Answering the call of nature – The world of Japanese toilets

Simply using a toilet in Japan produced a cultural shock. On my first day at school, I dashed into the lavatory during a 5-minute break and stood there paralyzed, staring at the “facility” in front of me and at the huge cockroach in the corner.

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Later, I learned that this type of toilet is traditional and is called a “squat toilet”. In a way it reminded me of the toilets on pedestals one used to find on Hungarian motorways 25 years ago (or of a urinal sunk horizontally into the ground). They say it is cheap to operate, saves on water, and is easy to clean. It is popular in many Asian countries, not just Japan. At any rate, one needs a decent sense of balance and good aim to use it, and it counts as a plus if you are not carrying a big backpack or other packages when entering the stall.

While a documentary film claims that once upon a time people “leaned” their kimonos against the porcelain edge rising above ground level, I have found that it is not advisable to let anything touch it. Some people may not have read the instructions:

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In hotels, shopping centers, and restaurants I have come across the state-of-the-art Japanese toilet, the Washlet. When you step into the stall the top of the toilet seat rises automatically, music resembling the sound or running water or bird sounds begins to play – and to block out all noise, preventing the noises you make from being heard by the people outside the stall, waiting to use the facility. By pressing the appropriate button one even can get it to wash and dry your “undercarriage”. And the seat can be heated if you tend to chill easily. Once you have finished, the toilet will of course flush itself.

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I have learned that the butt-washing function of the Washlet is extremely popular with Japanese households. A Japanese friend told me that the reason for its popularity lies in environmental awareness, since with it one uses far less paper, which means cutting down fewer trees. In addition, using paper can be distinctly painful to people with hemorrhoids. (Apparently, the amount of energy used by the machine itself doesn’t count.)

When traveling in the countryside, I came across an interesting and truly environmentally-friendly option at several local ryokans (inns). To save space, the lavatory was so tiny that opening the door enough to fit in presented a problem. Here, the sink was placed on top of the toilet and the water I used to wash my hands flowed straight into the toilet’s tank, where it was re-used when the toilet was flushed.

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I found it particularly interesting to learn that one had to put on a pair of special slippers before entering the lavatory in hotels and inns. The origin of this custom lies in the fact that the Japanese distinguish between “clean” and “unclean”. Much the same as in the olden days when outhouses were located in our backyards, in Japan it was necessary to put shoes on before going to the outdoor facility. In the days of indoor plumbing this is only a memory, but to the Japanese, the space where the lavatory is still counts as “unclean” and should not be in contact with the rest of the home. When finished, we are required to leave the “lavatory slippers” outside the door and switch to our normal indoor slippers. Forgetting to do this can be quite embarrassing, as we will end up in public wearing slippers that look like this:

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For those of you who would like more information on the world of Japanese toilets, I recommend Naomi Ogigami’s film, entitled “Toilet”. The protagonist, who is half Canadian and half Japanese, would like to figure out why her Japanese grandmother always gives a sigh of relief when she steps out of the bathroom. We get the answer by the end of the film and also learn a great deal about Japanese culture and human relations.

 

 

I took the photos showing the toilets and the push-buttons. The sources of other pictures and the video are:: http://en.wikipedia.org; https://www.flickr.com/photos/christinewillis; http://www.youtube.com

 

 

 

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