What No One Will Tell You About Japanese Toilets
Nobody expects to run into cultural differences during the “toilet situation”. But if you come to Japan, you will come across a whole new unfamiliar spectrum of toilets. It may be the local traditional quat public toilet or the super high-tech Japanese toilets that confuses you. This article will help you prepare for both the best and the worst so that your restroom experience in Japan is comfortable and even pretty fun.
1. Toilet in Japanese Culture
First and foremost, we have to understand that the Japanese are obsessive about cleanliness. There is even a word “kirei” (きれい, 綺麗) for both “beautiful” and “clean, pure”. So this explains why the market for deodorants, air fresheners is huge and of course, in Japan, toilets are taken seriously. People may have conversations related to their toilets, like how they upgrade them, how to sanitize, …etc. What may surprise you, even more, is the existence of TOTO Museum in Kitakyushu and Unko Museum (Unko means “poop” in Japanese) in Tokyo, which honor … the private business and the toilet.
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Besides, in the Japanese traditional houses where sliding doors still outnumber locked doors, and in the crowded cities where shared houses are common, toilets may be among the few places offering privacy. Some people customize their own space by decorating them with character goods and posters or equip the toilet with a bookshelf, newspaper. Last but not least, as much as Japanese care about cleanliness, we are really self-conscious and hate to disturb others. All these reasons along with the cutting-edge technology make Japan a pioneer in this field. Whatever innovations you see in a smart toilet ranging from hands-free automatic flushing to a water sound simulator, probably originate from Japan.
2. Types of Toilets
2.1 Japanese Traditional Squat toilet
Facing the reality, there is not only super convenient high-tech in Japan. Even though this type of toilet dominates in most urban houses, you may find a complete opposite and bizarre squat toilet (和式, washiki) in the countryside or sometimes in public places in the cities or the suburbs. In 2016, a survey by the Japan Tourism Agency revealed that 42% of the 24,525 toilets in Japan’s major tourist attractions belong to this category. Just as the name tells you, you have basically squat down to do your business here. In a squat toilet, you are allowed to wear shoes or can use separate toilet slippers so that your feet are perfectly protected from the unclean floor.
Many foreigners find it uncomfortable and even difficult when using the squat toilet for the first time. But it actually works the same way as the normal western-style toilet. For example, though there is no tank, you still flush by pulling the pedals or the lever at the back of the toilet. To get further guidance towards squat toilets, please watch the following useful video:
2.2 Normal Western-style toilet
Normal western-style toilet (洋式, yōshiki) is something ex-pats have been so familiar with. Compared to the squat toilet, it includes a pedestal for sitting. This makes it more preferable for household uses since it is much less physically demanding. One thing in common is that there are two types of flush in both Japanese and Western toilets according to the amount of water: “small” (小) and “large” (大).
2.3 Smart High-tech toilet
You may have heard the reputation of the so-called “Japanese smart toilet”, or Bidet toilets or washlet which have recently gained more recognition in the Western countries. But only in Japan, can you find the most multi-functional with such high availability. There are washlets in train stations restrooms, hotels, department stores, and almost 80% Japanese condos. In fact, the leader of the market and the largest toilet manufacturer worldwide, TOTO corporation claimed to earn approximately $311 million in profits with 50 million in sales in 2017.
The washlet is definitely not a joke, it is a real deal. It is invented to help us handle our waste better and also improve hygiene by separating hands from bodily functions. Despite the similar look compared to a normal Western-style toilet, the washlet provides us with additional features such as automatic flushing, water spray (for you), massage options, self-cleaning nozzles, warm air drier … Most foreigners get confused by so many weird functions from washlet in Japan but eventually become addicted to its convenience.
In the next few years, more innovative features will be added to the Japanese toilets. One of them is the medical sensors which can estimate the blood sugar according to the amount of urine, as well as other indicators such as blood pressure, body fat percentage. This information should be automatically sent to the doctors. Other possible advances are the verbal command toilet and portable, battery-operated travel washlets.
2.4 Toilet for special needs
Japanese toilets cater to everyone’s needs. For instance, a baby holder can find a place to hang the kids let alone places to hang handbags or to put phones. Some spacious toilets are customized for the handicapped with high-tech devices to help people clean themselves or dry easily without assistance.
3. Public toilets
3.1 Where to find
Indeed, it is quite easy to find a free public restroom all over Japan, normally located in parks, shopping malls, convenience stores, book stores, restaurants, tourist destinations, or stations. It is true there is a higher chance to encounter a squat toilet in public restrooms rather than at hotels or somebody’s homes. However, it is only possible in parks, temples, traditional Japanese restaurants, some train stations, and older buildings. Otherwise, the majority of public restrooms built now are a combination of both Western and Japanese squat toilets. And even a squat toilet is not so terrifying. Public toilets in Japan are just as tidiest and well sanitized as its street.
If you are still afraid of unclean public toilets, the good news is you can rely on the movement to make public restrooms hospitable by Japanese government and other organizations. In August 2020, one project in Tokyo by Nippon Foundation, constructed see-through glass restrooms when they’re unoccupied so that you can see the interior without entering. Once the door closes, the wall is no longer transparent. There are 16 more designed restrooms in the projects, scattering all over Tokyo.
