On Using a Japanese Toilet

I still don’t know what “standby mode” means for a toilet.

The Squat Toilet 
I’ve used a squat toilet once. It was out of necessity.

For two days I’d devoured a steady diet of chicken nanban, the specialty dish of Miyazaki City, and had just finished the last of those days with an ice cream soda and a side of fried shrimp. I am lactose intolerant and a former vegan, so my stomach responded as if I’d asked it to digest copper and asbestos.

Twenty minutes later my stomach was full of gurgling mud. We stopped at a gas station on the outskirts of rural Miyazaki. The stall was in the back, surrounded by gray plaster walls along dingy blue floor tiles. Makeshift paneling surrounded the toilet with about a half-inch of space off the ground.

Inside the enclosure was a porcelain trough set in the floor. It resembled a urinal set horizontal, with a small “hood” at the front. Pipes led to a separate flushing tank.

Short on time, I swallowed my pride, dropped my pants and bent my knees.

The first-time squat is a series of complex negotiations. You must decide which direction to face and how far to drop the pants. You have to figure out your balance, your hips-to-knees ratio. Failure at any of those points – particularly after nanban and ice cream – could be particularly disastrous.

For the sake of safety I completely removed my pants, faced away from the hood, stuck my fingers into the dank, dark half-inch crevice between the floor and the paneling, and girded myself for a conflict resolution session with my stomach.

Should any travelers to Japan find themselves in this position, it’s wrong. I’ve since learned that one should face toward the lip and that you should not squat so far that poking your fingers into mysterious holes is necessary. Your pants can safely hover around your ankles.

The Origin of the Squat
The squat toilet descended from one of the earliest forms of waste removal: Man-made streams. The water was fed to a nearby river. People would put one leg on either side of the stream, squat, do their business and let the water wash it away. Kind of ingenious, actually.

The same principle applied to holes in the ground. As a Buddhist nation, early Japan didn’t raise livestock, so putting human waste into the soil replaced animal fertilizers.

That kept human waste out of the streets and stagnant bodies of water, which helped Japan avoid the unhygienic nastiness and corresponding Cholera epidemics that struck European countries with a vengeance. (Furthermore, the squatting position is healthier than sitting).

While the British and French were leaving their culinary traditions to accumulate in “dung heaps” in their streets and basements, the Japanese were collecting it for use on farms.

To The Victors Go The Toilets
When the Allies took over Japan in 1945, they swiftly brought the era of the squat toilet to an end. Though Western-style toilets had been in use in castles and some urban districts by the end of the 19th century, they were rare.

With the rebuilding of an entire nation’s infrastructure, however, sewage lines were modernized (though by no means universal – even up to 1997, almost a third of Japanese homes weren’t connected to sewers). So began the age of the toilet.

Standby Mode
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Japan was rich enough and technologically advanced enough to build a gadget for every purpose. The bathroom was no exception.

So in 1980*, toilet manufacturer Toto introduced the first gadget-based toilet seat cover to Japan with the slogan, “Oshirimo kirei,” which I can only translate as “Everyone’s ass is beautiful” –

Within a decade they were everywhere – private homes, shopping malls, schools.

By 2002, there was a full-blown “toilet war” between manufacturers competing for a market that was more popular than the desktop PC. According to a 2002 article in the New York Times:

Japan’s toilet wars started in February, when Matsushita engineers here unveiled a toilet seat equipped with electrodes that send a mild electric charge through the user’s buttocks, yielding a digital measurement of body-fat ratio.

Unimpressed, engineers from a rival company, Inax, counterattacked in April with a toilet that glows in the dark and whirs up its lid after an infrared sensor detects a human being. When in use, the toilet plays any of six soundtracks, including chirping birds, rushing water, tinkling wind chimes, or the strumming of a traditional Japanese harp.

Sadly, the toilet wars have not escalated much since then, as the seat attachments I see in electronic shops share the same array of functions, and are still priced between $600 to $4000 USD.

