Sunday, January 30, 2011

Japanese Toilets

Since I started writing this blog, I promised to you that I would write a post on the subject of Japanese toilets, which happen to differ in some major ways from those which we are accustomed to in Europe and North America (not counting toilets in Europe's Muslim countries, that is). Because this week I was unfortunate enough to catch a stomach flu, I have been blessed with numerous daily opportunities to visit and take pictures of the throne which my home toilet is.

In fact, there are actually two types of Japanese toilets: the traditional, and the western-style Japanese toilet. I will, without getting into a discussion about the definition of tradition, start with the traditional style of Japanese toilet. Most traditional things have one characteristic in common: despite being invented a long time ago, their use has persisted until now, even though other, more practical things, have been invented. And, the Japanese also have one thing in common: they love tradition. Thus many prefer to sit on the floor despite the invention of chairs, live in cold houses with paper walls despite the invention of bricks and central heating, drive on the left despite the rest of East Asia driving on the right, and use traditional toilets despite the invention of toilets with seats. Yes, not having a seat is the major characteristic of a traditional Japanese toilet. It is a very simple, oval hole in the ground above which you squat and do what you must; very similar in style to the Turkish toilet. To say it is not practical would actually be a lie: being on the floor level, it is extremely easy to clean the area around the toilet, making it thus the preferred model at public bathrooms, cheap hotels, etc.

My Colby roommate Kent demonstrating the proper use of a traditional Japanese toilet in Hokkaido, Japan.

However, the Japanese also love things modern. They sit on the floor of a cold building under a Kotatsu, or heated table, they build huge glass skyscrapers, invent robots with a human persona, drive cars with built-in TVs, and their western-style toilets have futuristic qualities. On the first glance, the Japanese western-style toilet has the same shape as as a regular toilet that we are accustomed to. What makes it different is the control panel next to it. This panel controls a powerful stream of water which will spray your front or back side clean within seconds. The panel usually looks similar to the one on the picture below.

The toilet control panel.

The top four five buttons on the panel are quite self-explanatory, and not much of a Japanese language skill is needed to decipher their meaning. The leftmost means stop, and is very important in case you mis-pushed. The second button from the left will cause a very directed stream of warm water to clean your butt. The middle button will do the same as the previous, though the stream will be lighter and more spread out. The fourth button is meant for women only and I have yet to try what it does. Finally, the rightmost button means dry and will cause a stream of hot air similar to that of commercial hand dryers to dry your cleaned butt. The smaller buttons below can help you adjust the strength, temperature, angle, timer, etc. of the water stream. And, all this happens while you are comfortably seated on a warm, electrically heated seat. In addition, home toilets are equipped with one more technologically advanced feature: a tap. When you press the flush button, the toilet's water tank will start refilling through a tap above the tank, whose water you use to wash your hands; how very nature-friendly!

The toilet at my host family's house. Notice the tap on the top, and the control panel on the left.

In Japan, unlike in any other country that I have ever been to, there is an abundance of free, clean public toilets. They are on every corner: be it a special toilet building, a convenience store, a restaurant, a shopping mall, there is always a free, clean toilet somewhere nearby for you to use. In a typical Japanese men's public bathroom, there are usually several urinals, and about two or three booths, one western, and the other ones traditional: the western one supposedly for the disabled, and the traditional ones because they are easier to clean. Even during a rush hour, there is typically a line of people waiting for the western toilet to free up, while the traditional ones are left unused. To be honest, given how much I hate squatting, I am not surprised at all. Finally, very few public toilets provide toilet paper, and so it is always a good idea to carry a bag of tissues with you. To prevent a drastic cultural shock, the AKP office provided us with one right on the first day of the orientation.

Since very early history, the Japanese have been known to take over things from other cultures, subsequently improving, "Japanizing" them. They took Buddhism from Korea and adapted it to complement their native Shinto religion, they took city-building technologies from the Chinese and built their ancient capital, Kyoto, they took the Prussian constitution and conquered half of East Asia, and they took the western toilet and added a magical panel. On the other hand, the Japanese still remain true to their own inventions: they preserve the Kimono, the tea ceremony, the martial arts, houses with paper walls, left-side driving, and the traditional toilet. Being a European, I cannot blame them.


  1. That squad toilet is not Japan-specific... I feel like it's one of those many other things that borrowed from China...

  2. Man, the magic panel sounds interresting, its also a great idea for a prank! :D

  3. I dunno if you can really invent a hole in the ground to do your business in.

    "And they took the western toilet and added a magical panel."

    Hehehehe. Once you get used to them, it's easy to love Japanese toilets. Little intrusive, but then you feel so clean!

  4. Haha Katie I agree, you indeed do feel very clean.

    Martin: The best thing to do would be to tell someone to press the clean button while NOT sitting on the toilet; they'd get a surprise facial shower :D

  5. Exactly :D But even sitting and pressing the button, not knowing what it does, could be a unexpected surprise that would make one run out of the room with their pants still off i suppose.. :D