3.2 The terms and the sign
In general, toilet in Japanese is casually called “toire” (トイレ), while a more polite name is “otearai” (お手洗い). A simple way to ask “Where is the restroom?” is “Toire wa doko desu ka?”( トイレはどこですか?). Doko desu ka means “Where is …?”. For some cases, such as during meals, you may want to avoid using toire which is too direct. Instead, “otearai” or “keshoshitsu” (powder room) would be more suitable. To sum up, we collect the terms related to Japanese toilets below:
Even if you can grasp these difficult kanji words, you will still locate a restroom thanks to pictograms. Fun fact, many places in Japan would like to twist the boring toilet signage into a pretty or funny illustration that is 100% understandable to foreigners.
4. How to use the smart toilet
4.1 Toilet code on the control
As mentioned before, Japanese toilet or washlets can have many functions. But the text representing these functions is only in Japanese. Here are the terms:
So to make the smart toilet friendly to foreigners, iconography is added. Officially, in January 2017, The Japan Sanitary Equipment Industry Association has released 8 standard pictograms used in any Japanese toilet control panel. These signages instruct you through basic functions. The picture below gives an example of these signages.
4.2 Basic feature
The Automatic Opening Lid
Don’t get scared when the seat-lid in Japanese toilet raises itself. It is not possessed or anything. The lid is coded to open automatically when a person approaches the throne. When you finished your business, the seat lid can also lower after a gentle bow. This smooth activation is achieved through a hidden motion sensor.
Going to the bathroom for a nature call during the freezing winter’s morning is not a pleasant experience anywhere except Japan. Since Japanese toilets nowadays can keep your rump warm by the heated seat. When the summer comes, you simply switch the function off and save energy. In some cases, a smart sensor will be able to analyze the time you most likely use the toilet and heat it beforehand.
Otohime – sound princess
The sound princess or Otohime is basically a sound simulator, usually in form of a box attached on the walled or hidden somewhere in the washlet itself. It makes flushing sounds or plays music to mark your bathroom noises. A newer version of this device starts playing whenever it detects you entering the cubicle. The older version requires pressing a button. Thanks to Otohime, shy bladder don’t have to feel shy or uncomfortable doing their businesses when people are outside.
The Bidet or washlet
This is a must-have function of any Japanese toilet to be considered “smart”. The bidet is a spray function which means a jet of water will automatically wash your rear end in a powerful enough and delicate way. The user can adjust the water pressure, temperature, or nozzle position. This can be a perfect alternative to toilet paper. But many people still prefer to use paper first, then complete the clean-up with washlet.
Fun fact: the TOTO’s engineers are the first to make washlet. They had to experience and test a lot to come up with the right angle of the water (43-degree) along with temperature (38 degrees Celsius or 100F). This is called the Golden Rule.
First, flushing in Japanese toilet comes with the great function of charcoal-filter deodorizer. This should be activated the moment you sit down or by using the button (again up to the version of the washlet). It covers the smell well so that you will not be embarrassed with the person using the toilet after you. Moreover, the amount of water used for flushing is optimized by TOTO company to only 3.8 liters (1 gallon) per flush, (compared to20 liters or 5 gallons of water in the past).
Normal dirt and bacteria usually pile up in ceramic toilets since their shape is uneven. Thanks to CeFiONtect glaze, a technology developed by TOTO in 1999, the washlet is now more resistant to staining. Besides, a technology called ewater+ can bring about the same effect by mixing an electrolyzed water to disinfect the bowl when flushing. Others may simply spray mild detergent after use to avoid urine or solid waste from splashing. In these years, some new advancements such photocatalytic glazes or ultraviolet light can clean toilets as well.
This is a smart way for Japanese toilets to save water. The sink basin is placed attached, on top of the toilet tank. Therefore, the water you use to wash hand will be flow into the tanks and later help you flush the bowl.
4.3 Advanced features
There is a variety of new development to raise the gold standard of Japanese toilets. Some great examples are slow lid opening and closing which prevents the slamming onto the seat; automatic air deodorizing and ozone deodorant system which 100% remove the smell; the glowing effect at night; options of vibrating and pulsating jets of water. Some toilets even provide an air dryer which dries your freshly bathed buns with a gentle breeze and air conditioning below the rim for hot days. Most luxurious Japanese toilets let the user control the temperature, pressure to their likings.
Do Japanese Toilets contain toilet Paper?
Yes. Public restrooms should have toilet paper and many people with bidets or washlets may still use toilet paper at the same time.
What should I do with the used toilet paper?
In most cases, it is appropriate to throw the used toilet paper directly into the toilet and flush it away. You don’t have to worry about the drain getting stuck by papers because the plumbing system in Japan is quite advanced. On the other hand, throwing the papers into the trashcan may lead to unpleasant smells which may bother the people after you. But keep in mind that other types of trash such as sanitary napkins should be put into the garbage bin.
How to flush different types of toilets?
If the toilet is tank-type or Western-style, you use the handle to the side of the tank to flush. When it comes to the squat toilet, you have to pull the pedals or the lever at the back of the toilet. Regarding smart washlets, there is a button on the control panels (on the wall or attached to the washlet). Sometimes, if you can find buttons or sensors, you have to do nothing aside from standing up, the flushing is automatic.
What is the most popular washlet brand?
The largest manufacturer of toilets in Japan and the world is Toto Ltd, which accounts for 65% of the market share. Following Toto, Inax and Panasonic are both big brands for toilet-related products.
How much is the washlet?
An average Japanese toilet with a washlet is priced at $200 while the cost of upgrading a western-style toilet with a washlet is double. So, it is more economical to buy the washlet from the beginning. The most high-end high-tech washlet can cost up to $5,000.