Few things in Japan leave a bigger impression on the first-time visitor than Japanese toilets. In Australia, toilets tend not to be more complex than the distinction between a ‘toilet’, and a ‘dunny’ – admittedly an important distinction, when one is far more likely to contain spiders. But in Japan, toilets are probably about as complex as it’s possible to get – both functionally and socially. So, here’s a quick guide to navigating the toilet system in Japan.
Japan distinguishes between ‘Japanese style’ squat toilets and ‘Western style’ seated toilets, and they also have urinals for men (which may be positioned lower than they are in Australia). Seated toilets are gaining popularity in Japan, but squat toilets are not going away anytime soon. It’s not uncommon to find public bathrooms – particularly in train stations and department stores – which contain both styles. In such cases, the type of toilet will typically be designated on the cubicle door, so that people may choose to wait for the style of their choice, should they wish. And in fact, there are reasons in favour of both. Put simply, ‘Western style’ seated toilets are very convenient, but squatting is actually the ideal position in which to pass a bowel movement. And it can help keep your knees in working order, too!
Modern squat toilets aren’t behind-the-times, and they’re not just a hole in the ground either. They’re typically made of porcelain, just like the toilets you’re used to, and have a specific front and back – the raised part is the front end, and you should get as close to that end as you can. Men don’t always need to squat, just as they don’t always need to sit on a seated toilet. The front end of the squat toilet is also where you might find a hand-rail to hold on to for steadiness (not guaranteed), as well as the flush lever or button (if it has one). Japan is actually famous for its high-tech toilets, and a lot of squat toilets these days include sensor technology, with the goal that you don’t actually have to touch anything around the toilet – just wave your hand in front of the sensor on the wall to flush, if it doesn’t do so automatically.
However, it’s with seated toilets that Japan gets really creative – robot-obsessed Japan has essentially perfected ‘robo-toilets’. There are toilets in Japan which will automatically lift the seat cover as you approach, and flush when you stand up – you might even find a toilet that will talk, or play soothing music. Heated toilet seats are pretty standard – just don’t turn the temperature dial to max, because they can get seriously hot once they warm up. Functions for anus and bidet washing are often built-in – on max setting for those, it can sometimes be possible to spray the ceiling, which can be quite a shock for a foreigner who is just trying to figure out what all those buttons do. Also, flushing pro-tip: If it doesn’t happen automatically, and you can’t see a wall-sensor, check the side of the tank for a lever – that’s the Japanese version of the flush buttons usually positioned on top of the tank in Australia.
The sensor technology used to trigger the flush also appears in a few other areas of the bathroom. Soap dispensers and taps can often be activated by waving your hands under them, and the ladies room will also often be equipped with a sensor-activated device on the wall that simulates a flushing sound – standard equipment in public toilets, because Japanese women are so squeamish about others potentially hearing them do their business that women flushing the toilet constantly so that no one could hear them was actually becoming a huge water-conservation issue.
It’s unfortunately super easy for someone who’s unfamiliar with Japanese toilet etiquette to create awkwardness for themselves and others, but with just a few pointers and a little bit of care, most faux pas are easily avoidable.
The biggest toilet sin commonly committed by visitors to Japan involves misuse of toilet slippers. The rule is actually quite simple – a toilet located anywhere you would remove your shoes before entering will have its own special slippers. These slippers don’t leave the bathroom. The slippers you use elsewhere don’t enter the bathroom. Toilet slippers exist for sanitary reasons, so it’s inadvisable to ignore them and just enter the bathroom in your socks. And I cannot stress enough that toilet slippers do not leave the bathroom. Many a visitor to Japan has absent-mindedly finished their business and wandered away still wearing the toilet slippers. Japanese people will notice – toilet slippers are visually different from regular house slippers, so as to avoid confusion. Some Japanese people may be too polite to say anything, but it will be awkward for them – because seeing toilet things at dinner, for instance, is understandably gross – and just as awkward for you when you eventually realise what you’ve done.
Other toilet tips
There are a few other small ways in which using the toilet in Japan might be different than in Australia.
For sanitary reasons, Japanese people will typically keep the toilet door closed at all times. If you’re unsure whether or not the loo is occupied, just give a quick knock – if someone knocks back, that means they’re in there.
Toilets in Japanese homes often have a unique way of filling the tank from the top, which allows you to rinse your hands as the tank is being filled, before you need to touch anything else.
Public toilets in Japan are sex segregated. A lot of public toilets in Japan will use the silhouette-based ‘man’ and ‘woman’ symbols you’re familiar with (as well as easily identifiable ‘disability’ symbols), and colour differentiation is also common – blue for men, and red (or pink) for women – so identifying the right toilet shouldn’t be too difficult. But just in case, the Japanese character for ‘men’ is 男, and ‘women’ is 女.
If you’re busting in Japan, you can usually pop into a convenience store and ask to use their bathroom. Not all convenience stores have a public bathroom, but most do.
Accessible toilets do exist. They’re fairly common – although not exactly everywhere – and your best bet for finding them is in department stores, other public buildings, and most train stations. Some ladies rooms will also have baby chairs attached to a wall inside the cubicle, for use by small infants only.
If you’re leaving the cities – hiking, for instance – keep in mind that public toilets in rural areas aren’t always kept stocked with toilet paper. A simple way to avoid problems at such times is to keep an eye out for people handing out free packets of tissues for advertising, and carry one or two of these packets with you in case of emergencies.
Just like in Australia, toilet paper should be flushed, and sanitary products should be placed in the special bin provided