February 16, 2013

Japan Toilet Tales

I've spent a while internally debating whether this post was appropriate for publication, and have decided it must be done. One of the most common questions Japanese people would ask me was 'what was your biggest culture shock when you first came to Japan?' The answer was always 'toilets'. It's not a particularly sophisticated response, but I think most foreigners in Japan would agree. Everyone has a 'Japan toilet story'. And for the uninitiated, using a Japanese toilet may well end up being one of the most memorable/traumatizing experiences of your time in Japan. I will tell you why.
The Asakusa Asahi Flame statue in Tokyo. I'll let you decide why this image is relevant. (Image source)
1. The Seat Heating

Let's assume your first time is on a conventional Japanese 'throne' as opposed to the notorious squat toilets (more on them to come). You approach the shiny white beast, trou-down, and sit. You let out an incredulous yelp, as your cheeks experience a sudden - but not unpleasant - glow of warmth radiating from the seat. In your own country, the temperature of a toilet seat is usually proportional to the amount of time the previous user has spent sitting on it, the knowledge of which is highly undesirable. In Japan, this same sensation is recreated artificially - but it may become a guilty pleasure. Forget walking on sunshine, you are sitting on it! And don't it feel good?

2. The Slippery Situation

In Japanese households, the commonly known etiquette is to remove your shoes before entering the house, and put on a pair of slippers. But did you know that there are also a pair of slippers especially for use in the toilet? This is so you don't contaminate the rest of the house with your nasty toilet-foot germs. Unfortunately, after experiencing the joy that is the heated toilet seat, you are likely to be in a state of euphoria that causes you to forget your footwear. Many foreigners have had to perform the shuffle of shame back to the bog after being caught out wearing the toilet slippers somewhere other than the toilet. Don't let that be you.

3. The Spray Buttons

When using a Japanese toilet, one will likely come across an intimidating array of buttons, each of which has a different purpose depending on the gender and sanitary needs of the user. The most common buttons are marked 'oshiri' and 'bidet', for a bum and ladypart shower respectively. More advanced models allow you to adjust the heat, angle, and strength of the spray. These buttons can be problematic for the curious foreigner who dares to test them. Many don't seem to realize that you do actually need to be seated for it to work properly. For some reason it comes as a shock when, upon pressing the button, a jet of toilet water shoots out and blasts the hapless victim in the face.

Useful English instructions next to the toilet in a hotel.
4.  The Sound Princess

On the wall beside some Japanese toilets are ominous, Big Brother type speakers. These are the aptly named otohime or 'Sound Princess', a machine designed to drown out the embarrassing tinkling tones of female urination. I remember when this was introduced to me. I was a guest at an English Speaking Club meeting, held at the teacher's house. I mentioned my bewilderment at Japanese toilets, and she decided I should be bestowed with the honour of a demonstration of her brand new 'Sound Princess'. The whole class followed us into the bathroom. The teacher pressed a button, and a loud 'GURRRRRRRRRR' reverberated around the room. I laughed. My hostess looked at me with cool disapproval, and said, 'maybe in your country you do not care, but we Japanese women like to go to the toilet in secret.' Because a roaring Sound Princess is so discreet.

5. The Squat

Nothing incites fear in a foreigner's heart more than entering a train station or old building and finding that the only toileting facilities available are traditional squat toilets. First of all, it seems you need the thighs of a rugby player and the balance of a gymnast to even think about attempting this. Then there is the issue of what to do with your clothes: for the novice squatter, there is nothing more precarious than a pair of tights tangled around your ankles while in this position. I heard a story about a girl who was so baffled by the squat toilet that she thought it would be best to just take all her clothes off for safekeeping while she did her business. By all accounts it was going well, until she dropped one of her socks in.

Documentation of the squat toilets at my high school in Hiroshima - there were no western-style toilets.
6. The Flush

You've navigated your way through the wonderful world of seat heaters, slippers, Sound Princesses, spray buttons and squats. Just when you thought it was all over, the Japanese toilet deals you another low blow - by hiding the flush in the least conspicuous place possible. If there is one valuable piece of advice I can offer, it it is that you should ensure you can locate the toilet's flush before you proceed to do anything else. This small act could save you from potentially mortifying situations. To share another story from a source who prefers to remain anonymous, one time this person had to use a disabled toilet, as it was the only one available. Unfortunately, after finishing up he realized he couldn't distinguish the 'call assistance' button from the flush. This user decided it wasn't worth risking it, and all he could do was put down the lid and run out of there, leaving his 'problem' for the next person to solve.

7. The Future

Recently, reports of new smartphone-controlled toilets have been circulating the internet. The toilets, which are supposedly available in Japan this month, can be connected to Android phones via bluetooth. The user downloads an app that allows all the functions of the toilet to be operated with a touch of the phone. The toilets also have inbuilt speakers, so you can ditch the 'Sound Princess' and play your own sweet beats. The app even contains a 'toilet diary' to record all of your bowel movements!

When it comes to your Japanese toilet experience, as the saying goes, you can't polish a turd - but in Japan you probably can roll it in glitter. If you know which button to push.


  1. I miss my fancy toilet in my old apartment. It was wonderful to have a heated seat in winter. When you can see your breath in your room, you are thankful for the heated seats. ^^

    I think something people need to know is that the big red button is to turn off the spray. I still remember a friend sitting on my fancy toilet call out from the washroom, "Hey Dru... to turn off the water I press the red button, right?" I still chuckle when I think back to that.

    Another funny story I heard, another friend was trying out the spray function, but pressed the wrong button. The next thing he knew, an alarm was ringing. Needless to say, he cleaned up and ran out of there faster than ever. A few years later, his mom would do the exact same thing.

    1. The heated seats were indeed a treat in winter! I wonder, do people like to keep their toilet seats heated even in summer?

      Haha, all the mystery buttons! Definitely useful knowing how to stop the spray. =)

  2. Man, you have some great sentences in here - "shuffle of shame back to the bog" for one - which make this extra fun to read. :)

  3. hahaha, I am stil laughing! This is all so funny, and so true! I had my first visit to Japan (just got back) and I had a few hilarious moments in toilets, not least thinking I had flushed the toilet when I had in fact activated the emergency alarm... great post!! xx Glad I stumbled across your blog

  4. Hi There,
    As someone who is just contemplating starting a blog about living in Marrakech, I laughed out loud when I read your para re squat toilets. This issue is definitely the 'elephant in the room' for most female travellers - and you have just let it out!
    I make my Moroccan friend go in and check out cafes before I sit down for a coffee, meal etc.
    What I hadn't realised until recently is that there is a jolly good reason why we prefer the 'European' design (apart from the lack of need to undress every time you go) - invented by one Thomas Crapper (& no, I am not kidding) the key part of the design is the U-BEND, which allows all gases & noxious odours to pass out and prevents them from coming back again - so it really isn't your imagination if you think that squat toilets tend to be smellier - though not in Japan, it would appear.
    I am sure it would assist millions of women worldwide if you were able to put out an appeal to the women of Japan to explain just HOW to use these loos elegantly & without losing your footing or socks? If this idea would involve too much loss of faith, perhaps someone could animate it for us?
    PLEASE could you put out this appeal in Japanese? I don't yet speak much Arabic, so couldn't possibly do it in Morocco!