Notes on the usability of Japanese toilets

There are times when even as a seasoned traveller you can feel pretty vulnerable. For example, breakfast: I’m happy to tuck into raw mackeral as an evening meal, but there’s something about it for breakfast that is so unexpected that it takes you aback.

I’ve had similar double-takes with Japanese toilets. I went to Satoshi and Akane’s house for a lovely meal and, as you do after lots of soup and beer, felt the natural urge to micturate. Although they have a lavish toilet control panel (all of them do) I couldn’t work out how to flush.

control panel with many Japanese buttons

After asking my gracious hosts, I learned that it was activated by a sensor: just wave your hand near it and it’s flush. This is in contrast with the toilet in my hotel room, whose control panel had English language controls, and squirted water up my bum and around my bum at user-selectable strength (below), but didn’t seem to have a flush button.

control panel with stop, shower,bidet, preparation and strength controls

I eventually located a traditional manual flush on the opposite side of the toilet bowl, and satisfactorily dismissed my ablutions.

Most Japanese toilets have heated seats, which is pleaant but odd when alone in a hotel room as you can’t help but wonder who has snuck in to poo while you were cleaning your teeth. Many flush for an inordinately long time automatically the instant you sit down; I’m told so that this means that people outside the door can’t to hear the sound of ladies urinating, as it’s masked by the flushing sound. I suppose that if you’re bashful about exposing the fact that ladies pee (they do, you know!) this would be a useful solution in a traditional thin-walled Japanese house in which sound would travel easily.

This theory might be borne out by the testimony of a lady attendee of the Web Directions East conference who told me that each ladies’ loo in the conference venue (consequent apologies for lack of photo) has a button marked “flushing sound” that played a loud recording of the sound of flushing, presumably to preserve ladies’ modesty but also conserve water.

(@johnmcc sent a photo of a loo with a “flushing sound” button.)

Talking of water conservation, the apotheosis of lavatorial environmental responsibility was witnessed in my colleague Daniel’s apartment. On flushing the toilet (a laudably easily accomplished action, I might add), the tap on a small sink mounted above the cistern started automatically. I washed my hands and wondered how to turn the tap off. Then the brilliance of the design hit me: instead of re-filling a closed cistern, the washbasin drained the soapy water into the reservoir below, thereby flushing the toilet with the grey water that the previous visitor had washed his/ her hands in while simultaneously saving space in the compact Tokyo dwelling.

toilet with wash-basin mounted on cistern

Genius. If I could work out a way to import them and sell them in the UK I’d make a million.

14 Responses to “ Notes on the usability of Japanese toilets ”

Comment by Jan Vantomme

Toilets in Japan are designed really well. I even found a toilet with remote control to flush and spray water while I was there this summer. Some of those toilet seats are sold (tax free) at Tokyo Narita airport if you like to bring one back to the UK.

Comment by Terence Eden

The grey water cisterns are available in the UK, but they’re either insanely expensive or of non-standard shape for most British loos.

I looked in to getting a pair when we were remodelling our bathrooms and quickly came to the conclusion that they would pay for themselves in water savings in 576 years.

A shame – because they are awesome.

Comment by Kai Hendry

I think the big problem with Japanese/Korean toilet seats is the power supply in the bathroom.

I bought one but the builders refused to install it, touting health and safety.

Health & Safety, my bum.

Comment by Christophe

“the testimony of a lady attendee (…) who told me that each ladies’ loo in the conference venue (…) has a button marked “flushing sound” that played a loud recording of the sound of flushing, presumably to conserve water.”

In the West, toilets don’t have such buttons, so ladies just chatter while, eh, micturating. Or so I’ve been told. By a lady.

Comment by Stephanie (Sullivan) Rewis

I became quite obsessed with Japanese toilets while there, so I’m happy to see you posting even more information. I believe I might have been the “lady attendee” who told you of the flushing sound. ;) (Posted my terrible iPhone photo here: http://plixi.com/p/57891840) And walking in the ladies room, you most definitely hear the odd recorded flushing sound—and nary a piss.

As to the “preparation” button—I think it might be to warm the water you’re about to spray on your bum… but not completely sure. It makes the same sound (in our hotel) as the toilet does when you sit on it. So perhaps there’s a dual “masking the sound” and warming the water effect going. Or something… ;)

Comment by Daniel Walker

Somehow, I’m not sure I’d be willing to admit I bought a toilet seat, duty free, but it’s nice to see that at least one other country finds this mundane and functional item can form the basis of an entire culture.

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