Oct 26, 2016

High-tech to no-tech: Expat perspectives of toilets in Japan

Insight into toilets in Japan.  Should you have been wondering!

Often the butt of jokes, and suppressed giggles, for something so fundamental to the human condition, going to the toilet remains a practice of intrigue, mild embarrassment, sometimes shame, and conversely, a social occasion.  

Whatever our toilet-based peccadilloes and insecurities, proximity to a place where one can dispense of the body’s processed goods (there we go with the coy phraseology) is something that few take for granted, in world where so much is. In fact, I’m surprised there isn’t a GPS-based, distance-to-nearest-toilet app available for download (or perhaps there already is). Personally though, for this expat, the ability to go to the toilet in relative hygiene is something that borders on the sacrosanct, and I’m pretty sure plenty others feel the same way.  

How sacrosanct the toilet experience can be in Japan, probably depends on where it takes place. Well-travelled American writer Paul Theroux once remarked of the Japanese in his book, The Great Railway Bazaar, that they work in the twentieth century and live in another one, referring to the stark difference between kotatsu-heated Japanese homes (one item on a long list), and high-tech, high-spec, all-mod-cons offices. That was in the 1970s (although there’s an argument to be made that it’s still true today in many cases).  In a similar way, the same could be said now of the Japan toilet experience, which can range from squalid Draconian squat jobs, though to bits of kit that are only one button away from making a Mars landing.  

Amidst such diversity, coupled with the intrigue, shame, and brutal basic need (Comedian Louis CK once made the joke that in his case, ‘Every s**t is an emergency.’) we ask some of Japan’s expats how they see the toilet situation over here.  

1) In Japan, where do you typically find the best public toilets to be?

1Department stores / shopping malls
3Restaurants (particularly high-end)
4City offices
5Community centers
8Train stations
9Highway rest-stops / service areas

Little in the way of diversity here (although there was also a solitary 'shout out' for McDonald's).  Department stores / shopping malls the hands-down winners.

2) In Japan, where do you typically find the worst public toilets to be?

2Train stations

Similarly lacking in diversity, it should perhaps come as no surprise to see parks and train stations in Japan battling for top spot. Parks just edged it.  The summit of Mt. Fuji also got a mention (although that there should be a toilet on the summit of Mt. Fuji is a debate for another time).

When it came to the cause for any toiletry unpleasantness, a lack of toilet paper was pointed out for blame. Strong smells (and not of detergent), used bits of ‘body cleaning’ kit, forgetful flushers, and the occasional overflow were also sighted as guilty parties. 

3) How well do you know how to use one of those high-tech electronic toilets in Japan?

High-tech to no-tech: Expat perspectives of toilets in Japan photo

We should mention here that one option; ‘I barely know where the flush handle/button is’ wasn’t selected by any respondents. It still bares mention though. When friends and family from back home have visited this expat in Japan, some remarked on experiencing a frisson of panic when, for a brief moment, they couldn’t figure out how to flush the high-tech toilets.

4) On one of those high-tech electronic toilets have you ever used anything more than the flush and/or the heated seat?

High-tech to no-tech: Expat perspectives of toilets in Japan photo

Responses here greet this writer with some surprise. I mean, there are so many buttons and functions on these things, what are we all doing in there?

5) When you see a squat toilet in Japan, what do you do?

High-tech to no-tech: Expat perspectives of toilets in Japan photo

The squat toilet remains commonplace, and why shouldn’t it?  It's a last resort for many expats in Japan, however.

6) Do you actually know how properly to use a squat toilet in Japan?

High-tech to no-tech: Expat perspectives of toilets in Japan photo

It might be understandable that asking for an honest explanation of how properly to use a squat toilet isn’t something that most of us can comfortably ask, or for said explanation to be given.  

7) If you had the choice, which of the following would you choose (as a public toilet)? 

We gave three options here: 

  • High-tech electronic toilet: 73%
  • Basic 'upright' toilet: 20%
  • Squat toilet: 7 %

8)  Do you ask for permission from staff before using the toilets in convenience stores (as the Japanese typically do)?

High-tech to no-tech: Expat perspectives of toilets in Japan photo

This harks back to memories of home where popping into a place of business to use the toilet would be met by proprietors with all the enthusiasm of homework. In fact, sometimes it bordered on outright hostility. Convenience stores in Japan have toilets. Convenience stores are their for our convenience. However, the Japanese always ask staff for permission to use them. They don’t, however, ask for permission to stand and read manga without actually buying it.  

9) Do you feel the public toilet situation in Japan is better or worse than what you might have been used to prior to moving here.

A largely positive response about public toilets in Japan.  Abundance was a word that cropped up plenty, particularly in urban areas (although some noted the importance of always carrying tissues on your person).  A lack of hand dryers or paper towels remains a concern. It’s often you see (in the gents, at least) locals whip out a personal hand towel (probably a gift from a parting work colleague) while the foreigner is left with that awkward conundrum of what to do with wet hands.

Obviously, there is an irreverent tone to some of this (isn't there always when it comes to toilets?).  However, it's a daily-life issue for all of us, and one that could always be improved.  Still, in response to the last question, toilets here in Japan seem to be in better shape than they are back home.

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Paul Theroux, 'The Great Railway Bazaar (Published: 1975)

Louis CK - Chewed Up (stand show show)



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