JSTOR always serves up interesting articles with a solidly researched background.  How we think of human waste is dependent on the spatial location not only geographically, but historically as well.  Compare and contrast human waste usage and disposal in18th century Japan versus England or France, the differences are remarkable.

Appreciating the different historical and cultural approaches to human waste management has lead to creative solutions in the developing world, see the rest of the article on JSTOR for details. :>


“When left untreated, fecal matter leaches into lakes and rivers, contaminating drinking water and causing disease outbreaks, including cholera, dysentery, and polio, along with intestinal worms and other parasites. The lack of proper sanitation facilities and treatment plants remains one of the biggest challenges of the developing world. According to a report from the American Society of Microbiology, researchers estimate the burden of gastrointestinal disease in developing countries at more than 26 billion cases per year.

Yet, in eighteenth century Japan, biosolids were an esteemed substance. Japanese citizens did not view human waste as unwanted muck, but rather as something of value. What fostered this view, so different from ours? The answer lies in the soil. Compared to many European and North American countries, blessed with an abundance of forests and fertile grounds, Japan had much less land that was suitable for agriculture. Large parts of Japan had soils that were sandy and low on nutrients. Without continuous fertilizing, they didn’t yield rich harvests. When the Japanese population began to grow, people needed more food—and farmers needed fertilizer to produce it. Ultimately, it was the citizens who produced the fertilizer that put the food on the table. Population dynamics, particularly in large cities like Osaka and Edo, which later became Tokyo, drove up the value of human excrement, which sometime is referred to as humanure.

The historian Susan B. Hanley writes that in the early years of the Tokugawa regime, a historical period that lasted more than 200 years, farmers sent boats to Osaka packed with vegetables and other produce—and in return they received the city’s night soil. But then the fertilizer prices climbed—and the night soil became a prized item. As its price went up, different organizations and guilds, which had the rights to collect night soil from specific areas of the city, began to form.

In Osaka, landlords had the rights to their tenants’ solid waste, but the renters retained the rights to their urine, which was considered to be of lesser value. By the early eighteenth century, night soil was highly coveted. The price of the fecal material from ten households per year was valued between two and three bu of silver or over one half a ryo of gold. Put in perspective, one ryo could buy enough grain to feed one person for one year.

The groups wanted to keep their monopolies on waste collection, so occasionally fights and disputes would break out. According to Japanese records, such tiffs happened more than once. Moreover, as prices surged, the less fortunate farmers, who couldn’t afford to buy the precious manure, sometimes would steal it. Stealing excrement was a crime punishable by law, carrying a penalty that included prison time.

The excremental bull market had a very positive effect on cities’ overall cleanliness. Because every drop of waste was gathered and used, Japanese cities did not have a problem with overflowing latrines, stinky street gutters, or other sanitation issues that plagued urban Europe at the time. In the eighteenth century, European cities were filthy. In Berlin, city waste was piled up in front of St. Peter’s Church until a law passed in 1671 obligated peasants who came to town to take a load home on every visit. London was infamous for its mucky streets and overflowing public latrines. In Denmark, the cleaning of the latrines was the job of the hangman. Paris, famous for its art and culture scene, was nonetheless infamous for its filth. The wealthier Parisians emptied their chamber pots out the window, and poorer ones relieved themselves wherever possible. Even the Louvre was a mess: its inhabitants used its stairs and balconies as toilets.”