The Toilets of Japan
Arriving in Japan as a budget traveler in 1981 led me to a very basic and unexpected discovery: toilets in the places we could afford in those days were almost universally the Asian “squatter” variety. After my initial surprise, I came to agree that using what is basically a hole in the ground is a sensible approach to this universal task. Biologically (as long as one has knees that bend that way), it’s the best anatomical position for taking care of one’s daily “business.”
Arriving back in Japan 37 years later, I found that the traditional squatter toilets had largely been replaced with the sit-down design more familiar to Western butts...but with what flair! My surprise this time was rooted in how to understand (and use) a somewhat bewildering array of options. In my experience, these offerings outdid the more-familiar French bidet. From what I could discern on the picture icons, there were various bottom-washing options, including the strength, direction, and warmth of the water stream. Some had a sound feature, which I wasn’t brave enough to try. What (exactly) would be the nature of those sounds, I wondered.
A favorite feature, though, was seat heat! Ahh.... a warm toilet seat. What a concept. It was unnerving at first, I admit, but ultimately appreciated at all hours of the day (and night).
My ability to read Japanese characters being non-existent, those picture icons were the basis of my information. But they could be sketchy. Experimentation became a toilet-stall adventure, one that didn’t always go so well. Sometimes, it felt more as if I was taking a shower, at times with unexpected cold water. But in my couple of weeks in Japan in 2018, I gained proficiency and appreciation for the various toilet inventions that have been installed by this tech-happy nation.
The environmentalist in me also appreciated that the auto-flush feature (which most toilets had) seemed far better-calibrated in Japan than in many other places. Toilets flushed once, not multiple times, as I moved around the toilet stall tucking in my shirt or gathering up my belongings.
In some places, I noted that restrooms provided both old- and new seating (or squatting) options. Whether it was an effort to please everyone or a proud nod to the past, the equitable feel of these restrooms made me smile. Sometimes, I even revisited my 1980s experience by using the squatter. The ol’ knees could still do it!
Etiquette and politeness in Japan remains a delightful cultural experience to me. This includes toilet manners, starting with what to wear on your feet. Street shoes never make it past the front entryway, of course, but even within the household or inn one properly must exchange the house slippers for bathroom slippers. Color coding made it easy to identify which was the women’s or men’s room.
Handwashing is another very important social rule. With space always at a premium in Japan, it was impressive to see handwashing sinks often incorporated on top of the toilet reservoir tanks. And at the airport’s public restroom was something I had never seen elsewhere: a pint-sized stall and toilet for a small child (disregarding the word “Infant” in the English translation!).
I’ve managed my biological needs in lots of places around the world (even where proper restrooms aren’t available, but that’s a different story...). Only in Japan is the attention to this necessary function so sweetly and thoughtfully addressed. Go, Japan!