A Guide to Japanese toilets

The reputation of Japanese toilets precedes them almost everywhere in the world and rightly so: they are fraught with technology and so comfortable that once tried, it is difficult to give up on them!

Because many tourists in Japan are still puzzled on how to use them, we have created this guide to provide a review of the various types of toilets available in Japan.

Types of toilets and their location in Japan

There are three major types of toilets in Japan:

  • Western-style toilets (洋式 yoshiki) and urinals for men
  • Traditional toilets (和式 washiki) very much like squat toilets
  • Futuristic or high-tech toilets (ウォシュレット washlet) fraught with various options

The latter type, launched in 1980 by manufacturer Toto, certainly arouses the curiosity of travelers, and rightly so as they unarguably offer a highly comfortable experience currently enjoyed, as a matter of fact, by 75% of Japanese households.

They can also be found in many public toilets in Japan, for example in large stores, shopping malls, museums, cafes and restaurants (except for the smaller ones), stations and most tourist places.

Only long-distance trains are equipped with washlets. Therefore, do not expect to find them on subway or commuter trains. The Shinkansen however also offers make up cabins (パウダールーム powder room) and changing tables.

Although most public toilets in Japan are well maintained, some may fail to achieve the highest standards. It seems however that the proportion of well versus badly maintained facilities is reversed compared to most Western countries. All models are equipped with a macerating system: you may therefore discard toilet paper, although not tampons.

Sometimes, especially in ryokan, it is compulsory to wear restroom dedicated slippers when using the toilets.

Washiki, the squat toilets

If you happen to use traditional Japanese toilets, you should stand facing the wall (back to the door) and bend your knees before doing your business. Do not let your bottom rest on the floor but do not stand either.

Toto, the omnipresent toilet manufacturer, stated that 80% of the toilets produced in their factories were washiki in 1963. The percentage dropped dramatically to 50% in 1976, to be only of 1% in 2015. The production shifted mainly to the Western style toilets.

By contrast, according to Japan’s government studies in 2016, the washiki were still widespread and amounted to:

  • 60% of the toilets in elementary and middle schools in Japan
  • 40% of the 4,000 public toilets in the main Japanese touristic sites.

The number of Japanese style toilets is expected to decrease over time.

Washlet, or high-tech toilets

Just like takkyubin, “Washlet” is in fact a misnomer since the trademark was invented and even registered by the manufacturer Toto. The name is vindicated, however, by the fact that it is more easily remembered and used in conversation than 温水洗浄便座 onsui senjô benza (literally “toilet seat with warm water spray”).

This term refers to a type of toilet, typically off the ground, offering all kinds of options, depending on the model:

  • Heated seat, an extremely welcome option especially in winter and/or in traditional Japanese houses with poor insulation
  • Water spray for bottom (mixed) and genitalia (ladies) cleansing to improve hygiene before wiping; It is believed to prevent piles and constipation
  • Automatic raising and lowering of toilet seat depending on whether you are facing it or have your back to it
  • Panel control on one side, e.g. remote control fitted into an arm rest or directly into the wall.

By default, the water spray is at body temperature while drying temperature is slightly warmer, as for the seat, it is well over 30°C.

As early as the 1980’s, the Japanese started promoting the hygienic benefits of these sprays in a TV commercial with the following script:

Translation:

Ladies and Gentlemen, when your hands are dirty, what you do is wash them with water, right? Nobody would ever consider cleansing their hands by wiping them with paper, would they?

Why not? Because paper is no good for cleansing! And the same applies to your bottom!

“Your bottom too wants to be washed clean.”

Keeping abreast of an increasingly connected environment, Japanese manufacturers have announced the launch of new models of washlets enhanced with health sensors for urine and stools analysis, heart rate, body fat, blood sugar and blood pressure monitoring, etc. They could even be programmed to send doctors notifications (through Wi-Fi) in case of abnormal reports.

The famous Toto trademark has set up showrooms for visitors across Japan. One of them has just been inaugurated in the recently renovated Terminal 2 of Narita airport, yet the Shinjuku showroom in Tokyo is admittedly the most famous of all. One of its star features is a smartphone application that allows to control the washlet!

Even though most toilets in Japan provide toilet paper, it may still be wiser to carry paper tissues with you just in case. Be careful however: The tissues sold on the street are so thin that they turn out to be rather useless.

Public toilets tend to be increasingly furnished with automatic wash basins (water, soap, dryer) for hygiene reasons. However, some may have run out of soap when you use them, so it’s better to carry a hydro-alcoholic gel with you. The same applies to paper and cloth, and a ハンカチ hankachi (small square towel) often proves very useful.

Translations and vocabulary

To ask for the toilets in Japanese you can say: (すみません、)トイレはどこですか : "(sumimasen,) toire wa doko desu ka?". You can also use お手洗い otearai to refer to « toilets ».

Below is the translation of the control buttons most commonly found on toilets control panels. This should help you find your way around:

In Japanese Translation/Use
流す Flush
Small flush (water saving)
Big flush
おしり Small back spray (mixed)
ビデ Small front spray (ladies)
水勢 ou 洗浄強さ Water pressure
Stronger
Weaker
洗浄位置 Stream adjustment
Forward
Backward
乾燥温度 Drying temperature
Hotter
Cooler
音姫 Toilet sound masking
音量 Volume
乾燥 Dryer
脱臭 Deodorizing
暖房便座 Heated seat
マッサージ Massage
止 ou 停止 Stop

Some toilets will automatically flush when you get up or move your hand across a sensor. On other models you will need to operate a side knob. If you’re using public toilets, especially women’s, where waiting lines tend to be quite long, you should check how to operate and especially flush them as soon as you enter.

Note that some washlets, particularly those for the disabled, are equipped with an alarm button to call for help.

Since January 2017, the toilet manufacturers consortium decided to harmonize the numerous pictograms displayed on the toilets’ controllers. There are now reduced to 6 to 8 symbols, much simpler to understand.

Japanese toilets at home

Japan wishes to export, and therefore promote, its toilet technology. State officials even consider that it should be promoted as a symbol of おもてなし omotenashi – hospitality for the 2020 Olympics.

It is therefore possible to have your house, anywhere in the world, fitted with Japanese toilets. A few manufacturers have products on the market, but prices are still rather high. It is better, in any case, to stay away from import products on account of both prices and power issues.

If you order your equipment from Amazon for example, it will cost you a few hundred dollars on average for the seat and control panel, and up to several thousand dollars for a complete washlet, not including installation. This is much more expensive than in Japan.

This guide is an update of a previous article about Japanese Toilets, initially published in French on Kanpai in January 2011, and in English on Kanpai Japan in November 2015.

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