„Do you know how to use Japanese toilets?“ is one of those questions Japanese people ask foreigners, along with „Can you eat with chopsticks?“ (probably something appearing early on in the English textbooks).
The toilet question usually refers to the kind of squat toilets that don’t have a seat – which may indeed pose some difficulties to elderly people not used to squatting, but most younger foreign travellers tend to shrug and wonder secretly what would happen if they didn’t know how to use a Japanese toilet.
In case you encounter such a toilet – they are rare these days– the raised ceramic part on one end is the front end. The handle for flushing and normally the toilet paper are at the front end as well. Quite often there is a rail that makes squatting (and getting up) easier.
With the rise of “Western Style” toilets in Japan (yes, you have to wear a cowboy hat to use them) the toilet-question becomes less frequent. But in reality, using Japanese toilets has become more difficult!
In our work as tour guides, it happens regularly that the foreign guests admit furtively that they didn’t find the flush button, or indeed that they didn’t dare to use any of the numerous handles and buttons at all, not knowing what might happen, and thus couldn’t flush the toilet.
The high-tech toilet
The modern Japanese toilet is called a “washlet” (in theory, that’s the name only for the TOTO toilets) and resembles a cockpit. The seat is heated and may have a knob somewhere to regulate the temperature. Normally there’s also a flask of disinfectant to clean the seat, unless it’s a self-cleaning device that starts rotating and mopping the seat when you enter the cubicle. Either on the seat or on the wall are a number of coloured buttons and regulators for the “washlet” features. Icons indicate what they are for: Water spraying from below in a bidet style, water spraying from below to clean the bottom, and “stop”. Luckily, most of these toilets nowadays have a sensor so that they won’t spray unless someone is sitting on the seat – but you may still emerge with embarrassing wet spots on your shirt if you sit covering the seat only partly.
Every public and hotel toilet offers two parallel rolls of toilet paper so that no guest has to change the roll. Apparently most customers use both rolls equally until the cleaner exchanges both, throwing away a quarter of the paper. Increased environmental consciousness has led to lengthy explanations (usually in Japanese) on how to use the toilet paper (to the end).
The sound princess
Then there’s the so-called otohime or “sound princess”, in the women’s toilet at least: a sensor and button making the noise of flushing water. Many Japanese women used to flush the toilet all the time while using it in order to cover the sound of peeing and other body noise, so the “noise princess” is an important device to save water…
In addition, the cubicle will also contain a dust bin and a hook for sanitary napkin plastic bags, perhaps a small luggage rack and occasionally an emergency button, which is often, but not always red. Usually a sign informs (but again most of the time only in Japanese) that this is NOT the flush button.
Obviously it can be really difficult for foreign travellers to find the most important button, the one to flush the toilet. There is no fixed rule to it: It may be on the wall between the other buttons (marked in Japanese and often round), or on the back wall. Or on the toilet’s water tank. It may be a long metal handle or a small lever turning in two directions for “large” (大) and “small” (小), or two buttons to flush and stop, or just a sensor in any of these places.
Now go and try it: Can you use a Japanese toilet?