – acts as a release. On the other hand, the stress of having to choose the right book could actually speed up bowel movement. Add to that any anticipated anxiety about having to go to the bathroom and not being able to find one in time, and you end up creating the very problem you’re trying to avoid.
But the assumptions do not stop there.
Is it the vertical reading of the thorns, with the eyes moving up and down again and again, that triggers the envy? Is it the squatting posture to look at books that facilitates defecation by straightening the rectum? Is this the exercise one gets from walking through a bookstore when they might otherwise be quite sedentary and afflicted with constipation? Is it the cup of coffee, known to speed things up there, that you serve at the bookstore or drink before you go shopping? The list of hypotheses is as long and convoluted as the large intestine itself, and it ends in wild flights like the influence of psychic energy from a book on the intestinal transit system.
The delirium of poo
Some don’t bite and attribute the Mariko Aoki phenomenon to a simple frequency illusion. You may have heard of the 11:11 phenomenon. Some people believe that the time 11:11 has spiritual significance. Once they notice 11:11 on a clock, they start noticing it regularly. It’s not that 11:11 suddenly happens more often, or that they’re drawn to the clock at 11:11 by some spirit entity crudely attempting to communicate. It’s just that these people notice the times when the clock says 11:11 and don’t pay attention when it doesn’t. Likewise, if you start to make the connection between being in a bookstore and having this dramatic need to relieve yourself, you might notice it the next time it happens, but not necessarily when it comes to the movies or when it doesn’t. won’t happen the next time you visit the bookstore.
This theory is reinforced by the fact that for some, bookstores don’t. This is the arts and crafts store. It’s the best buy. It’s the 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 another type of store, usually a big box store where you can spend a lot of time.
Some will object to this and insist on the accusation that it is only normal bowel movements that are noticed because they are triggered in public places. This is no ordinary craps, they say. The pressure is brutal and powerful. It could be characterized by the way comedian Robin Williams talked about the end of his colonoscopy in 2002: “FIRE IN THE HOLE!”
A recent visit I made to a medical specialist turned out to be unwittingly illuminating on the Mariko Aoki phenomenon. The doctor told me that when it comes to complicated chronic illnesses, patients often look for a single trigger, a cause to explain everything. But often, the triggers are many. A person’s symptoms can be caused by many triggers, but the same symptom in many people can also have different causes. Do not rule out complexity. It is possible that all of the theories surrounding the Mariko Aoki phenomenon are true, and that each applies to a subset of people who have it.
For some, it may be the coffee. For others, the state of relaxation caused by sailing helps to combat their mild constipation. For others, choice paralysis could stress the colon. And for some, it’s just about making a connection where there really isn’t one. All of these assumptions could be correct.
Except for psychic energy. It’s a shitty explanation.
Take home message:
-The Mariko Aoki phenomenon is the name given to the irresistible urge that some people apparently feel to defecate every time 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 association, with no clear answer to this puzzling condition