By Prof. Martin Meadows
Recently I saw the following aphorism in an emailed collection of similar expressions: “You never appreciate what you have till it’s gone. Toilet paper is a good example.” That saying is quite amusing; however, the reason I mention it is because that is precisely what reminded me of, and thereupon gave me the idea to revisit, the situation that existed in Santo Tomas Internment Camp (a.k.a. STIC) regarding the rarely if ever discussed subject of toilet paper, now known more politely as bathroom tissue — hereinafter to be referred to as BT. I decided to explore the topic partly for the edification (?) of those who are unaware of it; partly in the hope that it would elicit similar recollections from others (especially women, whose perspective unfortunately is necessarily missing here); partly for my own records; and primarily because I was unable to find any treatment of it elsewhere. That is surprising, considering that BT is almost the equal of food and drink as a necessity of life (he said tongue-in-cheek). To be specific, I found no discussion of it in the four principal sources of information about camp life that I consulted for this brief survey. They include three primary sources (primary in the sense that they (1) were written by internees, and (2) are about STIC in general rather than personal accounts centered on the authors), and one secondary source. These are cited next in a short bibliographic detour.
The three primary sources are A. V. H. Hartendorp, The Japanese Occupation of the Philippines, two huge volumes (signed, incidentally, by the author); F. H. Stevens, Santo Tomas Internment Camp; and James E. McCall, Santo Tomas Internment Camp: Stic in Verse and Reverse. All of the primary sources lack indexes (where BT references, if any, might have been listed); and, though the Stevens work has a chapter on “Sanitation and Health,” there is no allusion to BT in its six sections. The lone secondary source is the comprehensive survey by Frances B. Cogan, Captured: The Japanese Internment of American Civilians in the Philippines, 1941-1945 (also signed by the author). Her book does contain an index, but, index or not, I can neither find nor recall any kind of coverage of BT in these (or any other) sources. Of course, that does not rule out the possibility that such coverage may exist, whether elsewhere or even in the four named sources. (Note: Curtis Brooks, STIC alumnus and member of the notorious Maurice Francis gang, astutely has suggested that perhaps the mimeographed pages of the STIC news sheet Internews may contain such information.) And now to move from procedural to substantive matters.
Initially, I should specify three cautions, or qualifications. First, what follows is based entirely on purely personal recollections. Second, those memories seem to be more acute for roughly the last two years of STIC life (perhaps because the “tissue issue” was less critical during the first year). Third, as is to be expected, I deal only with male contexts (i.e., men’s bathrooms) and male concerns (i.e., no mention of, e.g., sanitary pads). Regardless, I assume (erroneously or not) that my BT experiences were not unique to me In any event, with those qualifications in mind, the necessary starting point of any discussion of this subject is the ineluctable fact that BT was not available either at a central place in the bathrooms, or within the individual toilet stalls. That is because of one major (and self-evident) reason: like everything else of value in STIC, BT was in short supply, and would have vanished quickly had it been made available unrestrictedly.
That situation prevailed in all bathrooms, but — to digress — there was one feature that possibly was unique to the bathroom that I used, which was located at the south-side rear of the third floor in the Main Building. That feature was maximally annoying, to put it mildly — all of the half-dozen toilet stalls there lacked not only doors but any kind of covering to shield their occupants. Although I did use other bathrooms on a few occasions, I did that so infrequently that I do not recall whether they had a similar problem, except in the case of a bathroom in the Education Building, where I distinctly recall the stalls did have doors. And, since it is relevant to the question of uniqueness, it is worth noting that at one point I had to use the women’s third-floor bathroom — that was shortly after liberation, when Japanese shelling forced third-floor men for several days to use the women’s bathroom because, unlike the men’s bathroom, it was located on the safer (north) side of the building. That was how I learned that the toilet stalls there did have covering, in the form of flimsy green “curtains” — cloth that extended from about six feet high down to within about two feet from the floor. Come to think of it, for the sake of total accuracy I should say that I can speak only for the first stall, the only one which the women generously let the men use — the other four or five stalls were reserved for themselves. I had no chance (or desire) to notice the other stalls, for conditions in the bathroom were not conducive to lingering —no water supply, overflowing commodes, overpowering stench, etc.
And now, back to the subject. The absence of BT in the bathrooms meant that it had to be supplied from some other source. That is where the role of room monitor enters the picture. In my room (#43, located as noted on the third floor, at the front of the Main Building), its denizens — usually about 55 in number — took it for granted that our room monitor (a former seaman named Henry Pile) was responsible for distributing the BT allotted to our room. But they disagreed on the issue of how often to distribute the BT. One faction, perhaps assuming that most people are sufficiently rational and disciplined to control themselves, thought that each person should receive a full week’s BT allotment at one time. The other faction, evidently fearing that those individuals unable to discipline themselves might finish their BT supply too rapidly, favored doling it out on a daily basis. As might be expected, our room monitor preferred not to be burdened with the task of daily rationing, thus BT was distributed on a weekly basis in our room (and, I assume, in most if not all other rooms; I do not know about the Annex, which housed mothers with very young children).