The most common accessory is the bidet, which feels decidedly unhygienic to me but is a hit in water-and-cleanliness obsessed Japan; I suppose keeping hands free of that kind of business is a major perk. Seat warmers are standard (and glorious). Perfumes, health checks, and buttons to cover up the less elegant sounds of the bathroom are other options.

The Room
The bathroom itself is one of the few truly private places in Japan; this is a country where your front hallway is semi-public and train rides are more intimate than many marriages.

Paradoxically (or, appropriately) the bathroom is also considered disgusting, far beyond Western ideas. We tend to think the bathroom is “sorta gross” but we still shit and brush our teeth in the same room. In Japan, the bathroom is isolated from the bath and washing sink. You’re even expected, in some homes, to take off your indoor slippers and switch to in-bathroom slippers (my gym asks the same).

The Seat on TV 
And, yes: A highly competitive toilet seat market means toilet seat marketing campaigns. This one has CGI Penguins.

* – The first electronic toilet seat was actually invented by Americans in the 1960s.
** – If you can do a better translation of “oshirimo kirei,” and I’m sure someone can, please leave a comment!

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10 Responses to On Using a Japanese Toilet

  1. Jamaipanese says:

    aaah yes the dreaded squat toilet, haven’t been to Japan yet but other than the plane crashing before I get there this is high on my list of worries.

    • I shouldn’t worry about it so much. I’ve used them, sometimes by choice after inspection of the condition of the other available toilets. The great thing about them is that they are non-contact and so can be more hygienic. Anyway, I don’t recall being forced to use on before. The western style toilets seem to be far more popular here.

  2. Jamaipanese says:

    eerr? something warped my comment name above o.O I think I offended the squat toilet gods

  3. Kaori says:

    I always love posts about Japanese toilets! lol.
    The first time I came back to Japan and walked into a toilet stall at Narita airport, I came back out saying “Mommy, it’s not a toilet.” and she had to show me how to use it. Now I’m proud to say I can use it like any other Japanese, even in super high heels!
    Regarding the translation, after seeing the commercial, I think the “(nani wo kakuso) oshirimo kirei” means “(no need to hide the fact that) my ass is also clean.” :-)

  4. Blue Shoe says:

    Nice post, Eryk. i had the exact same experience with my first squatter! Took off my pants and faced the wrong way…haha. I’ve only had to use them a handful of times these few years here…luckily there is usually a Western style around.

  5. Turner says:

    Heh, this is a pretty good summary, but the best story of the washiki benjo definitely comes from YouTuber Hikosaemon: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=meAViqzpaDE

  6. Karen says:

    “Oshirimo kirei” feels like “Even my ass is sparkling,” since kirei can mean both beautiful and clean. In the Japanese supermarket I used to work in, the public bathroom had a sign on the door that always made me laugh. You saw it as soon as you closed the door and sat on the toilet.

    It read something like, “Let’s all keep this bathroom clean/beautiful!” The funny part, between the lines of text were a picture of a sparkling ocean and sky. For some reason it always made me think of what I was doing, what would happen when I flushed, and that together made me laugh. Silly, I know…

  7. Rurousha says:

    Thanks for making me start my day with a grin! Squat toilets are nasty things when you’re a woman wearing either a pencil skirt or a very wide skirt. As far as modern toilets are concerned, my pet peeve is the Sound Princess, the button you can push to provide mock flushing sounds to hide your own piddling sounds. I think it’s a woman thing, but it makes no sense to me. We all know what we’re doing in there, don’t we? :)

  8. Archana says:

    There were some places in Japan (very few) where the only toilet available at the place we were in was the squat toilet. I have used some in India but only as a kid and I was always afraid I would fall in. Yes, they are actually better for you and more hygienic.

    I could never work out the buttons on the Japanese toilets – and the warm seats made it seem like someone had sat on the toilet just before you.

    The toilet tissue in Japan was the best – it was weirdly stretchy – not sure why you need stretchy tissue to wipe your bum but it was really soft and durable – making it great to use during hayfever season.

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