Posted by: cyradisnyc | December 1, 2008

The Japanese Toilet

“…One could with some justice claim that of all the elements of Japanese architecture, the toilet is the most aesthetic. Our forbearers, making poetry of everything in their lives, transformed what by rights should be the most unsanitary room in the house into a place of unsurpassed elegance, replete with fond associations with the beauties of nature. Compared to Westerners, who regard the toilet as utterly unclean and avoid even the mention of it in polite conversation, we are far more sensible and certainly in better taste.”

— Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows

I believe Mr. Tanizaki is referring here to a much older style of Japanese toilet than the sorts I am going to be talking about in this post, but this attitude does seem to be somewhat widespread. I will be discussing both types of modern Japanese toilets–I have not had the privilege of trying out the sort Mr. Tanizaki is waxing on romantically about.

The toilets are probably the one thing that has really given me a case of culture shock. Mr. Tanizaki is absolutely right to say that Westerners regard the toilet as the most disgusting room around. I do. Especially public ones.

The usual Japanese toilet

The typical Japanese toilet is what’s called a squat toilet–because you squat over it. Apparently it can also be called a grunt toilet, because of the way people who are not used to it grunt when they pull themselves back up. At right is the photo of a squat toilet in Maruyama Park, Kyoto. It is a fairly typical example. It took me several days to get the hang of how to use the squat toilet. Being a woman wearing pants presents a logistical issue which was eventually resolved. Necessity forces you to figure some things out.

It is my conviction that the squat toilet was designed for men. Using it is somewhat indescribable. It feels very awkward, and I have no idea why you would choose this over a “Western toilet.”

Western ToiletI entered Nijo-jo Castle, and found the the following sign in the restroom. It says “Western Style”, but to me it looks more like a fountain. If my toilet did this, I would scream for a while, and then call the plumber. I’d probably then scream some more. I wonder if when Japanese people come to America, they’re disappointed that our toilets aren’t nearly as high-tech as the ones that are even in the public restrooms here. (Assuming they have Western toilets at all. Only a handful of the places I’ve gone to have had them. Luckily, every place I’ve stayed has had one. The one in the hostel was the closest to what I would call a Western toilet–it only had a heated toilet seat. )

Western Toilet IIOK, so now that you’ve seen how a Western toilet is marked, look to the left to see a Western toilet in Japan. There are so many buttons on this thing, it looks like a TV remote. Since it is a Western toilet but Japanese, we need to move from right to left for this to make any sense at all. The first button is a “powerful deoderizer.” In my opinion, this is a brilliant innovation on the part of the Japanese, and every toilet needs this. (Along with heated toilet seats–heated toilet seats are a stroke of genius.) The next button, with the large music note, allows you to play a snippet of music while you flush. You can adjust the volume, as well. I really have no idea why you would want this, except to maybe try and obscure the sound of the toilet flushing. Wouldn’t that have to be extremely loud, though? The next is a bidet function. I’ve never used a bidet, it just sounds like a very unpleasant experience. Note, though, that you can control the water pressure at the bottom. The next option is “spray.” I’m not too clear on what the difference in practice is between bidet and spray. Finally there is the stop button. I guess the bidet/spray/music functions run until you tell them to stop.

Astute readers of the above paragraph will have figured out that I have not experimented with the Western style toilets I have encountered so far. It is scary. I do not want to hang out in the toilet, listening to the toilet music and enjoying the spray. I want to go and then be on my way. However, the toilet in my hotel room here in Fukuoka has taken the above model and improved on it.

Fancypants Western Style ToiletThis is the toilet in my hotel room. I may experiment with this one, as I have privacy that was lacking in Nijo-jo Castle’s public restroom. However, it still doesn’t get over the mental barrier of turning the toilet into a relaxation spot. I think that ties back into Mr. Tanizaki’s article, where he writes that toilets are, “where haiku poets of the ages have coem by a great many of their ideas.” We also have the idea of  the toilet being a contemplative “throne.” (“Honey, I’m on the throne, can’t it wait?”) Maybe I’ll just enjoy the heat rather than risk something awful.

Toilet seat warningsI’ll leave you with this last image. It’s the warning label stuck on the inside of the toilet lid in my hotel room. Check out the sad little toilet cartoons. It makes your toilet sad if you put bleach or detergent or water on your toilet seat, as this may cause electrical shock. This does raise a very vaild concern about these toilets–you are sitting on an electric gizmo suspended over a large pool of water. Be careful!

It will also make the toilet sad if you put something heavy on it. It will probably break your fragile toilet seat. This makes me wonder what the weight limit on the toilet is. If I weighed 300 lbs, could I use the fancy electric toilet seat? Of course, then I would probably fall into the “incapacitated” warning area, and the heated part would have to be turned off. And I would miss that, that’s the best part! I feel compelled to point out that when I first looked at this image, before reading it, I thought that the gist of the first warning was not to squash children’s hands in the toilet seat. That is a thought I have never had before.

I hope you’ve enjoyed your look at the Japanese toilet. It’s truly a cultural experience, and I mean that. I doubt I will be brave enough to fully explore it, though.


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