Now to turn from the question of frequency (how often BT was distributed) to that of quantity (how much BT was distributed). I was unable to remember the ration amount, but fortunately the aforementioned Curtis Brooks came to the rescue — he recalled that each (male) internee was allotted six sheets daily. In light of that meager quota, even the obvious deserves comment — namely, that most internees had to try to supplement their BT supply with whatever else they could scrounge. One example of that was newspapers, which were available via the English-language Japanese propaganda sheet the Tribune; it was allowed into STIC until Nip losses in the war could no longer be camouflaged as victories, whereupon it was banned. (It is tempting to speculate that, when using the newspaper as BT, internees perhaps were thinking that it was serving its proper function.) Another example that I am aware of — or at least that I suspect — concerns a less obvious source of supplementary BT: in some of the many books that I borrowed from the camp library (located in the lobby of the Main Building), occasionally I would find that pages were missing, a fact which I consider probable evidence of an understandable but extremely annoying means of supplementation.
It would be interesting, in my opinion, to know not only the percentage of internees who did and who did not handle their BT allotments responsibly, but also the consequences of their not having done so. Internees of course were not surveyed about this, and even if a survey on such a personal matter had been feasible, the idea of doing so undoubtedly never would have occurred to anyone. Still, it would be instructive, I think, to speculate, however sketchily, as to what a standard survey would have involved — more specifically, what kinds of questions internees might have been asked. It seems to me that three basic aspects of the issue should have been examined, ideally focused on the following three questions: Did you apportion your BT supply properly? Did you handle it properly? What did you do if/when you found yourself without BT when you needed it? (The past tense in the questions assumes a post-liberation survey.) Naturally I can answer these questions only for myself, but I am also able to add a few comments about others in connection with (3)(c) below, thanks in large part to what friends told me during internment.
- (1) First of all, being (relatively) conscientious and organized, I customarily apportioned my BT supply properly, meaning that I allocated it equally over seven days.
- (2) Second, I handled my daily quota properly — that is, I made sure to carry it with me at all times, just as, say, one normally would carry a wallet at all times.
- (3) Third — no doubt as a result of (1) and (2) — I do not recall having found myself without BT when I needed it. Based on recollections of my contacts with others (mostly boys my age — I rarely interacted more than casually with girls, or with adults other than my parents), I can cite three possible tactics that could have been used when out of BT.
- (a) First, in theory the most logical tactic would have been to return to your room to retrieve some of your weekly BT supply (if any was left). This alternative, however, is based on two potentially faulty assumptions — that you do have BT in your room, and that you also have enough time to get to it.
- (b) The second tactic is one which I encountered on perhaps 8-10 occasions — namely, when a friend would stop me to ask whether I could loan him any BT (which of course he would promise to repay). If my daily BT supply was gone, I could say “Sorry” without remorse; but if not, I refused such requests anyway, for two reasons: partly because I did not trust the promises, but mainly because (needless to say) I might have to use the BT myself.
- (c) Before discussing the third tactic, a “trigger warning” is in order — overly sensitive individuals should read no further. To try to soften the impact, I should first state that, as far as I know (i.e., based on my own and others’ observations and on others’ admissions to me personally), this tactic seemingly was used only rarely, not as a matter of course. In any event, to put it bluntly, if you urgently needed BT but could neither retrieve nor borrow any, there was a last-resort tactic: after defecating, head immediately for the showers at the far end of the bathroom to cleanse yourself while showering. (Note: The several showers in the third-floor bathroom — I don’t recall how many, probably four or five — were not compartmented, and thus, as in the instance of the toilet stalls, there was no such thing as privacy there.) To repeat, this expedient was (again, as far as I know) rarely used; nonetheless, it was used — and both adults and youths alike at times were compelled to resort to it.
This concludes an unavoidably cursory, and perhaps to some an offensive, overview of what I have called the STIC “tissue issue.” As noted at the outset, it is a subject which has received hardly any attention in works with which I am familiar. It is difficult to understand the reason(s) for this oversight affecting coverage of STIC. There are several possible explanations — it may be that the subject has been:
- (1) neglected (because of being considered unimportant); or
- (2) overlooked (because of lack of awareness of it, likely resulting chiefly from concern with more obvious internee problems); or
- (3) avoided (because of a conscious decision, influenced by, e.g., lack of information, time, and/or space); or
- (4) deliberately concealed (presumably because of its inherently unpleasant nature in general, and especially because of some of its most unsavory / deplorable / embarrassing implications in particular, as discussed in the preceding paragraph).
Whatever the reason(s), the “tissue issue” (warts and all) at last has been broached in and of itself. Conceivably it might now even receive the proverbial 15 minutes of fame — or infamy. — MM (a.k.a. Martin Meadows)
*Originally the title was “STIC Tic: Eschew Tissue Issue.” But because that title required a somewhat convoluted explanation at the start, I acceded to my daughter’s suggestion to simplify both the title and the introductory paragraph. — MM
Prisoners of Santo Tomas, by Celia Lucas: “Toilet paper was cut from five sheets a day per person to three and then to one. Ida, the Issuer of Tissue for the ground floor, used to spend hours working out how many sheets to a roll and therefore how many rolls she would need for 285 women for a week. Finally the toilet paper ran out altogether and the Issuers of Tissue had to resort to cutting up the inner cardboard into little squares.”