Toilets

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Shiohiko Takahashi

    Main guest

    Throughout a long career as an architect, Shiohiko Takahashi has been involved with the design of various public facilities, from parks and schools, to shopping centers. As chair of the Japan Toilet Association, he has conducted surveys of public toilets all over Japan, looking for clues as to the optimal arrangement.

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August 18, 2016

Toilets

*You will leave the NHK website.

Picture the scene: newly arrived in Japan, you disembark from your airplane, and catch a bus into the center of the city, before heading to the station to complete the final leg of your journey to your hotel courtesy of Japan’s famously efficient rail network.

Perhaps it was fatigue from a long journey, but no sooner have you entered the ticket barrier than you feel the call of nature. And although your train is set to depart from platform one, this is very decisively a number two.

“Don’t panic,” you say to yourself, “Japan’s toilets are famous throughout the world. How lucky I am to have an opportunity to sample the local culture so soon after getting here.”

You locate the te-arai (or bathroom) and, pace quickening, you head inside. Two of the toilet cubicles are occupied, but one appears to be vacant, and you push open the door in glad anticipation of impending relief. This, however, is the scene that confronts you:

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Japanese-style squat toilets may seem a little daunting at first to some visitors from overseas.

Although over 90% of toilets produced in Japan these days are of the sit-down variety, this type of squat toilet, used by crouching with the porcelain mouth between your legs, remains a common feature of many train stations.
Indeed, it could be argued that with no need for direct physical contact between body and commode, these facilities are actually more hygienic than the toilets to which most of us are used, and some experts do argue that squatting allows for fuller, smoother intestinal evacuation than a seated position. Nonetheless, for the uninitiated, in the heat of the moment, these devices can seem to pose more questions than answers.

What most of us have in mind when thinking of Japanese bathrooms is the gleaming, electronic techno-toilets we have read about in guidebooks. Safely ensconced at your hotel, this is precisely the type of convenience that is likely to await you, with a heated seat, built-in bidet, and even a device to preserve the modesty of those using the bathroom by emitting digital water sounds or soothing music at the push of a button.

Even the more modest toilets you might find in a cheaper apartment or slightly older bar or restaurants have eco-friendly features that are rare in other countries. For example, to optimize water usage there are two grades of flush: sho (small), for liquids; and dai (large) for solids.

Similar thinking lies behind a faucet above the toilet, which offers a stream of water that you can use to wash your hands as the tank refills. It is the sanitary embodiment of the much-vaunted Japanese concept of mottainai, which relates to the minimization of waste.

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A bidet to cleanse the posterior is a common feature of many Japanese toilets.

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Some high-end toilets even feature a lid that lifts automatically as the user approaches.

Making optimal use of what is available is especially crucial in the aftermath of an earthquake or other natural disaster. When survivors are crammed together in emergency accommodation, and conventional sewerage systems are not functioning as normal, bathroom hygiene takes on a particular importance.

Japan’s seismic instability and frequent exposure to typhoons have provided the impetus to improve emergency sanitary facilities. In this edition of Japanology Plus, we see one example that uses a simple plastic seat in conjunction with a plastic-lined cardboard box filled with chemically treated sawdust. Another variant features a commode and temporary cubicle that can be installed above an open manhole to convey waste directly into the sewer.

Meanwhile, in a country with an increasing number of elderly Japanese confined to their beds, bedside toilets help to preserve the dignity not only of such seniors, but anyone with physical restrictions. Unlike the smelly, relatively unhygienic bedpans that were once so common, the latest versions feature a functioning flush that breaks up solids, enabling them to pass through a narrow hose that is easily connected to the drain.

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Used in conjunction with a cardboard box filled with chemically treated sawdust, this plastic seat (right) can provide much-needed sanitary relief in the aftermath of an earthquake or other natural disaster.

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Portable bedside toilets for homes or care facilities have come a long way since the days of the humble bedpan, and can now even offer full flushing capabilities.

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Peter Barakan speaks to Shiohiko Takahashi, one of Japan’s foremost experts on the toilet.

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In many Japanese households, the toilet is a place to relax and be alone with your thoughts.

 

*You will leave the NHK website.