In Celebration of the Japanese toilet

By Tomoko Parry

When it comes to using the bathroom or washroom in Japan, the first thing you need to know is that it is not impolite to refer to it as the “toirei”. The name is derived from a foreign word toilet, which although harsh to American ears, feels rather euphemistic to the Japanese. The letters used to write it are also slightly foreign looking: トイレ. 

Actually, there is also an old Chinese character 廁 which is sometimes used but it’s quite rare to see it these days. The doors to most toilets in Japan, you will be relieved to know, bear familiar symbols: gents and ladies. 

If you’re in an old building or a traditional setting, once inside the door, you may face two choices: low tech or high tech.  

Low tech means squatting above a hole in the ground and I suggest you  avoid this if you have a blood pressure problem or are recovering from knee surgery.  

However, if you’d like to embrace the back-to-nature spirit, you may appreciate the simplicity of the old fashioned way of answering the call of nature.   

It is the high tech versions of the toilet which intrigue and amaze foreign visitors. These machines usually feature a heated seat. There is a jet of water which washes your body at the temperature setting of your choosing. It even air-dries you.  

Living in the US, I rarely find such marvellous WCs. But I sure wish we’d had them during the lockdown, when there was a shortage of toilet roll due to panic buying. I note though, that despite the automatic wash and dry systems on Japanese toilets, most people seem to prefer a finishing touch of paper. In fact, special paper with twice the normal absorbency has been developed for those who think “no job is complete until the paperwork is done”.  

A friend of mine who traveled to Japan on business last year took a picture of the control panel of the high-tech system in his hotel room and sent it to me with a panicked message asking what to do. He was utterly confused and scared. 

I used my mobile to explain which button will do what but also told him not to push the buttons while standing in front of the bowl. That can lead to a strong squirt of water straight up from the toilet directly into your face: a nasty shock, even though the water is clean. 

While high-tech versions of the WC are almost ubiquitous in modern Japan, low-tech versions can still be found in public areas such as train stations and municipal parks, especially in rural areas.

This co-existence of old and new is typical of Japanese culture. You may see, for example, a Buddhist monk posting on Instagram inside a 2,000-year-old temple, or a kimono-clad housewife rapidly sending text messages on her way to ikebana lessons.  

Even cutting-edge tech companies with state-of-the-art facilities have their own shrine to pray to the ancient gods. Japan is a land where people seem to shift with ease mentally from one era to another.

And what better place to pause and contemplate the relentless passage of time than in the quiet, private space of the “toirei”?