When You Gotta Go: Japanese Bathrooms

Japanese bathrooms may seem like a strange topic for this blog, but it’s essential that Westerners who hope to visit or live in Japan familiarize themselves with what to expect in Japanese bathrooms. The news about overly-mechanized Japanese toilets usually spreads to the West as a sort of “funny story,” but there’s far more to Japanese bathrooms than gimmicky singing toilets or the like.

In public, you may find it difficult to find a Western-style sitting toilet in many stores, restaurants, schools and places of work. If you look hard enough, you should find at least one stall with a Western-style toilet in each bathroom in most modern buildings, but the majority of toilets in public stalls are actually Eastern-style squat toilets, which look like oblong, porcelain-lined holes in the ground.

As part of a society that values cleanliness, the Japanese continue to use this ancient style of squat toilets because they require no contact with a person at all, so there’s no chance of germs or messes accumulating on a seat and spreading from person to person. Men can easily use a squat toilet when urinating as they can stand. As far as women urinating or either gender going #2, the user must face the toilet and place one foot on either side of the squat toilet, bend the knees entirely, and balance their rear end a few inches above the toilet, without making any contact. When finished, the user can use toilet paper and then hit a flush lever.

After years of practice or perhaps just because of genetic disposition, Asian people can usually bend this way and stay balanced because their feet remain flat on the ground. However, when most foreigners try to bend this way, they naturally tend to remain on the balls of their feet, making it more difficult to balance. Obviously, many older people or people with mobility issues will find these toilets impossible to use. That’s why it may be best for foreigners to search out the Western-style toilet stall, if possible.

You may also notice a pair of slippers in a stall or outside a bathroom, particularly in older buildings with only squat toilets. The idea is to keep bathroom germs in the bathroom and keep other germs out of the bathroom. It’s implied that you should put on the bathroom slippers (and take off your own shoes–assuming you haven’t already, which you most likely have in an old-fashioned Japanese building) only when using the toilet and leave the slippers where you found them when you’re finished for the next person.

In public bathrooms, you may hear strange sounds coming from other stalls, particularly if you’re a lady. Or you may notice an odd panel on the wall. The noise may sound like mechanical trickling water or white noise or any other strange sound. This is because many Japanese people are embarrassed to be heard going to the bathroom (the tinkle or plop) and so would rather drown it out. Some women carry their own portable soundmakers expressly for this purpose, but you may find what’s called an otohime panel in your stall that will make noises for you.

Another important note when using a public bathroom is that you should bring your own hand towel! To save energy and cut back on waste, most public bathrooms do not have hand dryers or paper towels available. People are expected to purchase their own small reusable hand towel and carry it in a baggie in their purse or pocket to use after washing their hands. Some bathrooms (usually in more older buildings) also do not have soap; you can carry a small bar of soap in a hard case along with you for this purpose. However, many bathrooms in the more modern buildings will have soap and hand dryers available.

Japanese homes (unless it’s an old-fashioned home, in which case you’re likely only to find squat toilets) are where you’ll find those mechanical Western-style toilets with many interesting features. Most toilets in Japanese homes at least have a bidet function (with which you can spray water on your behind to clean it off) and an air-drying function so that you won’t even have to use toilet paper (although you may, if you like). Any other function (such as seat heating, automatically opening and closing lid, automatic flushing, and a thermostat for the room temperature, among others) is pure extra entertainment.

Oh, one more thing: you’ll notice that in Japanese homes, the toilet is never in the same room as the bathtub and/or shower. It’s often in a very small closet-like room across the way or next to the shower/bathtub room. This is again a testament to the Japanese culture’s love of cleanliness, so that no toilet-related bacteria or filthiness can spread into the place where people clean themselves.

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Tags: bathroom, japan, japanese culture, japanese toilet, toilet, toilet slippers