How to use Japanese toilets – to use or not to use

Toilet buttons and explanations in a Japanese toilet

„Do you know how to use Japanese toilets?“ is one of those questions Japanese people ask foreigners, along with „Can you eat with chopsticks?“. (That’s probably something appearing early on in the English textbooks).

Comic-style drawn explanations on how to use Japanese toilets

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.

The Western style toilet in Japan

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!

A Japanese squatting toilet

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.

Japanese toilet Buttons

The Japanese 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. This way 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.

Toilet buttons and explanations on how to use the toilet

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 in a Japanese toilet

Then there’s the so-called otohime or “sound princess”, in the women’s toilet at least. The sound princess is 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. Therefore the “noise princess” is an important device to save water…

Pictures and multilingual explanation: Person sitting on a toilet

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. Of course that’s 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 it can be two buttons to flush and stop, or just a sensor in any of these places.

Now go and try it: Can you use Japanese toilets?

No matter where you are in Japan, this post should have prepared you for most of the toilet situations you might encounter on your Japan trip. So why not chase some dinosaurs in the Japanese countryside or visit a James Bond island near Nagasaki?

Do you have any toilet stories to tell from your travels? Let us know in the comments.

NB: We had no sponsoring for this post about the usage of Japanese Toilets.

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  1. Very interesting. I encountered a similar issue while traveling to Italy years ago. I went to use a bathroom in a public park. It was a stall with just a drain in the floor!

  2. I had absolutely no idea that it was this complicated to use a toilet in Japan! I have never been but it is on my bucket list. I will bookmark these notes for when we do travel to Japan! When we went to China some of the stalls were just a hole in the ground, which was quite alarming.

    1. Dear Erin, yes we came across these holes in China too. When we traveld there for the first time (around 20 years ago) there was sometimes just a big space without any separation walls and several holes along the wall.

  3. Where have you been in Japan to experience the squatting kind? I only know those hyper-modern ones and at first I was afraid to push the wrong buttons but it was pretty self-explanatory, after all. My favorites were those with music or birds chirping. In a train, you could even lift the lid by pushing a button. I loved Japanese toilets.

    1. Dear Renata, most monasteries and temples have squad toilets, all the train stations in the outskirts and the countryside, some tourbus parking areas at main sights. Most famous among tour guides was the toilet at the bus parking of the Kiyomizu-Temple in Kyoto. But I heard they built new ones during Corona.

  4. Japanese toilets seem a little too complicated for me. I guess I would be afraid to use them, haha. This a fascinating and fun post!

  5. I was warned about squat toilets before we got to China and Japan. So I thought in advance about how I might use it without ruining my pants. But I must admit that once I got used to the fancy Japanese toilets I was totally spoiled. I am not sure I ever thought found a “noise princess” toilet!

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